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Photography by Marcia Elizabeth

Thrift stores and political influence

I was always one for the latest Zara or Topshop range, buying selected items from Pringle that I thought were special. That was until I became a working-class millennial and had to start paying my own way in life. As a student, I never understood how expensive life is, your rent, car expenses, food, clothes, toiletries, if you practice art – art supplies and equipment and then money to pay for a R65 cocktail at a trendy bar? Having styled my own shoots, sourced for the shoots of others and having an inclination to save wherever I can has got me to thrifting – and I thrift more than most people probably do. Here I take a look at thrifting as an art and forms of awareness created by thrifting.

Artist Miranda July is changing the way that the charity shop and the act of thrifting is seen. She has opened her own charity shop inside Selfridges in London, and it is erected amongst brands such as Vetements. This act, which I regard to be a performance piece, is aimed at making the consumer think about what we pay for goods from large chain stores and to compare it with that of items that are pre-owned.

Life Library of Photography: The Great Themes by the editors of Time-Life Books (1970) – a gift from Wagtails Animal Welfare Society in Port Elizabeth

July’s act to open the pop-up charity shop shares traits with the performance movement called ‘Happenings’ that arose in the 1960’s – a form of performance art that took place in unconventional spaces. Happenings was heavily influenced by Dadaism and involved active participation from its audience and was known for its improvisational nature. While many aspects of the performance are unplanned, the essence of the occasion was aimed at stimulating critical thought within its viewer and to challenge the notion of art as a static object.

Miranda’s art piece ties in with the Happenings movement as it invites the viewer to participate by looking at garments, trying them on and possibly purchasing them. It shares the aspect of improvisation and has an unplanned nature as the artist cannot pinpoint the exact outcome of each viewer/participant’s encounter with her artwork. Needless to say, the concept of the performance is unconventional and so is the space in which it takes place.

Man Ray by Roland Penrose (1975) – from the Wits Hospice Shop

Other factors of interest are the run time of the performance, the nature of it and the artist’s participation. As the performance piece is essentially an interactive object that can be taken away from, the performance continues to exist regardless of when people remove smaller objects from the location of the performance (buying items from the shop). As a store, people have the option to browse and buy during the shop’s opening hours creating a continuous performance. The artist doesn’t need to actively participate in order for people to buy items, (there are store attendants in Selfridges appointed to assist) the performance piece/installation artwork requires minimal input from the artist after its erection. Despite the fact that the artwork can be constituted as an object, the viewer’s participation within the space and ability to move in and out of it breaks it away from being a static art object.

July’s artwork is based in London and therefore audience participation from me for example, is not possible. I do however like to think that I can simulate the experience in South African charity shops. As a big devotee to thrifting and a self-proclaimed charity shop veteran, I will share some of my thoughts on the practice of thrifting as well as where to thrift.

Kodak Instamatic 33 (1963 model) – from Junkie Charity Shop in Melville

Thrifting is a practice that has appeal for so many different kinds of people – the university student, artists, actresses such as Chloë Sevigny and the philanthropist. I always enjoyed the idea of collectibles and vintage. I bought my first Polaroid camera from an antique shop next to Magie’s Pies in the Muldersdrift area – my parents love the pies there. From there I started going to various thrift stores in Johannesburg. The key is knowing where to go.

80% of my wardrobe and 90% of my books, as well as 50% of my camera equipment, is made up of items I found in thrift stores, and were relatively inexpensive. All of the items I have are in very good condition, and this has enabled me to have unique items. When buying from larger stores there will always be others who own what you own but with thrifting, there is usually only one item of each within the store.

Gloves from the Wits Hospice Shop

My advice for buying clothes is to inspect items carefully. For buying cameras, it is wise to test the shutter before you purchase as many of these shops do not have much photography knowledge and won’t be able to guarantee that the camera is in working condition. All pre-loved items have a story and previous owner. This has always been an aspect that has attracted me to thrifting as well as donating to charitable organizations. In my friendship group we thrift gifts for one another because of the unique characteristics of the items. My favorite places to thrift include The Wits Hospice Shop (there is one in Parkhurst and in Orange Grove) and Ry-Ma-In in Linden.

I regard thrifting as an art because while purchasing an item you are able to get a feel for what it is that you are attracted to,  as well as add value to items that other people no longer want. I see it as a continuous realization of what I pay for new items and Miranda’s artwork speaks of this knowing loudly. By thrifting, you give yourself the political power to choose to pay less and contribute to the greater good. In my own experience thrifting has enabled my art practice as I predominantly photograph with thrifted equipment and style with charity shop clothing. Thrifting has also defined my personal style as well as the style of artists like Chloë Sevigny. To me, thrifting is an art practice and a performance art as well as an art installation opening up critical thinking, self-awareness and community solidarity.

Canon EOS 300 (1999) from Ry-Ma-In

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