In her 1979 essay The White Album, Joan Didion begins “we tell ourselves stories in order to live”, but of course long before this (and long after) humans have held the sentiment that stories hold some importance. From Maya Angelou’s “there is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you” to Jean Luc Godard’s “sometimes reality is too complex. Stories give it form” and anything in between. When I engage with Julie Nxadi through a telephonic interview, it is this framing that is at the fore of my mind. Nxadi is a storyteller whose most widely known form is writing, which can be found on numerous platforms including Mail & Guardian, The Johannesburg Review of Books and Huffington Post. She makes it very clear early on that writing is one of many forms she engages with. What is in harmony in the different forms is what she calls “collaging narratives”.
When we think about collaging, we can think about assembling or an assemblage. In the simplest sense assemblage refers to a collection or gathering of things and in a more robust sense, it can function as ‘an approach that suggests a different set of metaphors for the social world: mosaic, patchwork, heterogeneity, fluidity, transitory configuration, etc.’ (Deleuze). If we look at Nxadi’s inquiries through Instagram, we see the assemblage incarnate; images, video clips, music samples and text —fragments that exist as a gateway to questions, thoughts and more questions. These thoughts, although fragmented, are strung together by a recurring question; is this propaganda?
My initial instinct is to call what Nxadi is creating (Propaganda) a filmic series or a project but as I speak to her more she explains to me that the work is simply “experimentation that allows thinking.” She goes on:
“When I was still quite active on Facebook, I used to experiment and write these little stories or excerpts of stories and people never knew whether it belonged to a bigger body of work or whether it was just a status update. It didn’t really seem to belong to anything but at the same time, it would get quite a few re-shares. The same impulse has followed me onto Instagram. The output might seem random but the thoughts behind it are not random”. So, for the purposes of this article, we’ll keep referring to Propaganda as thoughts, creations, fragments or snippets. The first thing that draws my attention is how these snippets that Nxadi has assembled act as nudges, prompts and sometimes even provocations and yet still remain poetic to the extent that they are rhythmic and lyrical. Perhaps it is the specificity with which she engages a particular text with a particular image with a particular sound. They all dance alongside each other.
“YOU’LL BE ASKING FOR COMPASSION AND BE ACCUSED OF DEMANDING ‘MIND READING’ KWA-GASLIGHT. PASSOP.’ is read alongside the Fugees’ Killing Me Softly. Text and sound are assembled (let’s call it transitory configuration) in a manner that connects the thinker and creator now (Nxadi) and the thinkers and creators two decades ago (The Fugees). An honest and sacred conversation through space and time. In one video a woman speaks about love; “I’ve never been loved the way I wanted to be”. In another a Black child is asked whether he is African to which he responds; “Do I sound African?” Love. Violence. Racism. Death. Culture. Language. Family. Mental Health. Sexism. There is a story out there linked to each of these. How these stories are crafted, how they are framed and how they are explained to us, is that propaganda?
Back to this notion of assemblage, but now we’re not thinking of it through the output that Nxadi creates, we’re thinking of it through what the output that Nxadi creates tells us about how society functions. Society itself becomes an assemblage made of contingent articulations and codes. A black woman is brutally raped and murdered (coded victim). Cyril Ramaphosa (coded president) records a message to express grief, sorrow and anger (coded heartfelt articulation) and is caught on camera rehearsing this moment (coded error). The story is that South Africa cares about black women’s bodies (but the code is broken). These events, this framing, the aftermath, the conversations surrounding the event….is this propaganda?