“Make it look like a Spaza”, these were the words overheard as we waited to enter the gallery. The Goodman gallery on upper Jan Smuts drive would be the esteemed venue for the evenings show. The Brother Moves On (TBMO) made up by the members Siyabonga Mthembu, Zelizwe Mthembu, Ayanda Zalekile, Simphiwe Tshabalala and Mbalikayise Mthethwa, are a high energy jazz performance group. On this balmy night at the Goodman Gallery I would get to experience their first solo exhibition entitled Hlabelela. In Zulu, Hlabelela means to sing yet it would be in this exhibition that the brothers would not be doing their usual set. They would instead be selling us the ‘South African dream.’
The event would be set during South Africa’s bidding to host the 2010 soccer world cup. TBMO would toss out their usual brightly covered garb of tights and topless dress for somber grey suites and hard heeled oxford shoes. Even their usual collaborator, Kyle De Boer’s persona of metallic eyed and shadow winged character called The Black Diamond Butterfly, would be wearing his suite for the event. The boys would be the sharp tongued escort that would convince the FIFA delegates that South Africa is the number one choice. The part of the delegates would be stunningly played by the audience with their free wine as the perfect prop to get us all into character.
The brothers did a fine job in selling. Upon entry we would be greeted by gold covered pots. One of which would be filled with water like the copper bowls filled with holy water at the entrances of old Christian churches. TBMO were telling us that this gallery site was now a holly site and we would need to baptize ourselves and enter clean. Yet the next visual to greet us would be an arrow pointing our next direction with the words ‘Songs about death’ attached.
The exhibition would feature many corrugated structures spray painted in gold. By the entrance a non-functioning toilet with the warnings “Parental advisory, explicit lyrics” where one could take a photo of themselves whilst watching a video over a Brocken latrine. Ceiling lamps, bull skulls, cricket helmets with human skull and ear phones dangling from ceilings; all these artefacts painted in gold. White walls would feature constant messages of encouragement. “Say something stupid’, “Alice in Pondo land” and my favorite “I’m on lunch” acted as testaments to experiences of dealing with state bureaucratic procedures. The brothers were selling us a country that was living but was ‘not working’. They showed us a country with toilets that didn’t function, where heritage is ready for sale to the highest bidder. The bull, a treasured animal with cultural significance to many peoples on the continent, would be given at a special price even.
The exhibition would also feature videos of the boys as well as girl, the group’s manager Ghairunisa Galeta. The images were un-astounding to say the least and featured impromptu interviews and quirky conversations of the band on tour. This event would be a performance of the band performing themselves as well as a country on its knees performing to the highest bidder. Yet this would all make sense too during the Q and A afterword when one of the members stating “We brought Philip here to remind us of how stupid we act to an international audience’.
This exhibition would be an examination of what it means to perform as a black body to a white audience or a white capital owned space. The boys were doing their thing, making money, getting famous. A poster even featured a portrait of the boys written “we are finally on a Bill board”. The group would further comment to the audience “we sold ourselves in a time when it sells, realizing that we are pointing out what we are implicit in.”
The brothers would give the example of a previous winner to a prestigious art award, a Sangoma who was denied from slaughtering an animal as part of a ritual performance. Such acts show the contradictions of being black within white spaces as we are only able to act as such to the extent that a white audience deems acceptable. Yet it is those very white spaces, galleries and the paying art buyer who decide the value of one’s work and how far the young artist can go in his profession. The brother’s exhibition was in response to this as well as a perpetuation of it in their decision to host their exhibition at the Goodman.
An audience member and travel comrade of mine, Dr Nolwazi Mkhwanazi a Wits anthropology lecturer, would for me, ask the most pertinent question of the evening. “Knowing that this is an exhibition of poverty porn, what is the line between subversion and co-option?” The group would sharply respond and end the gallery event with the words “I don’t we are having a black majority conversation.” This is a question pertinent to what it means to deal with the inequality and injustice faced by the majority black South Africans. This exhibition may not have held the answers but it definitely provided a good start to where we should begin our investigations of what it means to take “the South African dream” seriously.