First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.
The moment the global streaming service Netflix decided to celebrate Sowetan newspaper’s 40 years of existence as “The Voice of Black South Africa”, little was it aware of the nostalgic trip it was hauling us all on to. Ditto, the frenzied debate over artistic recognition it would spark.
The heart of the brief was for local photographers to recreate a cultural snapshot of history as witnessed by the Sowetan’s “seers” over all those years, including the portrait of Brenda Fassie’s “Wedding of the Century”.
The commission to photograph “postcards” from the paper’s past, telegraphing history to our uncertain present, should be read as an act of affirmation, as memory-making.
In the process it foregrounds the camera and the art of photography as the prime tool and process of history-making.
Let us consider the medium’s hand in the making of pop, ultimately social and media cultures.
For aeons – it feels marvellously like a time from the age of silent movies, doesn’t it? – the nostalgic picture essay was a recurring feature in print rock media, such as Rolling Stone, Creem, Mojo and NME. Pitched as homage to some kind of “golden era” rock stars and their kohl-lined eyes, guitar wizardry and their badass ol’ selves, it never failed to split and rile up readers.
The tribute feature would often consist of an editorial splash of archival portraits. Photo editors would contrast artists’ old photos with “look how they look today”. The most exciting of these features would either be style or fashion pieces in which contemporary artists and photographers clubbed together to recreate iconic moments of their favourite forebears.
Twenty years ago Y magazine celebrated the cultural and economic power of kwaito music with a black-and-white cover, a departure from its colour-saturated template, with the cover line “Kwaito Nation”.
Penned by the then editor of the magazine, S’busiso “The General” Nxumalo, and photographed by Steven Tanchel at Zaffreno’s, Park Hyatt, the cover concept was lifted directly from the hip-hop periodical XXL’s historical cover portraits.
Nowhere in that issue of Y are the American portraits acknowledged. I remember marvelling at the omission’s audacity and, as I did, Brothers of Peace’s incendiary lyrics – “O kae molao? / Ase mo-States, mo!” – lamenting the descent of the Mbeki-era generation into American commercial and cultural lifestyles, zinged up and down my head.
Anyone attuned to black Atlantic history has a working awareness that black South Africa has had its peepers cast on the North American religious, intellectual and aesthetic milieu since the late 19th century when Charlotte Manye and Marshall Maxeke were among the first South Africans to arrive in the United States, and brought back with them negro emancipatory projects such as the AME Church.
In hindsight, the entire so-called Sophiatown Renaissance was, as it were, a cultural facsimile of the Harlem Renaissance. Both were literary raptures featuring small coteries of literary and jazz artists, as opposed to a full-scale social permeation of higher cultures, but they were instrumental in people’s self-worth and later creation of mythology.
The South African youth culture magazine’s editorial act was nothing short of a grand historical ode to XXL. Magazine and media history was made when 177 hip-hop artists, producers, and influencers gathered at 17 East 126th Street, Harlem, in September 1998 to pose for what would become one of the music industry’s most iconic photographs.
The resulting triple-page in-fold cover was shot by photography and film icon Gordon Parks. An engaged portraitist of the civil rights movement, who also photographed the blues’ baddest man ever, Leadbelly, Parks’s work appeared in Life magazine, among others, and he also directed blaxploitation films such as Shaft. Parks’s choice for the XXL cover was shorthand for editorial ingenuity, an embrace of the future as an evolving photocopy of the past.
In other words, Black Love revisited. This was one generation of cultural makers consciously seeing its predecessors, and vice versa. It was in 1958, at the height of bebop, when the photographer Art Kane assembled more than 100 jazz men and women, including Pee Wee Russell, Maxine Sullivan, Buck Clayton, Bud Powell, Art Blakey, Horace Silver and Philly “Jo” Jones, on the same patch of New York to shoot the image that has since become known as “A Great Day in Harlem”.
So impactful were music magazines that by the time the 2000s rolled into the digital era, tropes such as “rock” and “punk” styles had fully morphed into urban or mainstream cultures, the media and the fashion industry.
It felt incendiary for Vibe, in the mid-1990s, to splash across its pages a Black Panther Party-themed style spread featuring Hip Hop “cats” coutured in Radical Chic’s black turtle necks and leathers, long before Beyoncé’s Super Bowl Panther-esque offering, but by the second decade of the 21st century the muscling of magazines into “the culture” was all but complete.
The backhanded culture of homage is not restricted to print. Nor is it restricted to the digital image-making and worshipping practice. Netflix and Sowetan’s video collaboration also evoked other iconic moments in electronic media innovation and expression.
Do y’all remember Janet Jackson’s two videos of her hot single Got Till It’s Gone?
Jackson, a student of all golden eras, and director Mark Romanek raided archival footage of the South African and West African Drum magazines of the 1960s and 1970s for that sepia storyboard dramatisation.
In photo-frame after photo-sequence, the pop starlet played the role of a Sophiatown lounge singer. In the video, inspiration was no doubt cobbled from a distillation of several singers, Dolly “Katz” Rathebe, Miriam “Nightingale” Makeba, Thoko “Shukuma” Thoko, or even Dorothy “Bulawayo Express” Masuka.
In the summer of 1995, the videos, particularly the one starring models such as Alek Wek, were sensational. That was pre-Google. Creatives in the fine and commercial visual arts scene scraped around trying to figure out who the director was. Many of us assumed, wrongly, that it was the South African-born fashion photographer and filmmaker Koto Bolofo, or even his former collaborator and stylist Andrew Dosunmu. Either way, it was a black director who made the videos. So we thought. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Romanek was a popular rock video director, and as American as apple pie and Stanley Kubrick’s A Space Odyssey.
Cue the year 2021
Netflix commissioned photographers Siphiwe Mhlambi, Neo Ntsoma, Austin Malema and Themba Mbuyisa to re-create a series of portraits of iconic moments whose sound and style reflected the paper’s aesthetics and the society the paper spoke to and with.
Among the images presented for reinterpretation are portraits of Soweto’s Afro-rock band Harari, multicultural mbaqanga and maskandi duo Juluka, and Brenda Fassie’s wedding.
Assigned lens poets were augmented with a production team that included iconic hairstylist Saadique Ryklief and the current hairstylist du jour, Bomzi Lekgoro, under the direction of creatives including former magazine editor Asanda Sizani.
The resulting behind-the-scenes video clip showcasing the rendition of this visual time-travelling Black-to-the-Future is exquisite. It opens with an establishing aerial shot over the city of Johannesburg’s Art Deco architecture, and its traffic, before homing in on the artists at work.
It is a brief, poetic, tautly edited television ode that dispenses with saturated colour to blob out any filmic holes or Jozi’s much caricatured potholes.
It was inevitable that such an open interpretative project would draw a contentious reading.
A week after some frames and the video clip dropped, veteran Cape Town-based international photographer Fanie Jason, whose work puts style, pin-up beauties, and the pop culture of the era under the microscope, dropped a stinker. In a curmudgeonly note on his Facebook page, Jason bemoaned the lack of acknowledgement of some of the photographers who shot the original photos in Netflix’s retrospective.
Couched as a lament reminding us of the history of cultural appropriation, or simply the history of major companies’ tendency to stiff artists (intellectual property rights, payments and visibility), he inserted his own portrait of Fassie’s wedding. I called him up immediately. He spoke heartily about the need to redress the injustices to which the photographers of the 1950s to the 1990s, even the current lot, had been subjected. He homed in on the Fassie wedding photo used in the Netflix video. “There were several of us present at the wedding. I’m talking here of the Cape Town leg of the three-cities wedding. The photograph Netflix used belongs to Mbuzeni Zulu, but he was not credited in the initial social media release, as well as the video clip. That cannot be left unchallenged,” he pointed out. “We have to be vigilant about our heritage as creatives.”
But the Sowetan subsequently acknowledged Zulu in its spotlight series of featured artists. Photographer Mhlambi insists: “I always knew the original portrait is a Mbuzeni Zulu photograph. How can I not? I worked with him at the Sowetan back in the late 1980s.”
And yet none of the original photographers whose work has now been reprised have been acknowledged in monetary terms, nor do they own their “compositions”. The Sowetan has been running a stellar series of profile spotlights on the photographers to whom the Netflix project is paying backhanded tribute. From that series, one appreciates the deep pain, even erasure, to which this project – which could have celebrated them – unintentionally subjects them.
The 29 June spotlight on Tladi Khuele, whose portrait of Juluka at the Jabulani Amphitheatre in Soweto in 1984 was also reprised, tells the story of erasure. And of the dire straits in which black photographers of the 1970s to 1990s era, in particular, wallow.
“My life right now is upside down,” he says. “Having worked for all these great newspapers, my wish is for whoever is in charge to call some of those guys who made these newspapers what they are today, like myself, and just give us some freelance gigs. I don’t want to get political about it but this is my reality.”
How can it not be political? It is no secret that the history of South African culture, sonic, visual, or performance, of style, land and corporate innovation, of science, knowledge systems and so forth, is a history of South African individuals’ pursuit of an alternative picture of the country and the world.
It is also the history of blind and blunt dispossession. This is not unique to photography. It is inspiring that, with the prevalence and reach of social media, artists are forever vigilant and are quick to “catch feelings” over their work.
This incident also reminds us that photography, on its own, is a technological response to the tableaux of its surroundings. That it is, at its best, responsive to the moments presented: it is history’s roving third eye.
Significantly, photography offers a stinging critique, if not a biography, of that very history with devastating immediacy, more so in the heightened internet age.
My takeaway from this is that history itself is a pixellated collage of major moments, around which the daily minutiae of life are woven.
What I find exciting, and thus worth revisiting, in addition to issues of artistic recognition, are the exact moments in history and the behind-the-scenes of such moments.
I’m not as impartial in this as I might have had you believe. As an author, public arts curator and photography theorist, I am, in essence, a student of history – its grand gestures as well as the small stuff culture consumers do not usually sweat over.
I included the specific frame, the broader photo moment presented to the photographers invited to Fassie’s wedding, in my book I’m Not Your Weekend Special: Portraits on the Art, Life+Style & Politics of Brenda Fassie. The subject of the photograph is under critique, and the book is dedicated to perhaps the most attentive and committed of Fassie’s visual chroniclers, Mbuzeni Zulu, as well as the street urban artist whose life mirrored that of Brenda in many ways, Jean-Michel Basquiat.
I have always been entranced by the story behind the making, not only of a single photographic artefact, but also the moment that led to it. It is worth retelling, here, if only in snatches.
Summer of 1989
The sweltering season was an extension of the Summer of 1988. An alien from space would have felt at home in the spirit of the time. South Africa was edgy, audaciously optimistic and dangerous too.
The Black Consciousness leader working in Soweto, Dr Abu Baker Asvat, had recently been assassinated in cold blood. Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s football club, in yellow and black apparel, was the most feared bunch on the streets, far away from the pitch.
Thousands of miles across the black Atlantic, the “Godfather of Soul”, James Brown, had just been jailed. Everywhere on the planet Michael Jackson’s Bad, released here in 1988, was still the catchiest but angriest rock-guitar-filled sound of blackness.
Against this backdrop, the “Wedding of the Century” took place in three cities: Johannesburg, Durban and Cape Town. Here was a marriage predestined for both hell and unfettered joy: a township man of 27 snatching the “baddest” girl of South African pop and urban culture from the jaws of would-be suitors, men and women.
Back at Fassie’s homestead on Makana Square in KwaThema, tension rose like winter smog as Brenda squeezed into her white wedding dress, designed by the notoriously alternative Boys of Rosebank.
From the minute Brenda slipped on her beautifully beaded white gown with its elaborate stitch-work, in her mother’s bedroom, to the minute she arrived back from the church service a married woman, the air swirling around her was nothing less than chaos manifest.
Sharon Sorour-Morris, then a cub reporter, was one of the many people who squeezed into Fassie’s parents’ bedroom to witness her put on her wedding dress. She recalls the moment in one of Drum’s legacy odes to Fassie, in 2014: “Her maid of honour, Yvonne Chaka Chaka, towered over her, and Brenda’s aunt Cynthia Bedeza told me, ‘Thanks Lord, I’m married.’ The ensuing melee included a Cadillac speeding down the freeway and hundreds of white rose petals.”
The March 1989 issue of Drum, with the cover line “Brenda Says ‘I Do’”, reported that Chaka Chaka “smacked the bride hard across her face before they quickly made up and headed up to church”.
The groom arrived much later at the Catholic Church, outfitted in a Michael-Jackson-meets-Muammar-Gaddafi white military chic get-up. Per Brenda’s “Mediatique” high-voltage electrical luminescence, the place was overrun by photographers from the local and international media.
The theatricality of it all occasioned a call-and-response affair. It anticipated a flurry of visual postcard odes to fairytale love.
The many photographers present jostled for a single definitive frame out of the inevitable flood of lookalike images. Three decades later, the discussion over that photo, among so many frames all telling the same magical tale differently, rages on.
Intellectual property, and recognising our forebears who risked their lives to tell these stories, is everything. But the photo instances we take, or act within, or within which humanity’s beauty and inhumanity are held against the light and thrown into sharper relief, belong to history.
The centrifugal aspect of photography as recollection and reproduction, leads me to ask myself: Did history just smack us with a hot dose of irony regarding Brenda’s wedding photos?
The last word, Sorour-Morris reminds us, belonged to the baddest girl herself – and not her pictorial chroniclers. Ironically, on her wedding card, with its red roses and hearts, were printed the lyrics from one of her hits: “I am what the people have made me.” DM168
Bongani Madondo is the editor of I’m Not Your Weekend Special: Portraits on the Art, Life+Style & Politics of Brenda Fassie, and the author of Sigh the Beloved Country.
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for free to Pick n Pay Smart Shoppers at these Pick n Pay stores.
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