Last week The Con bought you a part of our ongoing interview with the Tokolos Stencil Collective. We have also reported on their interventions, firstly at the Brundyn+ Gallery and secondly at Michael Elion’s Nelson Mandela Ray-Ban sunglasses. Here is our full email interview, which we conducted with the Tokolos Stencil Crew over the past few weeks.
Share with us the history of the Tokolos Stencil Collective. How and when did you come together and how did you decide on your manifesto?
It’s hard to do that. We like to think we have no history, that we just are here in the present ‘doing’.
I suppose that our manifesto is pretty simple: we want to challenge authority and support popular struggles by building a popular street art-related culture of resistance that moves in step with these struggles that are actually fighting everyday for better wages, for land and for services.
This is where we came up with our statement “To terrorise the powers that be, the tokoloshe emerges from obscurity. It reminds South Africans, young and old, that freedom and justice remain elusive unless we are willing to fight for it.”
Is the Tokolos Stencil Crew an amorphous group, with members coming in and out dependent on projects? Is there a leadership? How do decisions get made within the collective?
We are an amorphous group, a loose collective. Whoever puts up political stencils that remain progressive and not in the service of a specific political party, is automatically considered a member. People move in and out. We are in numbers!
Do you draw influence from a broad range of artistic practise?
We are many different people from many different backgrounds, with many diverse influences and tastes.
But primarily, we draw influence from popular struggle. That is our core inspiration.
We could say that we are influenced by this or that musician or filmmaker or graffiti artist but that’s not really important because those people – at least the best ones – are also influenced by popular struggle. In the end, the people’s struggle is our inspiration.
Aside from legal reasons, are there any others for your choosing anonymity? If the reasons are merely legal, what are your main concerns?
There are legal reasons obviously. And it’s mostly about the fact that the more political and challenging it is, the more we will be targeted.
But it’s also about a lot more. The anonymity is something we embrace. The struggle should not be about individuals and celebrities but about the collective working to change things. Anonymity helps ensure this and prevents individuals from personally benefiting from their involvement.
Also, the anonymity does something else. It allows us to speak parallel to popular struggles. We use the anonymity to divert attention from us and refocus it on those who are struggling publicly for justice. When we stencil “Remember Marikana” we amplify the voices of mineworkers and shack-dwellers fighting for justice in the North West. When we spray “Larney Jou Poes! Larney Jou Piel!”, we amplify the voices of farm-workers fighting against their modern slavery.
We don’t speak for anyone, but we do aim to amplify the voices of those whose words are ignored.
Are there legitimate and illegitimate voices in this battle over public space? Is there a censorship of organic voices in public spaces and what are the repercussions?
That is maybe the incorrect question to ask. Legitimacy is subjective. A more relevant question is who is already censured in public space by the very fact of their oppression? Poor blacks, women (especially black women), LGBTI, shack-dwellers, farmworkers, the unemployed. This is not their public space.
With a more participatory public art under the auspices of government, they will remain censored. That is why public art must be made outside such a space of sanction. Art must work parallel to the efforts of the oppressed in building a counter-power.
Why did you decide to intervene with the Nelson Mandela Ray-Ban sunglasses installation, Perceiving Freedom, by Michael Elion in Sea Point?
The sunglasses are just completely offensive. It’s corporate, it lacks conceptual depth, it promotes this white supremacist concept of the “Rainbow Nation”. But, most of all, it is straight-up vandalism.
Why did you use the words “We broke your hearts”?
Well, we find it interesting how many different people have been reading into this in so many ways. Our original reason for writing this is in reference to Elion’s conceptually myopic hearts that he has put up all over Cape Town.
The hearts have become a way to express white hipsters’ love for the oppressive city we live in: the segregation, the racism, the capitalist exploitation, which all becomes hidden when we are merely told to love and forgive and forget the injustice.
It is the artistic equivalent of the ANC’s “sunshine journalism”.
“We broke your hearts” refers to breaking this mirage of the “Rainbow Nation” that Elion is advocating. But it is also a threat that we will further deface his work.
While Elion’s Perceiving Freedom is problematic, it is a soft target because it is “myopic”, as you pointed out. We noticed on social media that certain Johannesburg public artists and insiders are swaggering around attacking Elion and flaunting their own street-cred. However they are just as guilty of public art crimes, your thoughts?
Sure. We don’t claim common cause with any of those people writing ‘deep’ statements about the sunglasses. They are certainly being opportunistic. We must assume that they have long stories of competition and envy amongst one another. For example, they remain for the most part silent at our critique of the art industrial complex in our intervention at Brundyn+. They also remain silent about real struggles of actually oppressed people, demands to take back the land, for basic services, for decent healthcare, etc.
Do you think we need to reconsider how government funds these public art works and how artists actually work? Surely we need to move towards a more participatory art practise?
Well that is what these Joburg public art players are advocating right? Now what exactly will that do for a poor shack-dweller using a bucket toilet in Khayelitsha? Fuck all. No government sanctioned art project, even with public participation, will do anything for the struggles of poor blacks.
Real participatory art cannot be funded. (note: the revolution will not be funded). It never has and never will. What we need is an artistic culture and movement that parallels and supports actual popular struggles on the ground. This must terrorise and challenge the system and those in power.
Is “vandalism” a word you would embrace and if so in what context?
We don’t vandalise. Energy isn’t created or destroyed, it is transformed. That is what we do with public space.
What about the word “Terrorism”?
We don’t want to answer this question. It’s out of order!
You state you want to “terrorise the powers that be” but you say the question about “terrorism” is out of order?
The word “terrorism”, in a conservative definition, it implies the act of using violence to frighten a people to achieve a political goal. It is necessarily a coercive act. Most governments engage in terrorism and the United States and Israel are effectively the nations that best fit this definition of employing terrorism. Then there are various groups, freedom fighters or more conservative groups that employ strategies of terrorism.
We don’t use violence per se to achieve our objectives. We also don’t go and frighten people or groups of people. Nothing we’ve ever done has physically hurt any person or threatened to physically hurt any person. (Not that we don’t think that there are necessary uses of violence in certain situations – especially in revolutionary situations. We are not claiming to be pacifist).
“Terrorising the powers that be” doesn’t necessarily mean we are terrorists or employing terrorism. The powers that be are an abstract notion or a “system”, they are not “the people” and therefore it doesn’t fall into the above definition.
You received reams of press interest following the intervention at the gallery Brundyn+ and the response to Perceiving Freedom, has that affected your practice and caused you to rethink how the collective works in any way?
Watch out, we warn you! We are the same tokolosies as when we started. We will continue.
Were you surprised by the media attention your intervention received?
We find it telling, though unsurprising, that our actions around the sunglasses have generated such a storm. What is really unfortunate, though, is that what we believe are our most challenging and relevant interventions have gone mostly unnoticed by the mainstream and chattering classes. Much of our #remembermarikana artwork has had a huge impact in working class communities. Poor blacks recognise this iconic piece more and more. Many are mobilising and land occupations are happening in the name of ‘Remembering Marikana’. We think this work of ours is more important than our defacement of the statue, but the media and chatterers ignore it.
We have also painted “This city works for a few” on toilets and people’s shacks (we got permission from these people) facing the N2. This was also ignored even though it was something on the mind of many people travelling in taxis on their way to work.
One of our less active tokolos even worked with the Marikana shack community in Philippi, and they requested that a tokolos spray “Remember Marikana” on each of their shacks. No one noticed except the community, but the community was proud and this was a way to bring them together through art.
We are more proud of these less visible actions than what we did to the glasses. We think it’s sad that those who profess to support the struggles of the working class, the black masses, ignore these more relevant interventions.
You are quite robust in the way you deal with media. What is you general view on the mainstream media in South Africa and what do you think its failings are?
The media can go fuck themselves (this is not to say that there are not individual journalists attempting to do good work).
Maybe its time for an even more robust critique of them from us…..
What do you make of Michael Elion’s comments in City Press where he claimed to have few black friends because of his “environment”:
We don’t think much about it; it’s pretty standard white behaviour and rationalisation. But he is correct to say that he is merely a product of the white supremacist environment he lives in. He sees upholding white supremacy as “art”. We, however, see it as a cop-out.
The Cape Town public art vision is very troubling, and has been for a long time. Obviously it has a higher national profile at the moment due to Perceiving Freedom and the Lighthouse installation, titled PharoX, on Signal Hill, but can you talk about the city’s general relationship to graffiti which seems very regressive and paternalistic, never mind exclusionary?
The City of Cape Town is reacting rationally. Graffiti and other forms of unsanctioned interventions, because of its very nature of claiming public space, is a challenge to the general authority of the government and its monopoly of the use of such spaces. Even gang tagging is a threat in this sense.
Many municipalities react to this threat through attempts at accommodation and co-optation. But for the most part all municipalities reject most forms of street art that are unsanctioned. It’s generally a carrot and stick approach.
Cape Town has some attempts at co-optation but its very limited to feel-good art and big name street artists. They have a small carrot for the special few and a big stick for everyone else. But it’s not in general that different from even the more progressive cities. It’s more a question of degree.
Still, the approach is very expensive – employing all those people to get rid of these public interventions rather than employing those same people to build houses or act as community health workers.
With mute walls, successful dictatorship.
Regarding Brundyn+ you were invited to participate in the show; you could have declined if you were against the institution. Why did you accept? Did you feel you could make a bigger statement by participating in the way that you did? Has this extra publicity now drawn more attention to your greater body of work?
We feel we unmasked some of the hypocrisies of the art world through art participation.
Our participation was on three levels. 1. Under the normal parameters sanctioned by the gallery. 2. In a grey area, unsanctioned by the gallery. 3. In a way completely beyond such sanction. Something that they could never tolerate because it shakes the very core of the purpose of the gallery space.
What we wanted to show is how sanctioned work will inevitably be co-opted into the ‘art industrial complex’. Even the stuff that was unsanctioned, such as spraying in areas that the gallery could tolerate such as on their front wall, could be and was coopted. This is true as you can see by their response, which is one of continuing a ‘conversation’.
But the toilet ‘installation’ was beyond conversation. It is something they cannot tolerate. Their liberalism can only go so far. Once we brought actual poverty instead of merely representations of that poverty into the gallery that was going too far for them. This is why they removed the toilet immediately.
While the gallery has benefited from their association with us, especially in light of the publicity surrounding the sunglasses we hope that it made some people uncomfortable and that they are able to acknowledge this critique and are able to see the contradictions.
We do know that the gallery won’t ever invite us back for another exhibition. That is for sure. They cannot risk another exposure to the smells of poverty.
Some would argue that you in essence did a performance art piece at the gallery, your thoughts?
They can call it what they want from their armchairs. We don’t really care. But the smell of poverty was authentic – that was not a performance.
What do you hope to finally achieve in this campaign to cause discomfit to privilege or what do you think is achievable?
We aim to support popular struggles. These are the people doing the real work. We hope to build a stronger creative culture of resistance to support these struggles. And we hope, by causing this discomfort, to force the sympathetic middle class to really choose which side they’re on. By forcing discomfit, we’re exposing the contradictions of claiming to support these struggles while in the end supporting, through their actions, the systematic efforts that undermine these struggles.
We don’t know what is achievable. Another world is necessary but we have to fight for it. It won’t come without a fight.
Confrontation is certainly better than co-option. But do you think that the art elite may attempt to use the latter against you?
They already have. Brundyn+ tried and the jury is still out on whether they were successful of if we successfully resisted it.
Even the way the institutionalised art world has embraced our work on the sunglasses is a form of co-option. They’ve taken our critique and narrowed it into a critique of a certain kind of public art (Elion’s kind) but in support of their own institutional and oppressive art. They’ve already attempted to depoliticise our work, make it vapid. Hopefully our future works can re-claim our intervention back from their co-option. It is always a battle because we live within capitalism.