Out of the estimated 2.2 million immigrants living in South Africa, 46% are from Southern African Development Community (SADC) nations. As South Africa emerges from yet another spate of xenophobic violence, it’s unsettling to know that most of that merciless violence was inflicted upon our direct neighbours. Since the news broke, the warranted outcry from the global community in reaction to these attacks has been loud and clear. How can we treat our own blood this way? But the experience of African immigrants in South Africa isn’t entirely limited to that of suffering. South Africa also serves as a unique oasis for the nonconformists and alternative thinkers from around the continent – one that is arguably the most puritanical and morally conservative in the world.

There are 35 countries in Africa that currently outlaw homosexuality (albeit mostly through inherited colonial laws). In four of them Sudan, Somalia, Nigeria and Mauritania – homosexual acts are punishable by death. South Africa is the only nation in Africa where same-sex marriage is legal. On paper, we’re also continental leaders in most areas of gender equality, children’s rights, prisoners’ rights, freedom of speech, and our general stance toward social justice. This means that the asylum African migrants often seek in this country isn’t only political and economic; it’s ethical and intellectual as well. Dissident African thinkers find solace in Cape Town and Johannesburg now – just as they once found such solace in Dakar, Dar es Salaam and Harare – in places where they might find the odd like-minded individual who will not only indulge their quirks and eccentricities, but celebrate them. This makes the prevalence of these attacks even more disheartening, revealing a painful irony about our geopolitical state of affairs, because the most reliable place of refuge from persecution in Africa is the very place where Africans are currently being persecuted the most.

Africa isn’t the easiest place on earth to be an artist. Art is still widely viewed as a hobby, and artists as the deranged jesters of our society – mascots of dysfunction doomed to die in squalor and obscurity. This is why South Africa’s bustling avant-garde art scene serves as an ideological promised land for the repressed and misunderstood creative minds of our continent. There are more art galleries in Cape Town alone than there are in central, north, east and west Africa combined (there are 52 listed galleries in Cape Town and 40 listed galleries in these region). South Africa has tertiary institutions that specialise in the arts: film schools, animation schools and visual arts schools, most of which aren’t even present, let alone prevalent, in the rest of Africa. Perhaps most importantly, South Africa has a thriving community of young artists on a similar wavelength of dynamic thinking, brewing a potent storm of new notions on Africanism. This is to show that so many luminous souls would’ve most likely gone unnoticed if they had remained in their motherlands. If they had chosen never to venture out from the patriarchal prisons in which they were born, we would’ve been deprived of their light – a light we’ve grown to depend upon.

I write to illuminate the stories of Africa’s creation as opposed to its destruction – what nourishes us as opposed to what starves us. Art might be the only true antidote to our anguish as Africans. Art’s alchemistic power converts the negative into positive. Artists are a therapeutic voice in our traumatised world, and no part of the world is more traumatised than Africa. This should give us all the more reason to nurture the arts on our continent and prioritise investment in them as much as we do in infrastructure; because art is our cultural infrastructure. It develops something far more salient than our ability to trade commodities with one another. It develops our ability to truly feel and connect with one another on a universally human level. The same borders we fight so hard to crystallise and define in the discourse of politics and social sciences, art fights just as hard to annihilate, as one of its core governing principles is the quest to construct new forms of communication, new ways of perceiving old worlds. The following five artists are thriving in that quest. They all originate from neighbouring SADC nations, have lived in South Africa for periods in their lives, and are now making their living as artists in this country.

 

Ross Lelliott Ross Lelliott (26): Animator, Botswana

Oodles of Doodles, only better: https://www.youtube.com/user/canopeflyer

How long have you lived in South Africa?

For about 17 years

Do you feel welcome in this country?

I have always felt both welcome and unwelcome. When I arrived, I didn’t – black kids would pick on me because I was a coloured child who spoke Tswana, so I initially tended more towards white kids. But you have to make your own friends and community in order to feel welcome. And being welcome in an area depends on many factors, including how you relate to a group of people, which can be dictated by language, class, education or clothing. For example, whereas I feel I am welcome in Soweto and middle class suburbia, I would not feel welcome in Alex or Eldorado Park, and the same goes for Sandton and other upmarket areas.

How do you think South Africa’s art scene differs from the scene in Botswana?

South Africa’s art scene differs in terms of how developed it is. In Botswana, art is generally looked down upon as a craft, or something not worthwhile pursuing in terms of monetary gain. This is also reflected in how much funding is allocated to arts development.

How have the xenophobic attacks affected your work?

Xenophobic attacks have influence it in a very small way. I write stories and animate them. I feel it is a topic that needs to be interrogated, but what interests me more is why xenophobic attacks started in the first place, and that is what I am considering exploring.

 

Carla Fonseca

Carla Fonseca (26) Performance artist, Mozambique 

In Honour Of The Woman, an exhibition confronting the sexualisation of women as an instrument of power; while at the same time posing questions towards a strict division between feminine and masculine gender-relations. Performance of Hold Your Tongue by Carla Fonseca with Through Your Eyes video installation by Noël Labridy: https://vimeo.com/109951126

How long have you lived in South Africa?

I’ve lived in South Africa for nearly 20 years. Better education brought me here.

Do you feel welcome in this country?

I feel very welcome. This country is home to me.

How do you think South Africa’s art scene differs from the scene in Mozambique?

I think South Africa has better resources than Mozambique. Money is also distributed better to the arts than there. Now things are changing in Mozambique, and the change is exciting. Art is respected and growing in both countries. I believe South African artists are largely influenced by the West, and Mozambican art is more authentic to its culture. But I guess we all have our influences.

How have the xenophobic attacks affected your work?

A lot of my work deals with issues of identity and immigration statuses. I’ve been dissecting issues of being “alien” for years. These xenophobic attacks filter into my work more so now than ever, obviously, but I’m very careful to not retaliate against South Africans, because that would just make me a hypocrite. I have slowly started thinking of moving back to Maputo as a result of the violence against my people. I figure I’d rather contribute towards home.

 

Clayton Coutrier

Clayton Coutriers (28) Textile designer, illustrator and photographer, Mozambique 

How long have you lived in South Africa?

For most of my life.

What do you feel are the strengths and shortcomings of the South African art scene?

Processed with VSCOcam with b5 presetThe South African art scene is diverse in terms of the kinds of artists creating work. But artistic exploration in terms of new propositions in the way we exhibit optimism for creating new art experiences by combining disciplines that can expand art production in South Africa is falling far behind because of the traditional view of African art as being only craft based or politically driven. There are artist like me who have a different approach to making and creating art. I for one can speak only from my own experiences. I have always had an interest in science and technology, and ways to manipulate both disciplines to create a new vision. I have battled to get the right group of scientific minds together to collaborate on projects, because these disciplines are still very segregated in this country and it is very difficult to convince the heads that we can find common ground where we can pour our individual knowledge into a project that really exhibits endless possibilities with art-making, and not just the final visual piece. There is so much to explore, but scientific and technological institutions are under strict governmental rule, with such an uptight structure it is incredibly difficult to get them out of their mind-sets for a second and ask them to be a part of something that could possibly broaden our view on South African art. We need to be able to cross over disciplines for art in this country to take shape in a contemporary world.

Multidisciplinary shit is the future, and I don’t think the signature of the artist will get lost in this way of creating. I also don’t feel like this will make the art less African or South African. Either way, it will reflect an individual proposition of personal thoughts and views in the art, but its making will be transformative. I could be wrong.

How have the xenophobic attacks affected your work?

The xenophobic attacks completely shamed me, hurt me, and were once again a reminder that South Africans have not learned from their past. The anger South Africans have is directed towards the wrong people, and most of all it is sad that South Africans do not see their own reflections in the faces of their African brothers and sisters. My friend said “the self-hatred is such a sad thing to witness”, which is absolutely true – if you hate other Africans, you basically hate your own.

 

Aztrx the Yoda (26) Musician, Namibia

How long have you lived in South Africa?

Long enough to vote.

Do you feel welcome in this country?

To an extent. Every country has its good and bad traits. We adapt to get on with it.

How do you think South Africa’s art scene differs from the scene in Namibia?

It’s definitely more developed than Namibia’s art scene, and a lot more experimental. South Africa is definitely one the most exciting places to be right now in Africa.

How have the xenophobic attacks affected your work?

It’s difficult to answer that question without coming off a tad pretentious. Naturally, as an artist my work is affected by what goes on around me. But I would say the attacks have affected me more on an intellectual level than they have my art.

Mathias Chirombo

Mathias Chirombo (30) Painter, Zimbabwe

How long have you lived in South Africa?

For eight years. I used to play first-class cricket in Zimbabwe, and after two years of trying to find funding by sending out more than 1 300 letters and emails all over the world, I finally managed to get a scholarship from Australia from someone I had not met, a man named Peter Roebuck. Through him and Australia’s LBW Trust, my dreams were made reality, and the moment I arrived at Rhodes University in Grahamstown in 2007, I could not believe my eyes. I am now back at university doing my masters in anthropology, and will be finishing in 2016.

Do you feel welcome in this country?

I feel very welcome in South Africa. I see it as my own country rather than through the eyes of a “foreign” national. I find there is need to deconstruct the notion of being a foreign national. For example, as soon as anyone moves to another place, neighbourhood or workplace, you become a foreigner. The notion of being a foreigner applies to everyone living in different areas not based on the artificial boundaries of nationhood. People should learn to stand their ground and fight for what is right, but that concept has been dealt a heavy blow because of the recent attacks. Though the government action came late, I am pleased to see political figures have shown leadership. As someone who has worked on and been involved in many projects on national, provincial and local levels, I have not had a problem with most people I encounter. Sometimes you meet people who have a bad attitude or who are stressed, which might make it seem as though they are discriminating, but most of them are just not good at their jobs.

I have never had any big issues with the department of home affairs. I take my hat off to the Port Elizabeth branch, which has always been extremely helpful in assisting me to get different visas and advise me on what to do. Those officials have always been very sweet and warm when I speak to them, and give good advice and assistance. But at the border, it’s an entirely different experience. The officials there often enjoy playing God to try to reclaim some power. For instance, the number of days one gets depends often depends on whether one individual (who holds all the power) likes you or not, so you’re forced to resort to bribery and/or sycophancy just to get through to the other side.

Mathias Chirombo - death of the mermaid III

 How do you think South Africa’s art scene differs from the scene in Zimbabwe?

The South African art market is more mature than the Zimbabwean art market and has more disposable income. Obviously there are a lot of sanctions, and as a result there are far fewer tourists coming to Zimbabwe than to South Africa. South African companies are able to fund more art projects than those in Zimbabwe, where there has been an economic meltdown from which the country is trying to recover. There is, however, a higher concentration of skilled artists and crafters in Zimbabwe as compared to South Africa. But many of the artists have left Zimbabwe in search of greener pastures in other countries because of the struggling economy.

In South Africa, I am able to sell more art and make or break my own opportunities. In Zimbabwe, the chances of opening a gallery or putting together a successful exhibition are slim or almost nonexistent, even with a masters or PhD qualification. The risks there are way higher.

How have the xenophobic attacks affected your work?

When I first heard about the second spate of attacks, I wanted to bury my head in the sand because I knew I would be sad and disappointed to see all this happening. I was even more disappointed to hear that some police officers or ordinary citizens stood by and did nothing as people were being killed. As soon as I read, saw and heard about it, I was so pissed off that the idiots who were doing this did not remember where South Africa had come from. They had forgotten what the struggle was about. I stopped painting, because I felt pain for those who had lost loved ones; I know how it feels. I stopped everything and supported protesters who were standing against these violent forces. I was prepared to do something radical if the government officials did not do something about the deteriorating situation, but fortunately, they took strong action to deal with the matter, and I quietly resumed my role of following the Rhodes University leadership as it joined the protest against the attacks. Since then I have managed to get back to the studio and start on my work, and the painting has been going well, though slowly, as I prepare for the upcoming National Arts Festival. South Africa would not be such a successful black-run state if it weren’t for the “foreign nationals” who sacrificed so much to make this happen, as well as the dedicated South African citizens who gave up their lives fighting for the cause to liberate the people from apartheid.

Main image: By Clayton Coutriers

Take Two: By Clayton Coutrier

Tripp(l)ing: Death of the mermaid III by Mathias Chirombo

This piece was produced as part of The Con’s partnership with the Visual Arts Network of South Africa for the 2014 Ways of Being Here project

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