SARTISTS: A JOHANNESBURG- BASED COLLECTIVE THAT IS CHALLENGING PAROCHIAL IDEAS ABOUT BLACKNESS IN MODERN SOCIETY.
Words by Stef Jason
Photography by The Sartists.
Stef Jason looks at the work of the Sartists, a Johannesburg-based collective that is challenging parochial ideas about blackness in modern society.
There’s a photo of a woman the shade of ochre. Her lips are full and red, her face strewn with freckles. She stares ahead. Her look is neither desperate nor pleading, but is urgent. Eyes gazing through the camera, torso directed away for the lens, it’s as if she’s about to leave, but something pulls her back. She has something to say. It’s unclear what it could be, but above her gaze a blue beret carries the words ‘Africa is the future’. A clear testament. A message to the world.
The photograph looks like it’s from the past, with its analogue film frame and the sitter’s retro accessories. It could’ve been taken during the demise of apartheid in South Africa or the Afrocentric era of early ‘90s America. Maybe even ‘80s Brixton, where mass riots defied structural racism. It’s hard to tell from the first glance, but the image is brazen. Somewhere beneath its layers lie stories of youth resistance, pride and pan-Africanism.
The photograph is the work of the Sartists, a contemporary multidisciplinary collective based in Johannesburg that is deliberate about the creation of such images. Images that are visually arresting, that reference history, that are weighty in meaning and intention, and challenge parochial images of blackness.
The Sartists are Andile Buka, Kabelo Kungwane, Wanda Lephoto and Xzavier Zulu, who together formed the collective to tackle ideas of blackness in modern society. They have done so through a considered, autodidactic, and documentary approach to style and identity.
“Identity, representation and storytelling is incredibly important to who we are as a collective,” say the Sartists, discussing the image of their freckled sitter – an emerging Johannesburg fashion designer called Zoliswa Mbadu. “We’ve always seen and acknowledged the exploitation of our history, cultures and traditions and this inspires our ideologies and thoughts. We want to represent our people and take our culture forward by addressing the very same things that rid us of our individuality.”
Zoliswa’s photograph formed part of the collective’s 2017 campaign for Levi’s, which included a series of portraits and clothing patches that featured tags such as ‘Dynamite Denim Dudes’ and ‘Super 16’. All were inspired by the world around them – from student movements such as #FeesMustFall to the post-apartheid children’s TV show Dynamite Diepkloof Dudes.
“The lookbook was inspired by black excellence and how often brands, agencies and the world in general often neglect and choose to undervalue the contribution of black people, black artists and black culture, to the ever-shifting global conversation on culture.”
What is black? It is shades of brown. It’s a racially political identity borne from discrimination, repression and displacement. Once a negative – an unseen – black has been subverted and become an identity of pride. It is beautiful. Black is beautiful. It is power. Black power.
The intention of the Sartists’ Levi’s campaign, as well as their work as a whole and their individual photography, is to ensure that the continued conversation around blackness is brought to the surface. The ways in which we are represented or misrepresented in the media and by society at large; how our presence in creative spaces, on sports fields, or in the corporate world has been contested and negotiated for decades. Despite progress, the telling of complex and nuanced stories relating to the black experience still has a long way to go.
“Until there is a mosaic of perspectives coming from different ethnicities behind the lens, we will continue to have a narrow approach and view of what the world actually looks like,” said Beyonce when choosing 23-year-old Tyler Mitchell to photograph her for Vogue’s September cover.
The Sartists are collectors of memories, purveyors of style, and radical storytellers. Through fashion, photography, curation and more their work shout-outs the black experience via an aesthetic and understanding that is enshrouded in memory. Yet it is simultaneously new, fresh and uniquely theirs. In doing so they are redressing hurtful images of black people and creating ones that tell our stories and share our many layers and intersections.
“After co-founding the collective in 2012, together we set out to simply tell stories through style,” Wanda and Kabelo, who originally founded the collective, told Dazed magazine. “Over the course of time and through our respective educational backgrounds in fashion design and journalism we went on to become collectors of memories and stories and try to convey them so people understand our vision. That accompanied by the need of making those very same stories have meaning beyond just simple aesthetic pleasures.”
There’s a thread of nostalgia that weaves its way through the work of the Sartists. Since stepping onto the scene they have created work that is informed by their personal backgrounds – Johannesburg townships such as Alexandra and Soweto, everyday life, history and black excellence.
“We were born in an era where those that have paved the way are often neglected and under-celebrated, and that is our main source of inspiration that informs who we are and what we’d like to do,” Wanda told Dazed when asked about the ideologies that inform the Sartists’ work.
Although the collective started out sharing their work online, their projects have been catapulted into the international arena via campaigns, exhibitions, and editorials. Their participation in the MoMA exhibition Items: Is Fashion Modern? is one such example. The exhibition explored the past, present and sometimes the future of 111 items of clothing and accessories that have had a strong impact on the world in the 20th and 21st centuries. The Sartists’ contribution was a deeply historical look at ‘khaki and chino’ through the lens of African identities, practices and culture.
For the exhibition Searching For The New Luxury, which took place in the Netherlands at the end of May, the Sartists presented ‘Our Tribe’, a portrait series that included images of some of the members adorned in beadwork, masks, cow hide and streetwear. The series referenced the intersection of traditional African practices and Western contemporary culture – a common junction for many black African youth.
“In a changing world dominated by technology and Western ways, the sustainability of our cultures is threatened... as people with tradition and culture often misunderstood and mislabeled as ‘dark magic’ or ‘dark practices’ in a time of colonialism and apartheid, are losing their cultures to those of the West,” said the collective in a statement that accompanied their presentation of ‘Our Tribe’.
Emphasising sustainability in fashion, the Sartists not only embrace environmental consciousness, but socially and culturally sustainable fashion that is rooted in identity and knowledge of the self. Or what they term, culturally sustainable fashion.
“We care our about saving our planet, we care about our ecosystem, we care about going green but before we can really change and apply we also have to care about our livelihood, which is also threatened everyday. ‘Our Tribe’ is an idea that challenges the sustainability for our traditions, our culture and our people. It is a conversation about the cultural fusion between African spirituality and the adoption of Western ways by African people.”
Through their work the Sartists – who have photographed the stylistically irreverent and sonically distinct South African musician Sho Madjozi for this issue’s cover – mobilise voices and practices from our past that are interlaced with contemporary black youth culture. In doing so they produce work that tells a story that’s translatable to youth across the globe and interrogates what it means to exist in a society where their faces do not flood the mainstream. Where their stories are often marginalised and their histories erased.