BLAC bows outa
by Zayd Minty
Let me shuttle you back
Back into our collective memory
Let me shuttle you back and forward
With little chapters to our story
With the beat and the feel of poetry
To celebrate our landscapes
Our common ground
From the script of the Poetry Bus Tour (In Touch Project) by Malika Ndlovu and Khadija Heeger (2000)
1998 was the year BLAC started - it was also the year I came back to Cape Town. Lucky me! Having arrived back in my hometown after an absence, in England, of more than three decades, it was important for me as a black cultural activist to find a place where I could feel both safe and intellectually stimulated. Somewhere that allowed me to explore the complex and often contradictory race politics of post-1994 South Africa. I had experienced the emotionally crushing and debilitating life of the black British intelligentsia, and was keen to find mental spaces which would help to make the most of my second spell of living in Cape Town. CAP was one of these spaces, BLAC was the other.
Graham Falken (BLAC Committee member)
When a group of arts practitioners got together in 1998 and started what would eventually become BLAC, a self-styled "discourse building" project, there was no clear sense what an impact it would make for a number of people in Cape Town. Judging from the variety of responses, it has clearly made some impact in the city while providing a channel for a range of diverse black cultural workers to make themselves visible. It's now four years later and the project is due to close at the end of February 2003 - its assets are being transferred into the trust of a new conglomerate consisting of two NGO's (MediaWorks and Community Arts Project). It feels like a passing of a dear friend so I thought it would be a good idea to say a few words as it departs the stage.
The BLAC project was deliberately established to have a short life span and functioned as a loose network of cultural workers, more especially artists (from poets to playwrights, film makers to fashion designers, amongst others), academics, journalists and heritage workers. A group of these professionals (but often not the same ones) met regularly to discuss issues of arts, culture, race and identity in Cape Town. While BLAC stood for the 'Black Arts Collective' it would be more correct to have said that the project contested all terms that it identified itself with. The blackness it identified with was that of the old Black Consciousness movement, i.e. everyone not white. The projects uniqueness was its focus on power, identity and culture seen through the prism of race politics and it was unashamedly a space for black cultural professionals primarily. In its first year it was provocatively only open to black cultural workers, which led to a number of white artists begging to be allowed in on the basis of being 'tokens'.
At the time Taweni Gondwe (now editor of O Magazine) in an interview, reflected the general view amongst the network why it was not a problem, at that particular moment, to have a project that so clearly defined in racial terms, Gondwe referring to a range of projects that were 'white' in all but how they were named. At various times we spoke about it as a "safe space" which we needed to create. It was in many respects both a reaction to the wave of uncritical 'rainbow-ism' which swept the country post-1994 (and a way to keep race firmly on the agenda) and also a building on the experience, particularly of the black Diaspora in the west (US/UK), and the way black artists found organisational and structural ways to support each other and protect themselves from isolation and feeling marginalized. It was also, without doubt, in the words of, Graham Falken, a way to feel "politically powerful in an environment which excludes and attacks at the same time".
The roots of the BLAC project date back to 1997 with two projects which originated out of the Robben Island Museum. The first was the successful Artists in Residency Programme, which functioned for a year between 1997 and early 1998. I was one of the coordinators of the island's arts programme, the residency aspect administered by poet/playwright Lueen Conning (now Malika Ndlovu). Both of us, and later Emile Maurice (then based at the SA National Gallery), would in our personal capacities be involved in the early development of what would become the BLAC project.
In its time the Robben Island residency provided opportunities for a number of emerging black artists to create new works, while based on the island for periods between 10 days and three months. These residencies included visual artists, filmmakers, poets and musicians. Artists like Mustafa Maluka, Bernie Searle, Sipho Hlati, Billy Mandinidi, Selvin November, Garth Erasmus, Magentharie Pillay, Deela Khan, Mavis Smallberg, Black Noise, MTF and Jonathan De Vries all participated. Though the residencies were not exclusively for black artists, there was a preference in the museum as a whole to provide greater access to the historically disadvantaged.
A lesson taught us by the residency programme was that the participating artists (more especially black artists) were not finding spaces to share ideas or talk about their work. In addition, many black artists were still finding themselves 'invisible' in the new South Africa. Consequently the Robben Island Museum arts programme began to look at strategies to bring some of these artists to the fore.
In 1998, through the earlier work of the Mayibuye Centre, an exchange project was initiated between the Flinders Arts Museum in Adelaide Australia and Robben Island Museum. Two 'black' curators were invited to visit the Adelaide Festival, where they met with indigenous Australians participating in a show entitled 'Community, Ceremony and Identity'. The aim of this project was to have 'black' South Africans respond to this show (made up of contemporary and 'indigenous' art works) by subsequently organizing a show in South Africa. The Johannesburg-based curator Tumelo Mosaka and myself jointly devised this show, using artist's input from a workshop held on Robben Island.
The methodology adopted by the curators took the view that 'black' and 'indigenous' were contested terms. When it eventually opened, 'Isintu' was the first all black artists and all black-curated show held at the SA National Gallery. It included two emerging artists: Bernie Searle and Sandile Zulu. Also represented were a number of lesser-known artists, including Usha Prajapat, Nathi Khanyile, Ezekial Budelli and Ayanda Mji. Searle, who was and remains an important individual in BLAC, has credited her shift towards working more strongly with identity politics (and using her own body in the Colour Me series) to her experiences during the Robben Island workshop, which developed the 'Isintu' show.
The arts programme and the residency were closed in 1998, something which had less to do with the project's success than the new board of Robben Island. This body came into being in late 1997 and exerted its desire to turn the island into a tourist site. The board's stated emphasis at the time was to focus on the recent political history while making opportunities available for previous political prisoners to benefit from economic empowerment projects (such as the awarding of tenders to the black empowerment boat company). The board's new approach conflicted with many of the staff's own desires to have the Robben Island site remain a generator space for debate and development. In my own experience, the events on Robben Island around this period were to become one of the angry catalysts for what would later lead to the formation of BLAC.
This anger was exacerbated by the slow level of transformation in the cultural arena on the mainland. The old Nationalist interests in the board of the old CAPAB (now Artscape) effectively hampered change efforts, closing the theatre company while 'protecting' the ballet company. The slow pace of change at, what was then, the Southern Flagship Museum (now Iziko) represented another part of the ongoing problematics facing cultural transformation. At the same time, in the film industry, black filmmakers associations were trying to make their voice heard and NGOs were still not receiving the type of support they needed from the state - despite political and bureaucratic change.
The BLAC project officially started with a range of public consultative meetings in late 1998, and in June 1999, following the run of 'Isintu' at the SANG, the first BLAC seminar was held at the Old Granary building in Buitenkant Street, the series moving in 2000 to the Centre for the Book. The sessions, usually held once a month, consistently drew an average of 25 to 35 cultural professionals per session. These seminars were always an important space for Black Cultural workers to develop discourse, network and share their current work in a positive and nurturing environment. Some key cultural players who made presentations included, amongst others: Ciraj Rasool (historian); Delecia Forbes and Mike Van Graan (arts managers); Black Noise, Tina Schouw and Dizu Plaaitjes (musicians); Sandile Dikeni (poet/journalist); Mark Lottering (comedian); Ashraf Jamal (writer); and Stanley Hermans (painter).
From the time of its inception in 1998, the BLAC project adopted a threefold strategy:
to create discussions (the BLAC seminar series, the commissioning of articles, and facilitation processes including Culture Zone amongst others);
to document and publish ( the website project Blaconline); and
to provide a platform for production ('Returning the Gaze' and 'Liberating Zones')
In September 2000 the 'Cape Town One City Festival - Celebrating Difference' would take on a distinctly BLAC/Black. Aside from a special BLAC seminar series, the exhibition 'Returning the Gaze' also served as the central visual arts project of the festival. This project, which included the works of Searle, Maluka, Thembinkosi Goniwe, Brett Murray, Selvin November and Donovan Ward, amongst others, looked particularly at race and the city through a number of public arts projects, including billboards, postcards, murals and a web project. A catalogue was later made available, with a review published on this site.
In addition, the 'Cape Town One City Festival' involved a number of artists associated with BLAC. Weave offered a poetic bus tour of Langa and Bonteheuwel, and there was a strong black artistic presence through music, theatre and poetry. Of the range of projects presented, award winning Mandla Mobothwe directed 9437 to stadt, an original drama dealing with tough urban life. Carol Anne Davids (now marketing manager of the Baxter Theatre) played a vital role in both 'Returning the Gaze' and a dynamic and well-attended poetry programme featuring the likes of James Matthews and Sandile Dikeni.
In late 1999 the development of a website BLAConline (www.blac.co.za) was initiated (with the support of MWEB) as a way of extending debates and discussions further. BLAConline aimed to keep participants updated about current issues and events in the Cape Town art scene and boasted a substantial database of emerging black talent in Cape Town and South Africa. It also included a discussion between Thembinkosi Goniwe and myself about "institutional control", as well as numerous commissioned articles. The site aimed to eventually create a channel for artists to distribute and promote their products for local and international audience. Problems, however, with the site's management and development meant that its full potential was never realised.
In 2002 three ventures were undertaken, the first a survey and workshop on the needs of black visual artists, led by Pro Sobopha, the second a process to develop a national arts magazine. A project focusing on Cape Town-based cultural movements from the 1980s, 'Liberating Zones', represented the third. The latter initiative was a partnership with the Community Arts Project, District Six Museum, Bush Radio, Project on Public Pasts and Robben Island Museum. The project consisted of a lecture series with video screenings, a radio oral history programme, poetry readings and music as well as an old style Gumba together with exhibits by CAP, Mediaworks and Community Video Education Trust. BLAC had been involved in the merger talks between the last three organisations and helped secure the eventual space of a new centre at the Sachs Futeran Building (to be occupied in 2003). BLAC also played a key role in discussions regarding the development of a Cultural Zone in the centre of the city (a continuing process).
The 'Liberating Zones' project is now a theme and strategy within the archive, thanks in part to BLAC's efforts. The archive will include the collections of CAP, Mediaworks and CVET as well as a range of other artefacts and information about culture in the late 1970s and 1980s in the city and in particular focussing on progressive projects which played an important role during that time. It is perhaps fitting that the BLAC project has 'dissolved' into another research initiative focussing on projects rooted in social change agendas (projects which were critical in their time around issues of access), while BLAC's own material forms one part of that important set of collections.
BLAC's success was ultimately its ability to 'broker' a range of views and energies from a set of perspectives into a coherent physical form that could play a change role. The various forums and projects it initiated, including 'Liberating Zones', are good examples of its methodology.
Notwithstanding the considerable support this project received from a range of funders and individuals, I would like to make a final thank you to the two remaining board members of BLAC: Valmont Layne and Graham Falken. Thank you too to BLAC's most consistent funder to date, Fastenopfer. BLAC received support from a number of important cultural players in Cape Town. Other than those individuals already mentioned, they included Ciraj Rassool, Crane Soudien, Getrude Fester, Sharief Cullis, Thembinkosi Goniwe, Magentharie Pillay and Shelley Barry, amongst many others.