Thando Mama was first introduced to video in 2000. Since then, the Durban-based artist has pursued the medium with remarkable gusto, in the last two years producing an evocative series of grainy black and white video works. At first glance the rough, occasionally impenetrable veneer, demonstrates an off-handed insouciance. In his better works, though, there is a stridency, or force of will that has been lacking in this medium for quite some time. This is evidenced in Mama's deep-seated concern with the politics of self and state.
Over the last four years Thando Mama has been working primarily with video. His concerns are wide-ranging, and encompass the broadly political as well as the formalistic conventions of art. Regarding the latter, Mama uses digital moving imagery in the tradition of portraiture as a performative form of identity.
His work is particularly concerned with the construction and deconstruction of black masculine identities in a postcolonial, post-apartheid South Africa. Mama generally works with images of "blackness" and "Africa", and scrutinises the means or apparatus by which these images are created.
Thematic concerns: "For my subject matter, I tend to look at the social as well as the political discourse, that is, by way of investigating the relationships of the body and male (myself, including racialised self), state (bureaucratic governance), institution (educational, religious, political and media) and popular culture (film, video, music and literature and photography) and the impact they have on my perception, understanding and interpretation of life".
On identity: "Kwame Antony Appiah once said: "Invented histories, invented biologies, invented cultural affinities come with every identity". In order for me to realise my identity, I ought to be aware that my identity is an invention based on "myths" and "half-truths". I have used the concept of "race" and "cultural affinities" to affirm this constructed reality.
"The majority of Africans, including myself, share an identity solely because we are "black". Historically this has been a banner we have used to share an African identity without investigating and scrutinising its "false presuppositions, of errors and inaccuracies of science, religion, 'magic', 'myth' and 'heresy'", as Appiah says. We lean heavily on our shared "cultural affinities" to argue our lost case.
I believe that if we are to make Africa our banner, in Appiah's sense, we should make it an identity that admits the truth that "race and historical and metaphysics do not enforce identity ... we chose ... what it means to be African".
The history of an African man is that of forced silence, of confinement to an impossible space, he struggles to fight for self-determination. These impossible spaces created by this history are visible, each day the African man lives, breathes and believes in them. They haunt and terrify him.
Mama has just returned from Dakar, Senegal where he is participating in the 6th Dakar Biennale de l' Art Africaine Contemporaine 2004. He showed two video pieces, (un) hea(r) d and We are Afraid, for which he received the Prix de la Communité Française de Belgique, awarded by the Belgian community.
His work is also presently on show in Charleroi, in Belgium, on a group exhibition entitled 'Tremor: Contemporary South African art', curated by Fabienne Dumont, Emma Bedford and Marilyn Martin. We are afraid is also currently showing at the South African National Gallery.
Mama is a founding member of the artists' collective Third Eye Vision. The most recent project initiated by the group was an exhibition, earlier this year, at artSpace Durban entitled 'Thumb-print'. The project aimed to highlight experimental art practice, using limited resources, as well as to identify new young practitioners.
The basic premise to 'Thumb-print' was that each participating artist show a fraction of his or her whole body of work, or a thumb-print/ thumbnail of their bigger picture.
Artists were given a very broad brief, to create a work on paper (of defined size) on anything they felt was relevant, be it their own work, or the media itself, taking into consideration the impact technology has on their creations or productions.
Mama first came to national prominence when he won the 2003 MTN New Contemporaries Award. His standout piece was a biting critique of contemporary news broadcasters titled We are afraid. Purposefully installed at the end of a confusingly dark tunnel, this exceptional piece of video art relied on touch rather than sight to mark one's first experience of it. Blinding the viewer was, however, only one of the many clever - and disarming - tactics employed by the artist.
At first glance, the actual video sequence appears to be little more than a mess of grainy television static set to the score of an invisible child's voice endlessly repeating, "We are afraid". Pause a little longer and the uncertain silhouette of the artist's face appears through the static, but only fleetingly.
Shot late at night while watching television scenes of the US bombing of Iraq, Mama says that his video camera recorded the contours of his face as it was unevenly illuminated by his television. According to the artist, the work represents an explicit attempt to voice a collective understanding of the events he was watching, one tinged with an unambiguously African accent.
"We are afraid is me trying to say something about a shared experience," he says, "about people living in Africa at this point in time." The voice repeating the mantra, explains Mama, is that of a young Ethiopian girl he saw on television at around the time of the bombings. "All I'm asking in this piece is: What about Africa?"
Thando is currently working on a multi-media video installation for a group exhibition titled 'Reaching New Frontiers: Contemporary visual and performing art from South Africa', which will be held in New York's Cathedral of St. John The Divine. Aside from this, he is also contemplating submitting entries to the Brett Kebble Art Awards. "Just more of the same, keeping art on my mind." Also on the cards: a residency in Belgium and a group exhibition titled 'Min(e)dfields', in Basel, Switzerland in early August 2004. After that: "Getting a job."
Thando Mama is an independent artist and founding member of the artists' collective Third Eye Vision. Born 1977, in Butterworth, Eastern Cape.
Received a National Diploma in Fine Art from Technikon Natal (now Durban Institute of Technology) in 1998, followed by Bachelor of Technology in Fine Art in 1999, majoring in Printmaking and Photography.
SELECTED SOLO EXHIBITIONS
2003: 'Back to me' a Young Artists Project (YAP), NSA Gallery, Durban.
SELECTED GROUP EXHIBITIONS
2004: Biennale de l'Art Africaine Contemporaine DAK'ART 2004. Dakar, Senegal; 'A Decade of Democracy: Witnessing South Africa', The Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists. Boston, USA; Second Auckland Triennial: 'Public/ Private Tumatanui/ Tumataiti', Auckland Art Gallery, Auckland, New Zealand
2003: 'Tremor: Contemporary South African Art', Palais des Beaux-Arts de Charleroi, Belgium; 'Thwasa', a collaborative exhibition by Third Eye Vision, NSA Gallery, Durban; MTN New Contemporaries Award; Museum Africa, Johannesburg; 'Homing In', an exhibition of emerging South African artists, Grahamstown National Arts Festival, Grahamstown
2002: Outpost II; US Art Gallery, Stellenbosch
AWARDS & NOMINATIONS
2004: Prix de la Communité Fran?aise de Belgique, 2004 Dakar, Senegal
2003: MTN New Contemporaries Award, MuseumAfrica, Johannesburg
1998: Gauloises Art Competition (Finalist), Grahamstown Festival, Grahamstown, S.A
Iziko: South African National Gallery, Cape Town.
Brenton Maart, 'Curating the Difference', Art South Africa, Cape Town, Vol.02, issue 01, Spring 2003, pp 14-15.
Kathryn Smith (Curator) MTN New Contemporaries awards catalogue. Johannesburg. July 2003.
Khwezi Gule, 'Back to Me', YAP catalogue, September 2002- March 2003, Durban.
Sean O`Toole, 'Fear in Static mantra', Mail & Guardian (Friday Supplement), August 15-21, 2003, Johannesburg. P.4
Virginia MacKenny, 'Bright Young Things', Art South Africa, Cape Town, Vol. 01, issue 03 Autumn 2003. pp 37-45.