“I get up in the morning
and dress up like a gentleman –
A white shirt, a tie and a suit.”
With this dressing up ceremony Mbuyiseni Oswald Mtshali begins his poem Always a Suspect, which describes an ordinary day of a black man in the streets of apartheid South Africa, constantly suspected as intruder or as a criminal.
“Ha! Ha! I know who you are;
beneath those fine clothes
ticks the heart of a thief.”
Mtshali sharply points out the role that ‘a tie and a suit’ plays in local socio-political dynamics, where millions of men have to navigate minefields of false assumptions.
Fifty years after the poem was written, apartheid was replaced with democracy, yet both the suspicion and the suit maintain their roles. This reality inspires the ‘born free’ artist Lesiba Mabitsela to investigate the politics of the suit and the tie in the South African context. The promising young artist is diving deep into the meanings of male fashion in the post-colonial environment, using both academic research and art practice.
“I research how men take fashion as a tool for social mobility. African slaves took clothing in order to be considered as fully human. If you are looked at as being savage, the first port of becoming civilised is clothing. I study the characteristics embodied in the suit, which becomes a symbol of masculinity.”
He first developed an interest in the theme when studying fashion design at Tswana University of Technology. “There is too much European influence in African fashion in the first place. World fashion swallows native clothing and makes you think that Western fashion-making is universal and superior. I was hoping that by the end of that degree I will come up with a range of clothing that reflects production techniques that are of African descent. My approach was very naive.”
After working in the fashion industry for a while, he is back in academia, as a Masters fellow of UCT Institute for Creative Arts. In the meantime he was warmly received as performance artist in the Cape Town public art circles. His reception on the streets of Cape Town was quite the opposite. “Coming from a protected space in Joburg to Cape Town I experienced myself as ‘just a black person’. This is the worst place to discover that you are black.”
A good window into his thesis was provided in an installation he created for the 2017 ICA Live Art Festival, presented in late February at 6 Spin Street restaurant in Cape Town. Under the title Black Tie Store Opening Lesiba brings together fashion design and performance “to address issues of de-coloniality and memory in our everyday existence.”
Entering the space just in time, I take a seat and watch two video screens playing a cheerful video of a tailor working on garments. As anticipation builds up, the video is replaced with fast edited black and white imagery of gentlemen from film noir and Dolce & Gabbana ads. The soundscape is replaced with disturbing sounds of beating slaves, smacking women, sex. Together the audio-visuals mix violence with consumerism, linking rape to sports cars, slavery to perfumes, high heels to torture.
A model comes into the space, walks between the four rows of chairs where audience is seated. The setting resembles a fashion show. Unlike the Men Fashion Week, the model is intimately close to us, the audience, without the distance usually created by a stage. This allows seeing the details of his garment, and also the details of his body. He is not trying to look happy or sexy, he doesn’t smile or try to please us, he walks like a ghost, as if unaware of us looking at him. That is until the model occasionally creates long eye contact with an audience member, breaking another convention of the fashion world. The power structure of the gaze is disrupted.
“I reference a fashion show, which is a place of performance, where we model human beings. The audience in fashion shows also performs, a social performance, like who sits in the front row.”
What looks from first glance as big earphones resting on his neck, is actually a neatly tied black rope, throwing me into connotations of suicide or lynching execution. In his hands is a bible. He is dressed in a long and elegant skirt, which turns out to be a half-skirt when I see his back. He wears a one sleeve jacket, with no shirt underneath.
My mind drifts to our conversation, when Lesiba mentioned how in his search for African fashion-making, he finds beauty in fault and mistakes. “The Sotho blanket is a good example. The red mark on it was originally a fault. We like faults. It’s not the perfection that we like or find aesthetically beautiful, but also the non-perfection. It’s a different way of appreciating things.”
“Decolonising is almost seen as anti, defacing. My process is like a design protest: rejecting or unlearning all the stuff that I’ve learned and trying new methods. It is harder than you think, somewhat impossible. It’s like unlearning English or writing a curriculum in isiZulu – and still following an English structure. I take a blanket, that represents something traditional, but shape it so it fits into the European mould and look of a suit. Is that adding to the cannon of global fashion, what European fashion does to any form of native clothing?”
As for the black tie which is promised in the performance title, he says “Calling it a store opening leaves space for irony – what does the black tie mean? The noose becomes our black tie. The more we go into that world, we kill our Africaness, for lack of an alternative, adequate and equivalent name.” He mentions that just across the road from the show venue, Church Square, was a site of slave trade and a graveyard.
After the first model finishes his long and tense walkabout, Lesiba himself comes out, almost naked. He too has a black rope tied around his neck. He wears a golden Jock strap with long and heavy tube of grey blanket fabric hanging between his thighs. Here it is, the missing sleeve! In his hand is frankincense in a thurible, used in Catholic churches. He hums “come let us adore him”. I feel uncomfortable when he creates striking eye contact. I am considering whether to look away or smile, but neither feels right, so I hide into my notes and my camera for the rest of the show. As his bare and oily behinds face me, I can’t help but checking them out. Now I remember that he said before the show that it will be provocative. He makes himself vulnerable. To speak honestly about masculinity does require a metaphoric undressing. As much as it is social, it is highly personal.
“When you talk about masculinity, the discussion is highly sexual from the get go. I explore how masculinity performs. In your quest of becoming a man you are confronted with contradicting images: men going to the mountain, then assuming the identity of a man as the colonial figure, the master. How does the suit dictate the way you are treated? How does it say what type of a man you are? We still see ourselves as half men. My father is Phedi but he doesn’t identify as Phedi in the traditional sort of way. He is Roman Catholic. My brother and I never interacted with our cultural traditions.”
Between the rows of seats are tables with messy piles of leftover fabric. Those are usually hidden in the studios and workshops, away from the consumers, but here they are placed in the centre of the space.
“I want to discuss off-cuts, like ‘negative space’ in visual art. The idea of waste becomes important – what do we cut away from blackness?”
After Lesiba finishes his round, three almost naked models walk out towards us with similar jock straps and similar misplaced sleeves turned mega-dicks. Here the black rope motif is taken one step further – the three are tied to each other, with unavoidable reference to slave chains. Or perhaps an S&M foreplay? I recognise scenes from the Stanley Kubrick’s erotic film ‘Eyes Wide Shut’. More horror sounds beat us from the speakers.
I ask Lesiba how does he define himself, coming from fashion design and now working in arts. “It’s a power thing to separate art and design. Fashion designers haven’t been considered as artists. Fashion is perceived as superficial thing, mass produced products. Yet pictures in Crazy Store are called art. We need to embrace change and interdisciplinarity. I was questioned if I am an artist, people like calling me a designer. I call myself an interdisciplinary artist”.
After experiencing this installation, I admit he takes this definition very seriously – playing almost with every medium possible: he sings, performs, designs, saws, edits video and sound. He also masters the art of moulding audience participation. At that point I realise the clever manipulation curated by Lesiba (with the help of Richard September) – he uses us, the audience, as part of his installation. In my head I compliment him for a brilliant engineering of audience – when we are sitting around, not in one group, the power of our gaze is divided and conquered by the artist. That’s how he manages to make us feel embarrassed when we are sitting dressed and he walks around almost naked.
The setting allows us as audience members also to see each other, our facial expressions are awkward, unpleasant and disturbed, like witnessing an accident. To the sound of moaning, with an ass in your face, you make an eye contact with a familiar face sitting across the room – will you smile and gesture a ‘hi’ like in any other cultural event?
Signalling the end of the show, all the models come out walking faster than before, throwing another reminder to a fashion runway. When they finally disappear, the video fades away, but the sound remains. Whether it is a technical error or intentional choice, it wisely prevents the customary applause from cutting the strong sensation of the performance.
I sit there wishing my man was there to see it. After about twenty minutes, the video resumes towards what looks like a second round of the performance. I’m very happy when my wish is fulfilled and my man walks into the space and sits next to me. Not long into the show, he is chosen by the first model, for the long eye contact treatment. I notice how embraced he is, and I can’t wait to see his response to the jock strap. He doesn’t give me the satisfaction, and walks out.
I stay alone for the whole second round, feeling disappointed. Maybe the multi layered critical content that Lesiba has crafted gives me intellectual pleasure, but is too much for the men who this work is really about.