For the past few years we’ve been running an annual series known as ‘Young South Africa‘ to coincide with National Youth Month in June. And so, for the month to come we’ll be taking a look at some talented young creatives as well as the projects that document youth culture in South Africa.
To kick things off this year, we have Sibs Shongwe-La Mer. The prolific 22 year old is a filmmaker, photographer and musician. In 2013 he founded The Whitman Independent – a youth art retailer, filmhouse, gallery and publisher – and he is just about to start production on his first feature film ‘Territorial Pissings’.
We spoke to Sibs to find out more:
Your artistic output spans photography, film, music and writing. Did you grow up in a creative environment, or one where creativity was actively encouraged?
I wouldn’t say I grew up in a particularly creative environment. More the opposite. I grew up in the Northern Suburbs of Johannesburg and I suppose the lack of anything to get up to or anything critically engaging made me spend as much time as I could trying to escape it. As a kid it was small things like riding my bike around the pool and believing it was a race track or some kinda far out space cruiser.
In my pre-teens it became excessive television and by my teens it became music, porn and skateboarding in a big way. Everything seemed ultra-sterile and people all seemed to prefer it that way. Nice houses, good schools…the kinda neighbourhood where everyone knows everyone and people felt a sense of comfort in a boomed middle class oasis. I knew real early on that I would have to find a way to combat the feeling that nothing was going anywhere by preoccupying my time somehow.
My parents didn’t encourage it like “Oh yeah…do that! Great! Nice Pasta Painting” although they didn’t discourage it either. So I spent heaps of time in my room making a bunch of junk…and I suppose it’s pretty much the same now. Making stuff has always had this super fantastical quality for me. You’re not here or there…and that really helps me stay alright with things. Which is good.
How did you come to be where you are today?
Man, if I knew where I was today I wouldn’t feel this compulsion to make shit to figure that out. But career wise I can’t really tell for sure. There wasn’t a definitive action that changed the game, or a path or epiphany I followed purposefully to achieve a particular outcome. I just get up every morning at around 5am and start running thoughts in my head…looking at things, watching people, trying to make an observation. Most days it’s no good but every now and then something clicks and I’m able to be honest with myself about how I feel about people, my environment and myself or I’m able to find a meaningful way to convey how I experience things.
I’ve left my life open to experiences instead of trying to normalise my life or condemn my curiosities. I think that’s a really important thing to aspire to as an artist. I know as much about Christmas at cheap strip clubs in Hillbrow as I do about falling for a girl in a boarding room in Paris. These dualities I cherish.
My work is more about looking around and when something real fucked up or special happens, I try my best to replicate or explore that. I’ve been burnt a couple of times in this pursuit but I like to believe I’m achieving something. If not artistically, then personally at the very least. I think people tend to respond to honesty or vulnerability. We all feel these in some way. Society does this in private. I think artists are just responsible for exposing themselves publicly. I try my best to do that, and the less contrived it gets the better the results so far.
Tell us a bit about your feature film, Territorial Pissings. You’re about to start reshooting it?
Yeah. I’ve been real blessed over the past year to receive a lot of support and encouragement from The Venice International Film Festival, Locarno Film Festival, Cannes and other institutions and persons in the European film circuit. The greatest blessing has been getting the picture reproduced by Urucumedia and working with my new film producer Elias Ribeiro.
To cut a long story short I first wrote a feature script on the subject when I was about 16 or so, after the suicide of a girlfriend. Since then I’ve been writing various features playing with the idea of the first generation of free South Africans living in suburbia. I knew a lot of kids who came from “good homes” that hung themselves in garages, blew their brains out or overdosed and I’ve been trying to figure out why ever since. So I kept on writing these scripts and trying to sell the screenplay to companies since I was about 18 and everyone was like “There’s nothing here kid, go to film school”. Even then, I kept believing there was a really important story within that could show a side to South Africa not yet seen in the cinema and unknown to the general population.
So a year and a bit ago I wrote Territorial Pissings as a short and decided to make it super low-fi film with some friends of mine using whatever we could get out hands on. Soon I realised there was enough footage for a feature and started experimenting with sound, stills and I tackled the edit more from an art perspective than a movie. Eventually I got to this weird mini feature that I was quite keen on and I started sending it to any festival that would allow me to apply for free. Venice picked it up and everything got a bit nuts from then on. I went to Italy, then Paris for a while, I moved to Berlin for a bit and had work exhibited, I then came back home for Christmas (at the aforementioned strip club, which was depressing) and there were a lot of people around the world really excited for me to become a feature director and make Territorial Pissings as my first feature. So this year I rewrote the movie for the final time and we’re now preparing to shoot it on a movie budget with movie gear and movie people. Which is still nuts for me.
What else influences and informs your work?
I think the kinda stuff that people generally get influenced by in their lives, be it artistically or intimately. I’m friends with some really inspiring people like my roommate Dion Monti who’s an artist and musician and my main squeeze Emma Tollman who is a playwright. So I suppose their lives and thoughts and work influences me in many ways subconsciously. I can never really tell where anything is coming from but I’m relatively conscious of where I wanna take it most times. Otherwise, I’m influenced thematically by old movies, sex, suicides, music, Kafka, Camus, boredom, love, loss, failure, fears of my future, when something gentle happens in the world and I’m there, scenery, insomnia, manic depression, stillness, restlessness, death, life, my non-existent relationships with people, my existing relationships with people, Allen Ginsberg, impulsivity, rage, noise, absence of noise.
What is your earliest film-related memory?
Watching Bambi while my parents had a dinner party. It was a traumatic picture but I think it was good for me. I had relatively good parents, though my brain just seems more inclined to bank the weirder stuff.
Looking at your early work, what has changed or developed since?
I like to think nothing has changed besides that recently I’ve been able to pay my bills doing it, instead of getting told that it’s late and people have work in the morning. I think fundamentally it’s all still coming from the same place. Although it gets more complicated when there are companies and professionals involved. There’s also a heightened sense of pressure. Before I used to just do it with a “Fuck it…no one really cares” mentality that gives one a different kinda of jaded freedom. I try my best not to overthink it but sometimes it’s hard to turn off that voice seeking acceptance, questioning whether it’s good or not. When people respond you kinda wanna keep them happy or engage your audience. I prefer to read good reviews instead of someone writing how shit you are.
You work predominantly in black and white. Why?
Man…I think it’s because it’s the language of the pictures I love. I don’t really find myself responding to the contemporary cinema as much as the earlier classic works. I don’t go to movie houses often as sad as that is to admit, so contemporary conventions aren’t too applicable to me. I prefer to screen at home a lot so the pictures that influence me are from the forgotten age. I’ve spent most of my time trying to catch up and figure out how cinema has progressed. Lang, Goddard, Bergman, Truffaut, Man Ray and other early masters get me really excited about the potential of cinema as an art form a lot more than film directors like Tarantino do.
I’m captivated by the black and white palette and its place in the history of cinema. So at this time it doesn’t seem to make sense to make anything in colour. Not to say colour photography has no value, it’s more that it’s not where I’m at now. I’m not against it as purist, I definitely think I would if it seemed appropriate to the work. But now I’m more in love with the artistry of it. And I suppose the last time people were really throwing the book out the window and playing, it was all black and white.
In 2013 you co-founded The Whitman Independent. Part of the collective’s statement is to “stimulate a diaologue about how contemporary art can become a positive and sophisticated influence on cultural consciousness.” How does The Whitman go about this?
We really just try and encourage the idea of creating something that feels real to the artist and is relevant to the audience. I know personally that at times I feel really jaded by contemporary art when it’s all about intellect and individual process. It seems too often people just make for the sake of making and don’t think of the potential art has to mirror the times. It fails to go further than a glass of wine at a gallery for me most of the time. I think in some way, because when you’re out there trying to produce works that are outside of the commercial norm, it’s perceived to be unmarketable, unsellable and thus invaluable. Things start to get disheartening and tough when you wanna say something but there’s no place for it.
The idea came about when I realised that most if not all of the treasured artistic movements I admire were started by like-minded individuals who truly believed in the ideals and commentary; communicating their impressions of their environment, societies, themselves and a space in time. When people collectively went against the grain turning one work into a revolution in the medium or generating the next step in cultural consciousness. This could be said about Kerouac, Ginsberg and the beats as much as it could be said about the existentialists, La Nouvelle Vague, Punk and No-wave music and cinema. We try house screenings or exhibit whenever we can with whatever we can pull together to kinda expose those left of the youth art scene and to get people thinking and talking a bit.
You’ve spoken before about a new-wave of African artists. Who are some of these people and what is common amongst them?
There are a lot to mention. Wouldn’t be fair to compose a definitive list or claim to know everything that’s going on. I think the biggest commonality is that artists are starting to think about Africa, creativity and their place in the world in different ways and are producing large quantities of art that reflects a progressive mentality. Our colonial history, racial adversity and euro-centricity alone create some super interesting material that young artists are starting to tap into and explore.
There’s a Mcdonalds on the corner from me and 20 minutes down the stretch is a township where you can get a cows head in the Kasi real cheap. There are a lot of very exciting dualities about this time in Africa’s history that young artists are able to exploit. Koos sold out an exhibition on Instagram and Mack was in Paris uploading stills the same time I was in Berlin putting self-produced records on soundcloud. Everything’s changing at hyper-speed and I think young Africans really have some of the most interesting things to say.
What do you think defines South African Youth Culture?
Nothing really, and I think that’s a great thing.
Where to from here? Any projects in the pipeline?
Well first I’ve got to finish Territorial Pissings which starts shooting in a couple of days. I’ve got some experimental video art works at The National Arts Festival, we’re off to Switzerland to participate in The Locarno International Film Festival in August then a lot of travelling within the next year to promote the film and screen it.
In terms of projects there’s a lot of stuff I’m scribbling and playing around with, which time will allow me to complete. I’ve started development on my second feature film with Urucumedia called Colour Of The Skull, hopefully I can get that process moving once my first feature is out. I’ve written the plots for my next 3 films so that’s gonna keep me preoccupied film-wise for a really long time considering territorial has been a 7 year process. I got a couple of photographic and multimedia bodies of work I haven’t yet shown in South Africa and some that I’m still working on. A lot of unfinished records to attend to that I’m hoping to release at some point. I also really wanna challenge myself to write a collection of short stories and produce more sound and installation art.
Ah, I don’t know man, my main problem is that I just go all over the place in my head and have a childlike attitude to my work. I’m constantly in a war to prioritise more than looking for things to do. My producers and girlfriend try their best to keep my activities limited, to no avail. I also try sometimes but I’ve been working with me longer than they have so I don’t bother anymore. I just told myself that if I die in the next 20 years…I’m fucked.
For more of Sibs’ work, visit: sibsshongwelamer.com