01 Oct #NewPerspective | Fort Rixon: Art as a Vehicle for History
Scottish Leader, a whisky brand known for their singular richness, recently introduced a new look and reformulated recipe. Inspired by their tagline ‘A New Perspective’ we’re spotlighting five local creatives who embody this notion in their way of working; people who are re-inventing, re-looking and re-interpreting the everyday to question convention.
Zimbabwean born, Cape Town based Kunyalala Ndlovu, better known as Fort Rixon, is a historian first and an artist second. In fact, South African history and culture sits at the very centre of his practise, and art is simply a way for him to communicate his findings. Intent on presenting a new and more all-encompassing perspective of the past, he reads widely and conducts extensive research to uncover and share the stories of historical figures who don’t feature in our high school history books. These characters took centre stage in a recent series, shown as part of his solo show A Heart That Thunders. For these, he repurposed old Cape Times compendiums by using the pages to make screen prints. “I’m always on the lookout for the opportunity to create something great out of something unwanted – just in the same way I work with history,” says Kunyalala. We spoke to him to unpack his unique fascination with South Africa’s untold history and the relevance it holds for the present day.
Growing up in Zimbabwe, you keenly studied the histories of Europe, America, Russia and Asia. What instilled this fascination with the past in you from such a young age?
I’m a historian first, before an artist – I use art as a vehicle but history is my medium. I’m really not interested in much else outside of that. I started learning history from around the age of 7 or 8 if I recall correctly. Just in the form of stories, the odd film and books. Always books. I come from a home packed with books – every room has books. There were always books laying around on history, politics, culture, etc.
The schools I was sent to based their educational systems on the Cambridge examination model. A lot of post colonials went through this system. You’re essentially taught the positive history of the old colonies allies and the negative history of its rivals. For example; you’d learn about the USA in the 20s with all its innovation and the booming economy but then you’d also learn about the Russian revolution or the Vietnam War. You wouldn’t be taught Civil Rights or the rise of Fidel Castro.
I was naturally attracted to what had been left out. It felt odd that I lived in Southern Africa and hardly studied anything that happened here. When I got to my late teens I also saw what Brian Cox was doing with physics and turning what was then viewed as a very boring and geeky subject into something cool for young people. I hope to achieve the same thing for African history one day.
Your moniker, Fort Rixon, attests to this – based on the former military outpost during the British occupation of what was then Rhodesia. What personal significance does this hold?
Everybody in Southern Africa (if not Africa!) has a story to tell about displacement, land loss or land gain. So that’s the connection for me in Fort Rixon and its establishment as a British military outpost during the second Matabele uprising in 1896. This place had been around for ages before the British arrived – in fact it was one of the original Ndebele domains after their arrival from South Africa, known as eMakhandeni.
Personally we have some family links to Fort Rixon. What happened was that one day a settler came and told everyone to leave, and that was that. I often think about how arbitrarily cultures are uprooted or destroyed in history. It goes deeper as well, I know that some (if not all) of my closest friends who I grew up had their own experience of this, but whether it was negative or positive was decided by colour, class or tribe.
Many young people in Southern Africa don’t care about their history and I find that really disturbing. They feel as though it’s this mad distant thing that can only be experienced through Exclusive Books, museums and terrible Hollywood films. It’s the height of ignorance. Unfortunately that’s kind of the tragedy of Southern Africa – the history of this place always goes back to land and what came out of it. A lot of our problems could be solved if we just dared to stare our real past dead in the eye and dig it out from the roots.
South African history and culture form the focus of your current practise. Tell us about the visual archive you’re creating around this, and how you engage with the past to create new perspectives on how we understand ourselves today?
History and its cultivation is an incredible form of soft power and that, in turn, is influence. For me it really stems from experiencing a lot of other cultures and realising the gaps in your own culture. I’ll give you an example. A couple of weeks ago the Queen celebrated 86 years on the throne and is Britain’s longest running monarch. What struck me as crazy was the fact that when reported in global news they just refer to her as “The Queen” and the whole world already knows they mean the Queen of England. They know this because everything that’s around the idea of royalty and monarch is pre-loaded into our psyche. Do people never question how that idea got there? That’s years and years of cultivation, archiving, storytelling, learning and adapting from your past and fusing it into your nation’s future.
You take South Africa in the opposite light and I can guarantee you that the average young person couldn’t even name all the kings and chiefs of the tribes still alive today. They can name all of the dead ones because that’s the only history we saw fit to keep. The end of the Zulu Kingdom, Xhosa Kingdom, seTswana, etc. suddenly brings the end of the idea that anything royal and African can be taken seriously. But we’ll watch Downton Abbey with all its Lords and Barons because that’s the idea we stick to, when in actual fact it represents something wholly unrealistic to our environment.
Perhaps it’s just shame. People don’t want to admit where they come from, but I feel this should be celebrated. This all stems from the fact that people just don’t know their history and aren’t inclined to learn about it. So for me it all came from trying to fill that hole. I’d see Punk bands in America and I’d be like man that’d be great if Southern Africa had its own history of Punk. Well guess what? It does, and it sounds even better than the real thing – that’s where the idea came about for my show No Where To Go No! So that’s what my work is and keeps developing in the direction of. In the future I’d want young people to look into their own history and be like “Wow, we really do have our own story, not just the one we are told.” That’s the goal!
In the artist statement for your solo show The Heart That Thunders at SMITH Studio, you said, “I seek out the rarest, the ugliest and the darkest. I blow the dust off these disparate pieces and breathe new life into stories by creating alternative Africana – visually accessible to all people and faithful to the story they tell.” Tell us more about your aim with this exhibition, the research you conducted and the pieces of “alternative Africana” you created as a result.
So in the realms of academia Africana is defined as “books, artefacts, and other collectors’ items connected with Africa, especially Southern Africa”. It’s quite crazy that you have whole book shops on Long Street that pride themselves on selling rare Africana. In the Victorian Age, Africa was such an exotic place and it was the fashionable thing to collect, display and exhibit anything from Africa. Mostly rooted in natural sciences, animals, culture, artefacts and in some cases actual people, such as Sarah Baartman. It was/still is an incredibly lucrative practice. If you travel to museums around the world today you’ll see a lot of those elements still on display.
My interest points in Southern African history however are rooted in the elements that are barely visible or typically unknown. History to me is like a theatre production, except we are not seeing all the characters and we keep inviting the same guys onto the stage over and over again. I just want to give the other stories their time in the limelight. So all the work created that’s rooted in this history are stories that you’d have to dig deeper for – Sarah Raal, Arthur Ginsburg, Robert Baden Powell, Barney Barnato, etc. These characters tended to be outsiders which makes their stories even more interesting.
For example, I have a piece in there based on Glenda Kemp, the infamous snake strip tease dancer. Older generations remember her as the sort of risqué lady from the 70s who shocked conservative society in general. I’d see her story more as the outrider to many individuals’ lifestyle choices, particularly with regards to gender and sexual politics which are now incredibly touchy but important subjects in our public discourse. Those to me those are two totally different angles. People sometimes take that for granted. We take for granted that a 14 year old girl had a voice that nearly destroyed a nation. We don’t even think about where Chappies come from and yet they were helping to aid a very basic problem in Southern Africa with the simplest of solutions. Were it not for crazy stories like that, the dialogues that occur almost daily may not be happening at all. Alternative Africana needs to exist to enlighten people about how we got here – perhaps if we start to understand that, we can rethink the ways we solve the problems surrounding us in Southern Africa today. Every answer we need is already in our past!
As part of this new body of work we saw you use newsprint in an unusual way. How do you go about repurposing these historic documents into something that holds relevance for the present day?
A natural by-product of being a historian and an artist is that you become a collector, or an archivist if you will. I have the weirdest collections of things like books, stickers, notepads and letters. Generally I’m always on the lookout for the opportunity to create something great out of something unwanted – just in the same way I work with history.
I went into a book shop in Woodstock that actually sells Cape Times compendiums (essentially a collection of newspapers over a period of 6 months or more) that are in 80 – 120 year mark. A lot of these are collector’s editions – for example during the Anglo-Boer War. They’re incredible pieces of culture as back then everything deemed important in society was documented in the paper.
The one I bought had actually been picked up off a rubbish heap! Firstly, they were massive, roughly A1 size a sheet – which makes a perfect canvas for a big piece. For printmaking, newsprint is the best quality paper as it has maximum absorption on the thinnest type of paper. I was discussing this with Wim Legrand at Black River Studio whom I worked with in producing these prints, and he made mention of the irony that newspapers last so long when they really only need to pass living a day. That makes me think how useless the internet actually can be, as the moment you put something out there it just gets swallowed up by the noise. A newspaper lasts until it is physically destroyed. And consider how often we use newspapers for just about everything – it has to be the most useful type of paper there is in a developing society. A lot of these newspaper surfaces were also very informative of the time and culture they were printed in. With the team of guys who helped me during this project, we were really shocked at the level of casual classism, racism, antifeminism, and all other ism’s you could imagine that were perfectly normal at the time and were present in ads, columns and features in the paper.
It was also incredibly interesting to see what the world looked like missing some of the main players and events we’ve only ever known. Words like Mandela, Mr Price, Apartheid, Rock & Roll, Racism, Hitler, Zimbabwe, Teenager, United Nations or the ANC only showed up decades later. Photography was generally a newish thing in Southern Africa and so was driving. Rent was insanely cheap. Most logos were printed using lino blocks, and generally adverts were either for cars, record players, soap, cigarettes or medicine for your feet. To get a decent job you essentially had to be a mature white man, or a strong young white boy. Women didn’t have too many opportunities advertised back then. Literally nothing for any people of colour. So I hoped the viewer would be forced into some kind of introspection to see what their world looked like without all the characters and events we take for granted but who’ve shaped us today. A kind of visual counter-factualism.
In addition to the newsprint drawings you work across the mediums of film, painting, print making and embroidered silk. What do you enjoy about this multidisciplinary approach?
It’s really important that I can reach all kinds of audiences. This is something I’m honestly still trying to figure out daily and I have to honest with myself. If my goal is to reach the greatest number of people (which it most certainly is!) I have to be incredibly versatile. Some of my artworks have to be able to go up in a home whose owner may not have all the language or the understanding of the high end art world. I wouldn’t want that to be a barrier to the story because the history of Southern Africa is both at the top of the mountain and in the deepest corners of the flats and beyond. Because of this some of my work has to be super straight forward in its visual quality and a lot more immediate to understand. Other work can contain more detail, perhaps aimed at someone who might go and read up on it afterwards. My work is taking me into film and bigger projects and that has always been quite an easy, universal medium. In the future I’d want to produce feature length films, radio shows and write books. As my output becomes more varied I’ll be able to reach more people. My work has always been a service for the people.
How important are spontaneity, experimentation and incorporating new elements in your art-making process?
I’m quite open to all of the above but I do keep some non-negotiables in place to try and maintain a standard. Generally I try to create something new every day and to read something new every day. I always place diamonds in my work to remind people of the influence of diamonds in our society and culture. The rest will just follow if I use that to create a consistency in my practice.
Ultimately, what role or responsibility do you see yourself having as an artist?
To challenge the Zeitgeist of thought and make it better, to contribute to the culture and, through making great work, kill the noise emanating from characters who are just subtracting from culture through poor work and ideas.
What’s next on your horizon?
I’ll be releasing another film in mid-October which I’m looking forward to. My next project entitled Until The Lion Learns To Speak will be released by the end of October. It’s almost done and I’m quite excited for this!