Jabu Nadia Newman and her fictional girl gang The Foxy Five are all about smashing South Africa’s labyrinth of structural oppression. After the #FeesMustFall movement swept across local universities, she put her degree in politics, film and media at UCT on hold to focus on her personal creative output. Between art directing music videos and collaborating on photo series’ and fashion films, Jabu’s also been busy with what promises to be a seriously kickass web show about intersectionality and feminism, and will certainly be the first of its kind to come out of Cape Town.
Jabu’s work is striking to behold, and her constantly shifting pool of inspirations – from the iconic Frida Kahlo to French New Wave cinema – lends to her pop culture-esque aesthetic. More importantly, she’s conscious about the messages she puts forward, ensuring that her creative projects are underpinned by a distinctly African narrative and speak to topics relevant to the here and now.
So you were studying film and politics up until quite recently. How do your personal politics carry through into your work?
I was studying Politics, Film and Media Studies at UCT and was halfway through my degree when I decided to take 6 months off to invest in my own ideas. So I am supposed to go back in August but I’m probably gonna extend that time off to a year to complete my web series The Foxy Five.
After the Fees Must Fall movement, which inspired me and my work invaluably, I couldn’t bring myself to go back to an institution like UCT. So in a way my politics have influenced my work directly by giving me the opportunity to focus solely on my work. As much as I appreciate what I learned about politics when I actually studied it, my work is based more on the new politics that have risen over the past two years. New concepts that I have learned from fellow students and peers, and of course my personal politics formed from my own experiences.
Recently young people have been the drivers of important conversations around issues of identity, history and politics. What do you think is behind the resurgence of youth activism in this generation?
I think the resurgence of political activism has come from a generation who have access to a lot more than their parents did, but still not enough. With the rise of the internet the youth have access to more knowledge and I believe that we have truly surpassed our parents when it comes to understanding the world. The youth are able to compare the growth of South Africa’s democracy to their personal growth. I was born in 1994 and when I compare how I’ve grown in the past 22 years to how things in SA have changed, I realise that a lot more still needs to be done. What I appreciate the most and what gives me tremendous hope in this generation is the fact that we no longer seek to live up to Western ideals and standards. Instead, we want to create our own moral and just society through a new understanding of decolonisation on many levels, and we recognise the need for constant growth and change. We are learning that we need to start thinking about 101 things at the same time and see the connections through different struggles and oppressions.
In your opinion, does creativity have the power to bring about meaningful change in South Africa? How so?
Creativity is able to drive revolution and evoke change as much as love is. When you study art you learn how different movements throughout art history arise from artists all over the world coming up with similar methods of painting and parallel concepts at roughly the same time, even when separated by oceans. I believe this has happened now, and while we could give the internet credit I feel as though it’s deeper than that. People are instinctively creative, the internet has just given us more resources and platforms to fuel our creativity. Creativity sparks courage in others to express themselves and to believe in their ideas. And what could be more revolutionary that people wanting to be themselves?
We’re really excited for the launch of your web series, The Foxy Five. Give us the rundown – what’s it all about?
I started writing The Foxy Five last year during the Fees Must Fall protests. I was learning all these new ideas and concepts and was interested in how they related to real life. There are tons of YouTube videos with a person standing in front of the camera and directly explaining things to the audience. I wanted to make a more fictional version of these videos, whereby you follow the lives of five womxn who deal with issues of intersectional feminism. I find that intersectional feminism is really hard to explain because it encompasses so many things, so I don’t know why I took up the challenge to try to show it, but I did. There’s so much more to be said about the series, but I hope that comes from many different black womxn around the world once it’s been aired.
Dirty Laundry, the feminist fashion film you co-directed with Junk & Disorderly’s Grace de Kroon, places strong black women at the centre of the story. Can you talk to us a bit about representation in art and the media and why it’s so essential?
So Dirty Laundry was co-produced by myself and Grace de Kroon – I directed and she art directed. Representation in the media is very important, and it’s especially important to have African representation. It’s necessary for different understandings of beauty to be acknowledged and accepted, because a lot of what we put out into the world inspires others. Therefore if we wanna keep the creative scene fresh and unstifled, we need to be constantly pushing new ideas. And most importantly, we need to show the young children of Africa that they are all beautiful and enough.
African stories are often portrayed through a Western lens. Do you think this damages our local narrative? Why is it so important for creatives to tell their own stories?
Right now most African stories are told through a Western lens, albeit an African American lens, but this in itself is still dangerous. Nobody else has lived our experiences, so why would they be able to understand our pain or think they have the right to tell our stories? African knowledge has been passed down vocally through stories and songs and we need to get back to a place of sharing knowledge through these mediums because unfortunately all of our “history” lies in books that we don’t have access to and can’t understand. We also need to take ownership of and protect our customs, and make sure that we’re represented in the right ways.
Your pool of influences includes Frida Kahlo, Tarantino and Salvador Dali. How do you draw inspiration from art and film legends while reinforcing a distinctly South African aesthetic?
Frida Kahlo, Tarantino and Salvador Dali were inspirations for particular projects, but I wouldn’t say they are major influences on my work. My influences change constantly so as of this moment I’m very inspired by French New Wave films, classic 60s cinema and musicals. The African inspiration and aesthetic comes from my surroundings, particularly the people I spend time with. I am very inspired by the way others embrace their Africanness and how they portray it to the world. I’m interested in showing a new view of what it means to be African, while being open about the fact that I’m still figuring it out for myself. My family’s history is filled with stories of rape on slave ships, adopting identities to avoid forced removals, and other disconcerting acts of survival in Apartheid-era South Africa, and I still need to figure out how to understand and come to terms with that. Our Africanness is becoming so complex because we’re learning how to decolonise fully and bring original African teachings into this new age.
You’ve worked on a wide range of projects in Cape Town, from art directing music videos to shooting collaborative photo series. In your experience, is the creative scene in CT quite interconnected, or is it tricky to build a network of young artists to work with?
Building a network is hard, but being in spaces where you meet others is important. For me those spaces were university and the internet. Once you’ve found people you gel with and work productively with, you need to focus on building your creative relationships and building each other up. Collaboration is important but only for the right reasons. I don’t wanna collaborate just because I like what someone does, it needs to happen naturally or grow out of an idea that can only be achieved with the creative skills and/or influence of others. I am getting a lot of people messaging me now saying “Hey, I like your work. We should collaborate!” and I remember being that person, so I always reply and acknowledge their interest. However I’m weary about working with just anyone because that’s how your vision gets desaturated or misplaced. Cape Town is bursting with new photographers, filmmakers and all sorts of creatives and that’s never a bad thing as long as we support each other instead of competing against one another, and continue to add to the pool of ideas rather than copying what’s been done before.
What challenges face emerging creatives in South Africa?
The main challenges creatives face are money-related, access to resources, and probably authenticity because often people think that originality and money are mutually exclusive so they’re constantly looking at what’s gonna sell. That’s why you get new streetwear brands popping up all the time putting out crewnecks and t-shirts with a basic logo and no interesting or ingenuous design. And then what follows is street photographers taking pictures of these brands at Artscape and Bokaap. We need to differentiate between the people who want to make money off of being creative, and those who are naturally creatively inclined. Or maybe I’m just being naïve and don’t yet understand the “hustle” involved in being a creative for a living.
What is unique, exciting or encouraging about being young in our country today?
The world is focusing on Africa right now, and as a young creative in South Africa it’s very exciting and promising. This time we’re gonna make sure we’re the ones running the show and calling the shots.
What will the legacy of today’s youth be?
I feel like we’re at the beginning of a renaissance whereby most people will be multi-talented and creativity will have to play a role in everything you do even if you’re an accountant. We might also be the last generation to live on Earth. Shit, I really don’t know.
What do you hope to achieve through your art? What matters most to you?
I strive to evoke joy through my art, and to put forward a sense of satisfaction, belonging and meaning for my own life and for others. What matters most to me is how I feel about my work and the process of it, and if I stay true to that it’s inevitable that others will relate and feel the same way.
Photographs of Jabu by Gabriella Achadinha.
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