5 Questions for Thando Mama

Umhobe we Sizwe
Thando Mama © Palesa Motsomi

In his new multimedia installation Umhobe we Sizwe, on show at GoetheonMain, artist Thando Mama explores notions of nationhood, using the South African national anthem as a research subject.

Thando Mama, which emotions does the national anthem Nkosi Sikelel’iAfrika evoke in you?
Thando Mama: Our national anthem evokes the most deeply seated feeling in me, about my place in this country, about my future in this country and about my past in this country.
Today we look at it as a place that is almost lost; that is to say a feeling of longing, of caring and of remembering the hopes that we will one day be free, regardless of the situation then. So Nkosi Sikelel’iAfrika reenacts the humanity and the feelings of belonging and of being connected to the broader struggles of the African people.
You say the national anthem is a mash-up. Its lyrics are in different South African national languages. Do you think this is a compromise, rather than true unity of the nation?
TM: A unity of the nation will have one voice, and one language. I feel like the compromise has been extended and has run its course. A time for real change for the people is when we recognise that ours is an unfinished story of a unification of a variety of cultures into a contemporary South African society.

How do we go about doing it?

The warring parties need to acknowledge that change is needed and a clear path needs to be established so that it becomes a national effect where all South Africans contribute. Our current national anthem is an interim anthem, and we have not set out to reconcile this nation to the nation that we aspire to be. The issue of the language is important, talking from the perspective of the African unity, the singing of lyrics in both isiXhosa and SeSotho brought Africans closer. What we are faced with today is the question of whether our anthem can represent all the official national languages. It’s not possible. We could encourage, for example, a declaration that the original Nkosi Sikelel’iAfrika is the national anthem, and have translations of it into all of our official languages. We could also look at redefining it, so that its legacy is not lost and its future message brings hope and inspiration for future generations.
How important is remembering the past for South Africans today, and especially for the so-called “born free” generation (those born after 1994)?
TM: One cannot stress enough how important the idea or concept of ‘remembering’ the past is in a South African context; yesterday, today and tomorrow. Yesterday because it is our past, a past that is increasingly being pushed away from today’s generation by many; we know that the history of political struggle tells us who partook in it. But the public acknowledgement is for a select few.
We know that the history of indigenous people’s struggle tells us who those people were and what happened to them, but the public acknowledgement erases their memory; we see that in public spaces in cities like Cape Town.

We know that the history of our heritage in culture and customs tells us who we are and what guides us as a people and as communities, but the public acknowledgement is for those cultures and customs to be looked down upon for the so called ‘democracy’.
Today we are faced with lost memories, erased histories and more; we need access to our own histories, memories and experiences. That process can and will help the so-called “born frees”.

How? By emphasising that the mind is a powerful tool, and memory is an asset to be utilised in life. How do we achieve this? By teaching history, by researching the archives, by promoting our heritage, by engaging our storytelling, by using new media communication tools to empower the “born frees”.

Umhobe We Sizwe – Of Nationhood tries to trigger the subconscious mind, to bring what is concealed by recent history to the fore. At the same time it tries to connect with the contemporary audience of which the youth is the majority.
How did you go about researching your material for the multimedia installation Umhobe we Sizwe?
TM: I started with this project a little over a year ago, mainly with the drawing part, and it developed from there. Later on other layers were added as I conducted further research.

The research part of it was informed by my interest in issues of heritage and memorialization. Because I have been working in the archives, the work itself is more text based than what I would normally work with, thus the layers of text and reworked drawings, prints and vinyl are dominant. This is a four part installation: videos with sound, text on vinyl, drawings and prints. It was a bit of a challenge because the physical material and the approach differ, which I think has had an impact on the presentation of the work. However I was keeping the same theme throughout.

I would say the biggest component of research used is based on archival material.
Your aim with Umhobe we Sizwe is to bring a national debate back to the art space. Has art become unpolitical? And how do you think artists, thought leaders and the general public can be engaged in this discussion?
TM: I think as cultural practitioners we have a mandate to bring issues of national or international importance to a broader community. This project for me is just one part of bringing a national debate to a broader cultural landscape, not just the art space. There is a lot of art that is political, and a lot that is not; some art is directed at individuals or individual critics, some at a political system, but we have not really addressed anything to ourselves as a community or society. The issue of the national anthem is our issue, yet we have not engaged with it. Period. Some people won’t even sing certain parts, others do. But beyond that we have left it to the more extreme ideological groups in our society to define this debate. I think as cultural practitioners or artists we have to come out and raise these issues. We are quiet when it comes to the issues of land, access to housing, access to gated communities. We let things be.

I envision a national debate that is informed by the manifesto of the people and citizens of this country at all levels of policy, legislation etc. The issue of land, the issue of the national anthem, which by my understanding is a transitional work, decided upon by a minority must be dealt with. It is time for us to look at these issues as artists, thought leaders and individuals.  An arts project or exhibition won’t change our situation, but it will sow a seed for change.

Are we open to that idea?

Thando Mama is a South African artist based in Cape Town. He has exhibited widely in South Africa, Senegal, Mali, Europe (Spain; France; United Kingdom, Belgium; Holland; Switzerland; Austria), Middle East (Israel), the United States, Australia and New Zealand. A winner of the Prix de la Communaute Francaise de Belgique at the Biennale de l’Art Africain Contemporain DAK’ART in 2004 and the MTN New Contemporaries award in 2003, he tackles a variety of subjects including black masculinity and the marginality of African subjects.

Umhobe We Sizwe opens at GoetheonMain on 12 March 2015 where it is on show until 20 April 2015.