"Art for walls is sometimes overrated" / Rangoato Hlasane, Across the Atlantic

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{image: © Rangoato Hlasane / Don’t Fuck With Me I have Five Wives (Polygamy) 2010 / Pigment ink on 100% cotton rag / 42 x 59.4 cm / Edition of 15}

Rangoato Hlasane: Across the Atlantic
by Kameelah Rasheed (Intern, The Liberator Magazine)

“I have no intentions of spending time in [an] isolated studio making images for galleries as a devotion or career... I really do feel that art for walls is sometimes overrated. I feel that it creates disillusions [sic]. I make art, and I find value in the process; it is a method for my sanity, my reflection on things and a chance to imagine a different world. I hope that my work does that, enables... contemplation on things.”
-Rangoato Hlasane

I first met Ra in 2006 when I was doing research in Johannesburg, South Africa as an Amy Biehl Fulbright Scholar. I’d decided to take a break from research and enroll in printmaking school at the Artist Proof Studio. I don’t remember all the details of our meeting, but distinctly remember Ra’s warm and encouraging spirit. Ra and I have stayed in touch over the years. He was gracious enough to take the time and discuss his art, community organizing, and inspirations for his work through an email interview with us:

Liberator Mag: Who is Mphapho Rangoato Hlasane?—Where did you grow up? What are your folks like? Where did you go to school?

Rangoato Hlasane: I was born and raised in a small village called Laastehoop in rural Ga-Molepo, Polokwane, South Africa--a setting for the late Phaswane Mpe’s Welcome to Our Hillbrow. Greenery, dusty roads, mountains, beautiful valleys and stunning sunsets.

I graduated from St. Bede High in 1998, a Catholic school located in an idyllic monastery about an hour away from my village. It was a privilege for me, because all the schools in my village were under-resourced, lacked inspiration and struggled to attract good teachers. Amongst the usual Valentine's Day, St. Bede's Day, Inter-house and Inter-Catholic Highs athletics, weekly mass, we had committed teachers.

Each year, we had American volunteer teachers from Georgetown University, which was kinda fresh for such an isolated village. Minus the politics, the experience expanded our worldview in a major way. One teacher in particular, Jenka Soderberg, radically changed my life. She was an English teacher who would play us Public Enemy, Peter Tosh and Wu-Tang during class. She would print out the lyrics for us. She would make her own clothes. She would hang out with us instead of her fellow teachers. She gave me the Autobiography of Malcolm X to read and asked me to use my African name instead of my Christian name (Christian, ironically). And you know how she did it? She tagged Rangoato on a sticker and gave it to me!

While the school was well resourced with science and biology lab, a fairly good library and a computer lab, we did not have an art curriculum, so it took me quite a while after high school to enter into art education. I am not complaining because my experiences after high school developed significantly. In retrospect, I was the cat who would mime Tupac’s ‘Dear Mama’ during events, design posters, co-organise choral concerts and beauty contests (crazy yes but they were BIG).

LM: Often times visual artists are asked about what other visual artists have influenced them; however, I am interested in what writers and music have influenced your work. Are there any albums or books that speak to the core of what you do as a visual artist?

RH: The writings of Paulo Freire (critical pedagogy), K. Sello Duiker (mental illness and homosexuality in post-Apartheid South Africa), Phaswane Mpe (sex, suicide, HIV, xenophobia, witchcraft in Post-Apartheid South Africa) influence my thinking and processes. I listen to the music of the late Taiwa Molelekwa, the late J Dilla, Zim Ngqawana, BLK JKS, the Cinematic Orchestra, Black Star, Reflection Eternal, [and] The Federation. I am influenced by the layered narratives in the cinematic work of Wong Kar Wai, Krzysztof Kieslowski, Pedro Almódovar, Dumisani Phakhathi, Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu and Dziga Vertov. You know I haven’t listened to Sun Ra? And I am dying to see Space is the Place!

LM: Folks know Ra as an artist, community organizer, activist, curator, etc. Rather than talk about them separately, can you talk about how being an artist is married to community work? Should it be? How to create harmony between artist and community organizer or are they inextricably connected?

{© Rangoato Hlasane / Statistic, 2010 / Pigment ink on 100% cotton rag / 42 x 59.4 cm / Edition of 15}

RH: The common denominator for art and community organising for me is voice. Through voice, people explore power. The arts especially, amplify voice and therefore [are] well-suited for organising communities. Collectives such as the Medu Arts Ensemble* saw their role as integral to the liberation of South Africa as the political leaders. The contribution of the arts – theatre, literature, film, music, even fashion – formed a large part in mobilizing people and creating a unified [voice,] not only a voice but also active participation.

I have no intentions of spending time in isolated studio making images for galleries as a devotion or career. After many years at school, seeing many of my former peers working in call centres and chain stores after completion of degrees is kinda depressing and seems like such a waste.

I really do feel that art for walls is sometimes overrated. I feel that it creates disillusions [sic]. I make art, and I find value in the process; it is a method for my sanity, my reflection on things and a chance to imagine a different world. I hope that my work does that, enable[s]…contemplation on things.

{© Rangoato Hlasane / Mini Skirt, 2010 / Pigment ink on 100% cotton rag / 42 x 59.4 cm / Edition of 7}

However, art as process is significant and relevant – it introduces new ways of seeing (literally) and provides fresh perspectives on action and change. My biggest gripe with the art world is that we talk to each other or worse, ourselves. Even when we attempt to be critical of government or the proverbial system, we are in fact just talking to the art community of artists, critics and collectors.

The general society knows very little about art and the art that is being created with assumptions of changing the world. We have an inherent self-importance. It's unhealthy, makes us defensive, inflates egos and brings us all down when it all falls down. There can only be a few art superstars. This may sound like sour grapes and it would be if I wasn’t doing well with my work, but I am. I just don’t have any illusions and consider it a waste of time to lock myself in a studio only to spend my life drinking wines and distressing over capitalist gallerists. My point is that art processes, rather than outcomes, have the potential for impact.

LM: Can you talk to us about Keleketla! Library? How did it get started? What are some current projects?

{© Malose Malahlela}

RH: Keleketla! Library is a library and a media arts centre based at the Drill Hall, a site layered with key episodes in South African social and political history. The site is well known for the 1956 Treason Trials of South Africa, where political and ordinary leaders…[were] tried for a period of a year before the trials moved to Pretoria.

Founded in 2008, as part of the Joubert Park Project residency programme by innacitycommunity collective and Bettina Malcomess, the library has grown into a media arts lab, largely due to its openness and organic nature as a space for networking and exchanges. Our mission is to create access to the use of arts and media tools and alternative education models for community engagement.

Currently, we are exploring the significance of the Treason Trial of South Africa, critically looking at the political, economic and social climate of Johannesburg, South Africa and Africa today. We do this through arts and media tools including theatre, sound, print and writing; through carefully observing the danger of history repeating itself. For example, facilitators are working with youth to re-stage the forced removals of Sophiatown in the 50’s while critically exploring the meaning of xenophobia in South Africa today (and in particular, the xenophobic attacks of 2008).

{© Rangoato Hlasane}

We are also working with Kevin Clancy, an artist from Pittsburgh and recent graduate from Boston-based MASSART College on a project called Portable Utopia. He is collaborating with Keleketla! Library and Johannesburg artists on a series of mobile library interventions and performances in public spaces exploring the imagination of a different city, an ideal city.

In the last week of February, we are hosting a team of researchers and community media activists, Durban Sings. They will be launching a DVD that emerges from over two years of documenting, archiving and remixing oral history, stories and proverbs from the Kwa-Zulu Natal.

We have film, print and radio projects in the plans and all of our work is well documented on our blog, keleketla.org. Like Keleketla! Library on Facebook and follow @DrillHallArts on Twitter.

LM: Working with inner-city youth in Johannesburg, what have been the most rewarding moments? What have been the most challenging?

RH: Seeing the youth taking ownership of the library is a dream. To see them transforming, letting go of certain habits for the arts and love for books is beyond any academic or other cerebral talk about social change.

Most rewarding moments are nebulous, fleeting, small and often ephemeral, moments of small changes and the planting of seeds. Moments such as this excerpt from a conversation with one of the youth, Sindiswa:

Me: "...are you for real, where in Zimbabwe?"

Youth: "...I will tell you another time..."

Me: "no please, I was in Zim very recently and I loved it I’m curious please tell me where?"

Youth: "my hometown is Bulawayo..."

Me: "...I was in Bulalwayo! and I wanna go back to do a residency there..."

Youth: "...yes you must go back! And you must start a Keleketla! there"

Me: "...and I am gonna do it with you..."

{© Rasmus Holms}

Moments like these are small and seemingly insignificant. But not when I know that Keleketla! started as what was supposed to be a once-off experiment. There are other rewarding moments such as when Sindiswa called me to ‘show me something’. We had just received a donation of nice Macs and the youth were all over them, naturally. Anyway, this is what she wrote:

I dedicate this to keleketla library the best place of them all, who ever gets a chance to read this as someone who would like to join the library I give the following reasons why you should join us its because we have a lots and lots of fun the fasilators are good and awesome although they are a bit strite when they have to be for people who don’t want to listen to insturations we do workshops that you won’t to miss for the world.We do drama,dancing,writing,reading and we even get a chance to go places one of the days we went in JAG known as the JOHANNESBURG ART GALLERY we did learn a lot we kind of enjoy ourselves when we got back we kind of hungry and guess what the fasilators helped us with sandwichs when they gave us food I knew I was at home(I felt at home).You even asking yourself who wrote this amazing short dedication well a girl aged 14 who enjoys coming to KELEKETLA LIBRARY and has never missed a single in the LIBRARY.If you enjoy the deication please do with the KELEKETLA KIDS AND CREW we would love having new members and believe me you will feel at homeand to the fasilators from other libraries bay this in mind this is NO COMPETITION its all about the heart and love you want to share with certain people when you enjoy socalising I sure you can make one professional fasilator one day like the ones we have here just give yourself a day and take a trip to KELEKETLA LIBRARY.


Most recently, we worked with youth from our core group to stage a show comprising of written text, comics and a performance. Parents and the public attended and it was definitely one of the most fulfilling moments in the project’s history.

It has been quite a mission to partner with schools. The art curriculum in the inner city schools is not comprehensive. Our vision is to supplement it through alternative models. However, the past few weeks have been fruitful and we feel that it’s going to be an amazing year of learning for us, the youth and the teachers in schools.

LM: Can you describe your collaboration with Portable Utopia?

RH: Keleketla! plays a logistical and conceptual role in Portable Utopia. Kevin visited our space in 2009 and kept in touch since. The project aims to use performance, happenings and interventions in public space to elicit dialogue.

We are also exploring the formation of a Johannesburg version of FEAST, a meal-based macro funding initiative for creative community based projects that has grown significantly in American cities over the last two years.

LM: I have had the privilege of living in and falling in love with South Africa. You have lived in SA and lived outside SA. What is particularly special about SA, Johannesburg especially?

RH: The contrasts, the imbalance, the diversity, the energy, art, the economies, the history and big city attitude of Johannesburg residents inspire me. South Africa’s very own musical genre that became an industry in its own right, kwaito, was established in Johannesburg circa 1994.

Johannesburg is a home to people from all over the world. It holds the hopes of many as a city of dreams. The energy is dynamic, and the positivity is infectious. I personally developed a relationship with Johannesburg from a young age, before I could even imagine it.

{© Rangoato Hlasane}

For a long time after my father passed on, I wanted to come here because I was told that’s where he was. Custom did not allow for children under five to know that a family member has died, so my moms told me that my father was in Johannesburg. By the time I was old enough to know the truth, I had already developed the relationship with Joburg.

Having said that, Johannesburg can be depressing. This is a city of imbalance and stark contrasts. A place of police brutality, evictions, gentrification, inhumane by-laws, crime…still the city of my dreams.

LM: In 2008, you were a student at the University of Michigan? Can you talk about what you were doing there? Just share some of your impressions of Michigan and the artist community you worked with.

RH: I was a research fellow at the Center for Afroamerican and African Studies. I received studio space at the School of Art and Design as integral to my study of the arts as tools for mobilizing communities. I was nine months into a postgraduate research project at the University of Johannesburg FADA in Visual Arts. Keleketla! Library was established in the beginning of the same year.

I am fascinated by similarities between Detroit and Johannesburg in terms of hip-hop, jazz, soul, publishing, [and] industrialization, I found an interesting community in Michigan. At UM, the research possibilities are bewildering. It was baffling to see so many resources in the...small town of Ann Arbor. Enough to start a revolution...

Detroit, forty minutes away, is a stark contrast. Yet, the D inspires me and my work and perspective on Johannesburg. I found parallels in educational methods used by Detroit Summer folks, 555, the AMP folks and Keleketla!, MADE YOU LOOK, Durban Sings and other initiatives.

LM: How does your spirituality influence your work, if at all?

RH: I believe in people. My work, whether studio art, research, projects and performance is rooted in my faith in people as full human beings capable of criticality, simplicity, complexity and possibility.

LM: Anything else you'd like to share?

RH: I am currently part of a pseudo-collective called MADE in MUSINA with Thenjiwe Nkosi. We teamed up to initiate MiM to inspire the formation of an arts network in the small border town of Musina in Limpopo, South Africa.

The project was a response to a call by the Visual Arts Network of South Africa called 2010 Reasons to Live in Small Town. Artists were asked to think of a cultural response to the decentralization of the mega sport event that was the 2010 FIFA World Cup. Follow this exciting project that, from its onset, has strived to grow organically.

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