The struggle of being a young black artist in South Africa
in the Rainbow Nation’s creative economy, full-time job holders are mostly white.
Young South African artists who grew up post-apartheid are reclaiming black culture and exporting it worldwide — just look at the Tsonga lyrics and traditional garb of rapper Sho Madjozi, who recently performed on the same stage as Beyoncé and Jay-Z, and artist Nelson Makamo's portrait of his little cousin gracing the cover of TIME’s 2019 Optimists issue.
But the shadow of apartheid still hangs over South Africa's arts scene: The creative economy is still disproportionately white.
South Africa's white-led government not only physically segregated black Africans during apartheid, they also sought to cage black creative expression. Only white artists were allowed to study the arts at formal institutions.
But the isolation spawned a subculture of black artists who sought to capture social and political hardship in townships. Training in community centers and using whatever materials they could find, like charcoal and crayons, culturally and historically important black artistic styles began to emerge.
Throughout the 1960s, Ephraim Ngatane's muted brushstrokes of pastel watercolors depicted township musical gatherings and everyday street fair, showing the resiliency of a subjugated people.
In 1967, self-taught expressionist artist Dumile Feni created his own rendition of Picasso's famed Guernica (1937). In African Guernica, contorted farm animals suckle babies amid tortured warrior figures, what South African artist and scholar Sharlene Khan calls a haunting "commentary on the insanity of reason which results in the oppression of one human being by another."
"Standing in front of … African Guernica when I was 19 years old at the University of Fort Hare Gallery in 1996 felt like something between hero-worship and a pilgrimage," she wrote recently in The Conversation.
When apartheid ended in 1994 and black Africans took over government, affirmative action programs worked to correct disparities in education, employment and the arts in black and colored communities.
They've helped younger generations of black youth enter university, but many struggle to finish, Lauren Graham, director of the Center for Social Development in Africa at the University of Johannesburg, tells LURE.
University education in 2019 cost about $4,500 on average, research shows. That's far beyond the average monthly salary of about $200 for black Africans.
High tuition fees combined with travel costs to universities from South Africa's isolated townships make dropouts common. And because printing resumes, getting to interviews and internet access can also be costly in townships, young people often find themselves without the means to find a job.
The result is a staggering youth unemployment rate of 57.4 percent — the worst in the world, according to the OECD. When accounting for race, overall black unemployment in South Africa is 40.7 percent. But it's only 8.5 percent for whites.
“the harder the situation, the stronger the artists become.”
It's a phenomenon that rolls down onto creatives. Full-time employees in the creative economy are still disproportionally white, and black creatives are more likely to bounce from gig to gig in the informal sector, making them ineligible for government stipends, according to a recent study contracted by South Africa's Department of Arts and Culture.
South Africa's economic environment may be challenging, but "the harder the situation, the stronger the artists become," Louise van der Bilj, a trustee with Assemblage, an arts collective in Johannesburg, tells LURE.
Today's young South African artists favor collaborative efforts and err toward cost-effective mediums readily available in the digital age, like documentary photography and video editing on smart phones, or graphic design.
The Uncultured Club, for example, is an artistic trio aiming to tell the stories of young South Africans on a global stage, using mediums like photography while working for international publications and brands like Adidas. They also often contribute to Unlabelled*, a Johannesburg-based magazine sharing fresh perspectives on black youth.
“The biggest challenge was starting a self-funded business in a self-taught industry,” says Phendu Kuta, founder and editor of Unlabelled. “But I knew for sure I wanted to start a magazine that represents black youth. I was in fashion school and my subjects were mainly from western fashion. We were not represented.”
Such projects are amplifying voices expressing the black experience in South Africa, says Kuta.
“A lot of young people are being more fearless and taking control of their destinies … It has a lot to do with our past because we now feel like we are in a place where we actually can. But we still have a long way to go.”
*Unlabelled Magazine is LURE’s partner in creating Young Bloods Episode 03: Johannesburg. LURE works with local partners who provide on-the-ground knowledge, and we are against parachute journalism. To read more about our partnership model, click here.