Archive: Issue No. 73, September 2003

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Thando Mama: saviour of video art?
by Sean O'Toole

"I tended not to look around for influences," says Thando Mama, the Durban-based video artist who recently clinched the MTN New Contemporaries Award. A swift denouement to that most inevitable of journalistic questions, Who are your influences?, Mama adds: "And when I did look nothing really caught my eye."

Of course it is tempting for any artist, even this young Durban-based artist, to claim that his/her work exists outside the charted boundaries of art history. Whether conscious of it or not, Mama's evocative video pieces evince more than a passing likeness to the formative works produced by the genre's early pioneers.

Writing in The Guardian recently, art columnist Jonathan Jones made some interesting remarks about a video retrospective at London's ICA that bear repeating. His description of the aesthetic qualities and ethical values underpinning the works of Richard Serra or Vito Acconci, pioneers of the medium, are particularly relevant.

"They were grainy, black-and-white, aggressive little numbers, with no aspirations to the cinematic," he writes, unwittingly paraphrasing Mama's video works too.

"Most of all, [the video works produced in the early 1970s] were not simply made with TV, but about it - or, rather, against it," Jones continues. "The early classics of American video are critiques of network TV's mendacity and madness." Which is all perfectly true of Mama's work too.

Take for instance Mama's standout piece for the MTN New Contemporaries Award, a biting critique of contemporary news broadcasters. Titled 'We are afraid', the work is currently on view in Johannesburg's Museum Africa.

Purposefully installed at the end of a confusingly dark tunnel, this exceptional piece of video art relies on touch rather than sight to mark one's first experience of it. Blinding the viewer is however only one of the many clever - and disarming - tactics employed by the artist.

At first glance, the actual video sequence appears to be little more than a mess of grainy television static set to the score of news reportage and an invisible child's voice endlessly repeating, "We are afraid". Pause a little longer and the uncertain silhouette of the artist's face appears through the static, but only fleetingly.

Shot late at night while watching television scenes of the US bombing of Iraq, Mama explains that his video camera recorded the contours of his face as it was unevenly illuminated by his television. According to the artist, the work represents an explicit attempt to voice a collective understanding of the events he was watching, one tinged with an unambiguously African accent.

"'We are afraid' is me trying to say something about a shared experience," he says, "about people living in Africa at this point in time." The voice repeating the mantra, explains Mama, is a young Ethiopian girl he saw on television at around the time of the bombings. "All I'm asking in this piece is: What about Africa?"

The pertinent simplicity of this question reveals much of this native son of Butterworth's character. Leaving aside his enquiries into masculine identity for a moment, the work underlines his passionate interest in Pan Africanist thought, particularly that of influential expatriate US scholar and figurehead WEB Du Bois.

Author of The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois famously declared on the launch of his groundbreaking 1903 publication, "for the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the colour-line". Mama's work 'We are afraid' eloquently updates this quote, proving its continued relevance in the twenty first century.

Not all Mamas' works necessarily demonstrate this effortless fluency with his chosen medium. His other Museum Africa installation, the gloomily titled '(un)hea(r)d', is a large-scale projection of the artist's face shown in an empty room. Mama's disembodied face contorts and stutters. Sure it might be about identity as "an invention based on myths and half-truths", but is also typical of most video art - boring.

"Video is a new medium to me," he openly admits. "I was first introduced to video by Greg Streak in 2000 when I was studying at the Durban Institute of Technology." Despite the odd stumbling Mama has not allowed the novelty of the medium to confound him. Currently busy with his Masters degree at the same institution, his work generally evinces a refreshing purposefulness using a format many critics say has reached its end game.

Curator Sipho Mdanda is particularly intrigued by Mama's work, so much so that he has invited the young artist to participate on a forthcoming group show due to open in Boston in 2004. The Sondela exhibition, as it is titled, will introduce works by emerging South African talent to an American audience.

"He asks questions about who he is, a young Xhosa man [of the Tshawe clan] situated in a predominantly Zulu environment," observes Mdanda. "But I think his work moves beyond that. Situated in the new South Africa, his work also asks whether it is even relevant to ask questions about identity alone."