For Visual Foreign Correspondents, Mama has made Prayer in which scenes of violence and extreme poverty from clips of news media (accompanied by a sound track from an Islamic prayer call) are juxtaposed with an evocative, textured image sequence of two men alternatively and rhythmically bending in Islamic prayer.
The artist described how the piece was drawn from a visit he paid to Bamakó in Mali last year where he witnessed a fellow artist who broke off discussion to begin praying. Mali is a predominantly Muslim country with the religion practiced in a tolerant way with good relations between itself and the minority religions. “For me” Thando Mama declared, “coming from a predominately Christian African region, I found it very interesting aesthetically and sometimes strange to see people just kneeling to pray, in airports, by the river or in markets. I found myself wanting to join them in prayer even though its not my religion or something that I would not normally do, It seemed to somehow to be a way to glimpse ‘the other’ in their most spiritual mind. I was looking at universal images of poverty, people, as well as hope for the future.”
Interview with Thando Mama by David Garcia
David Garcia: Lets begin with the work you have contributed to Visual Foreign Correspondents. Can you tell us something about this work? What triggered you to make it?
Thando Mama: The title of the work is 'PRAYER'. The work is about the society's antagonism towards "the Other". In Cape Town, a lot of people will say, the city is still racist, the city has many poor people and slums even though tourists rarely see these spots, its never about the cape flats, the shacks, the flooding and poor people dying of AIDS.
I needed to find new ways to look at these issues that most of us do not want to think about. Last year while in Bamako the capital of Mali (a largely Islamic country), I witnessed as an every day action a fellow artist praying. For me coming from a predominately Christian region of Africa I found this sight very intriguing also aesthetically arresting and sometimes even quite odd to see people just kneeling and pray, in mundane situations in airports, by the rivers and in markets. When I returned to Cape Town I started to notice more and more people praying in the city, and also seeing more mosques. When I walk through the famous District Six area in Cape Town I found myself wanting to pray, even though Islam is not my religion or something that I would normally think of doing. It was as though it might be a way to see the other in their most spiritual mind. So from videos I shot of men in prayer I started working with no intentions. I just wanted to do something, combining this material with a ghostly figure, and the gun panning across the screen, at the same time the Visual Foreign Correspondent contacted me. Although the themes were different I found I could connect what I had to universal images of poverty, people and their hopes for the future. I tried to start with realistic imagery then move further and further from narrative, communicating my ideas and feelings with visual textures.
D.G. You were introduced to video in 2000 and almost immediately started to make powerful work that received positive attention and awards in South Africa and internationally. Of course that is wonderful but it can also be challenging for a young artist to carry on once the first rush of success has passed, was this ever a problem for you?
T.M. I think time will tell, at the same time I guess I am lucky in the sense that I did so much without gallery representation, and I am still independent. I have met with a number of older artists, and I have learned from them of the need to steadily build a portfolio and not be rushed. An early success is accompanied by high expectations, and everyone wants a piece of you. Over the past five years I have been fortunate to exhibit my work not only in South Africa but internationally. My work takes time to complete, and I do not under pressure to produce. Currently I am traveling less and I spend more time in my studio.
D.G. It is exciting to read of how from the outset your work was performative using your own physical presence as a silent observing presence to tackle political themes head on whilst at the same time having a fascination with the formal properties of the medium of video itself. Can you say how this has evolved since the early works?
TM I spend more time now on each work. I am more interested in the layering of the visual language, the texture on the video, and what it means to capture an image. I have begun to investigate television itself as a medium. I have only moved up a little in the format I use to shoot, mainly I use mini DV, its in the post production that I have developed moving up from CASABLANCA when I began at Art School to Final Cut Pro now. In more general terms you might say I have a subtle signature, that of an iconic/ self/ performer, in a position to confront issues, as I cant do in person, the self that you see in the video is another personality.
D.G. Can you give us a picture of life as a young artist working in Durban. Most media artists in Europe have to do other things to survive. How do you and your colleagues manage on a daily basis?
T.M. Hey, I moved to Cape Town! okay, I have been staying under the radar. well as I said, I am an independent artist, I am not privileged to get paycheck from commercial galleries. Actually I do have a day job, I work in exhibitions at the world heritage site, the Robben Island Museum. Life can be very difficult, the materials are expensive, the funding is poor, the cost of living is getting more expensive, commercial gallery spaces are impossible to get, and rentals for exhibitions are so high its really had to make a living purely from art.
D.G. You were the founder of Third Eye Vision. Does that organization still exist if so what has it been up to and what is its mission?
T.M Third Eye Vision was a loose collective of like minded young creatives, our last show was in 2006 but now everyone has spread all over the place, and one way on another a majority of artists, friends and colleagues have worked with us. The other members are now curators, art administrators and active artists. I am trying to organize perhaps our last show, with video and prints sometime late this year or early next year.
D.G. Is there anything that we would think of as an art scene in Durban where you and your contemporaries get together and promote your work to local audiences. Or maybe it is more of a cross over thing where video and music and poetry etc are all mixed together in ways that we don't understand. Maybe you can educate us a little on how things work culturally for young South African artists.
T.M. Well the Durban I left might not be the same, as more young creative s left the city for either Cape Town or Jo'burg. it might be as vibrant as before or not, but its a local thing when artists move from Durban, you meet a lot of people you went to art school with or from other institutions in Durban, were part of that collective or that. Artists then in Cape Town and Jo'burg as fast track in their careers, be it with commercial galleries, television stations, fashion houses, book publishers, there is more publicity, and articles on artists than in the 1980s and early 1990s.
D.G. How do you see the future, for your community and for your cultural life, personally and artistically ?
T.M. My community is changing, its faced with mundane realities of stability, of securing a job, housing, food, as well as something like therapy from past injustices. It seems that we've taken one step forward to go two steps backwards. as we grow, I hope for steady cultural production, innovation, quality, critical engagement and involvement with the broader communities. Its time to expand on networks, of international connectivity and artistic freedoms form local region and politics.
published May 2008 on Visual Foreign Correspondents
This work was created as part of Visual Foreign Correspondents - a monthly series of audiovisual artworks for the public screen and online, relating to The Globalised Crystal Ball, an international debating program in De Balie, Amsterdam. Distinguished artists from around the world are invited to give their personal visual commentary on events and situations from their local perspective.