10 QUESTIONS: Mark Lewis and Tanya Zack

BY ALEXANDER MATTHEWS

Urban planner Tanya Zack and photographer Mark Lewis are behind Wake up, this is Joburg, a 10-book series of stories about people living in Johannesburg.

Mark and Tanya, tell me about your relationship with Johannesburg.

Tanya Zack: I have always had a passion for the inner city (I was raised in Bertrams so some of this may well be a cathartic interest). I have always lived in Johannesburg. But from around 2008 I had the opportunity through my work – doing research and policy – to work on some of the big issue areas of the inner city – such as so-called “bad buildings”. My approach has been to try to understand the underlying conditions and causes of the challenges that face Johannesburg. Of course this sounds like and is policy speak but at a more personal level it is also true. I have become convinced that I need to spend more time in understanding and in diagnosing what I see in the city before I can hope to respond to it as an urban planning practitioner.

I started walking the streets of the inner city and I was overwhelmed with the excitement of it. I learnt so much, saw so much I didn’t know existed in Johannesburg and also simply encountered these incredible experiences of interacting with people or of just watching.

Photography became a natural extension for me in the act of watching and I spent many months taking photos. This was also vehicle of access because each photo required conversation, and permissions and so I got talking to people. The next stage in this unplanned journey was the collection of stories. In some cases the stories popped up because I encountered them in my wanderings. In other cases I set out specifically to understand a specific activity or person life and livelihood in the city. For instance, I followed recyclers over a number of days and in some cases followed their stories over many months. Not every story is intended for publication. In fact most are just my personal encounter with my city.

Mark Lewis: I was born and schooled in Klerksdorp and then moved to Joburg where I lived in Yeoville and Berea. I then moved into the inner city and lived and worked in Jeppe Street and Wanderers Street from 1979 through to 1983.The city then moved to a very different soundtrack. I then left Joburg and only returned to live 3 years ago. My association with the city in the beginning was witnessed through a closed window in and out of Maboneng but I became increasingly excited by what I saw and was looking for an excuse to start walking and experiencing the newly occupied spaces. So my reintroduction to the city was largely facilitated by Tanya as we began trawling the streets for stories and I finally had found the excuse that I had been looking for.

How did Wake up, this is Joburg come about?

TZ: Mark Lewis and I found a common interest in the collection of stories as he has done a great deal of documentary photography and so we embarked on a conscious journey of collecting stories of Joburg. We are both taken with Johannesburg as a city of surprise and a city constantly in the making and in the remaking. It remodels itself, it changes uses, it attracts new people and it is constantly shifting in dramatic ways. This is most obvious in the inner city, where we have found many of our stories.

What do you hope the books will achieve?

TZ: We hope that an empathetic view emerges in the work – we certainly do try to understand quite closely what people’s living and working conditions are and something of their personal stories. But beyond looking more closely and the huge privilege it is to get access to anyone’s life to look that closely, we don’t have a change agenda: we have a curiosity agenda. We really wanted to know about these things ourselves. We think other people may also find them interesting.

The stories and photographs come out of a curiosity and passion for the city and for knowing what “lies behind”. For us, the exploratory journey allows us to learn something about people’s intimate engagement with the city, often through making a living. It also allows us to take a closer look at spaces in the city, their use, their re-use and ordinary or unexpected aspects to these spaces. Perhaps these stories reveal something deeper about the city as it is today. There are layers in the telling and care is taken to illuminate a bigger story in each image. These are also layered. In terms of integrating communities etc. I have no such ambitions for my project. If we can alert people in Joburg to something that feels a little lesser known and through that inspire a greater affection for this city of possibilities we will have achieved a lot.

Wake up, this is Joburg 5/10 Cover
“Good Riddance”, the fourth book in the series, has just been published.

How did you find the stories you showcase, and how long does it take you to research, write and photograph each one?

TZ: We find the stories by trawling the inner city. We walk and drive and look. And of course we spend a lot of time chatting to people, scouting for ideas and possibilities. We brainstorm possible spaces and activities and we try. We follow these leads and some open up stories. The research takes many months and in some cases we are telling stories of people who we have interviewed and watched over several years. It is an enormous privilege to be allowed that much access to individuals and building up those relationships takes a long time.

For each of you, what was the most memorable moment from working on this project?

TZ: For me the most painful moment was a visit to the home of the protagonist in our Yeoville story, Inside Out, where so many of my preconceptions were turned up as the family was divided on whether or not to allow a portrait to be taken for the book. I learnt something deeper than I had ever understood about the agony and complexity of being migrant in Johannesburg.

The most joyous moment for me was an unexpected encounter with a reclaimer (whose story does not appear in the books yet) who fashioned his trolley into an army jeep.

The day we spent on the top of the landfill site where men were reclaiming from trucks and birds were swooping up amidst the waste and against the backdrop of the city was magical.

ML: For me it was the moment we walked into Kazerne to witness the chopping of cow heads (the first story). Firstly I had never seen such a thing and also the realisation that this journey was about to begin both with Joburg and Tanya.

Wake up, this is Joburg 5/10What made you decide on the 10-book format, and are there plans to combine the books into a single one?

TZ: We thought we would create one book and proposed this to Fourthwall Books. Bronwyn and Oliver had just been at an international book fair and were inspired by the idea of individualised art books that are each beautiful artefacts that together make up a collection; the idea of 10 books was theirs. Each then is a single photo essay and each book allows enough space for a lengthy essay and rich displays of photographs. The photo book is an innovative format and allows the narrative and images to interplay well.

The first editions of the first three books published have sold out. We hope this reflects a demand for the work and we would like to create a composite book perhaps of larger format that really showcases the images and that could knit the stories together.

Wake up, this is Joburg 5/10Together, the words and images tell the story. Explain how the collaboration process worked – did you work together, or do interviews and photography separately?

TZ: We work together. This is necessary because the whole process is entirely interactive – what we are seeing and what different angles we each notice in the tales we hear or the places we look at all combine into both what images will be chosen and what story we will weave.

Mark, what has been the greatest challenge when photographing this series?

ML: There has been no specific challenge other than the eternal challenge of representing what you see in a meaningful way that satisfies both me  and the story.

Wake up, this is Joburg 5/10Why did you decide to make the text available in two languages?

TZ: The idea of translating the work came from Bronwyn Law-Viljoen who works closely with the Language School at Wits. Each story is translated into a language other than English, that matches the story. We have used Zulu, French, Portuguese and Sesotho in the books that have been published so far. The broadening of language broadens access but is also a tribute to the protagonists of our stories. The translator for Good Riddance commended Bronwyn for “leading from the front” in this initiative of translating the work.

A project like this involves intense research, preparation and execution. How did you go about funding this process?

TZ: The production of the books is very costly and they require external funding. We depend on sponsorship to cover some of the basic input costs and have had assistance from GIBS Business School and from IFAS for two of our books. But we are still trying to raise the funding to allow the further books to be published. Fourthwall has covered some basic costs and we have also committed our own monies to costs. To date our own input, research and photography, editing and layout has not been covered and has been a contribution that the four of us (me, Mark, Bronwyn and Oliver) have made to make the series possible. The sale of each book funds the future books.

Wake up, this is Joburg 5/10Good Riddance, the fourth book in the series, has just been published by Fourthwall Books.

 

10 QUESTIONS: Ken Barris and Michael Cope

BY DIANE AWERBUCK

Ken Barris and Michael Cope wrote a novel, Sunderland, together.

Sunderland: What’s in a name, guys?

Michael Cope: The name is a rather obvious play on words – signifying a land divided. It also refers to how colonial words and meanings can be clumsily imposed on local stuff, and how those meaning can change in the process. It’s not the town in north England, nor is it the soccer team.

Also, I just liked the sound of it.

Ken Barris: Mike came up with the name, but I liked its gravity from the outset.

Who does which bits? How does the process work?

MC: I wrote Charles, Ken wrote Art.

KB: Mike initiated the project and created the concept. I played more of a shaping role in plotting Art’s narrative, which became a structure enfolding a portion of Charle’s narrative.

Mike, does Charles really exist? He has a eulogy/tribute in the acknowledgements. Don’t be evasive.

MC: Evasive, moi? Charles really exists as a fictional character. Ken and I have created considerable fictional evidence of/for his existence, but that, too, is all fictional. A section of the book (an obituary for Charles) has spilled out of the book and made it into New Contrast, but that is also fictional. The only “factual” part is that the faux-obituary really did appear there. Here’s another fact  – my grandfathers’ names were Charles Cope and Frank de Villiers.

Ken, what was the most fun about writing this novel?

KB: Writing Art, seeing the whole taking shape eventually, and bouncing ideas around with Mike.

What would you do differently, if you had the choice? Would you collaborate again – with each other, with others?

MC: I would certainly do this again if the possibility arose. I imagine that one would do things differently inasmuch as the conditions/text/collaborator were different.

KB: If you mean with regard to Sunderland, I don’t think I would change much. I’d also do it again if the right project came up. Then everything would have to change anyway, because two personalities interacting, and the project itself, set up their own dynamics.

Where are the funny bits?

MC: Those are the bits where the reader laughs, or perhaps smiles. It might be different for different readers.

KB: I guess it depends on who is reading it.

Explain how music is a recurring motif in the novel, as well as part of its inherent structure.

MC: There is a section where Charles muses about the parallels between his (fictional) novel and a piece of orchestral music – a structure with many voices which combine in an emergent way. My son is a composer, which means that much of the time when I was writing, the house was full of interesting piano music, and perhaps some of this atmosphere entered the novel by osmosis. There is also the obvious comparison of Sunderland with a duet, though the two voices can’t actually harmonise by happening at the same time.

KB: There is also a piece in which Art describes himself as a grand orchestrator, except that he is deluding himself. I don’t know enough about music to comment on an inherent musical structure in the novel, though I guess as a play of voices, it does have its contrapuntal and clashing moments. Mike uses the word “muses”, either inadvertently or deliberately, which implies the idea of invention underlying all arts, be it music or sculpture.

How is this novel particular to South Africa? And what are its universal themes?

MC: I suppose that the Charles novel-within-a-novel is directly concerned to examine South African social realities and inequalities in a semi-allegorical way. Of course, these, and in particular the problem of vast inequality of wealth, turn out to be pretty universal in the early 21st Century. Charles is interested in how creativity fits into it all.

On a more personal level, Ken explores the universal themes of admiration, jealousy, infidelity and self-delusion in an ironic and amusing way, which leavens Charles’s weighty concerns.

KB: I can’t add much to Mike’s reply, except that I found his exploration of creativity and his reflections on writing deeply interesting.

What advice do you have for people who want to write?

MC: Don’t.

Unless you like writing in and for itself. You are very unlikely to get money, critical acclaim or even the love of beautiful women from it. But writing is a neat way to work out certain things you think about.

 

KB: Write if you have an unreasonable certainty that you need to, and if you can’t stop yourself. And if enough people other than yourself recognise that you have the ability to make it work.

What are you working on now? 

MC: I’m on holiday, but I’m thinking about a Science Fiction novel.

 

KB: I’m working on a crime novel with a satiric twist.

 

Sunderland by Michael Cope and Ken Barris Sunderland is published by Jacana, and is available from Kalahari.com.

10 QUESTIONS: Bitterkomix

BY BIBI SLIPPERS

Artists Anton Kannemeyer and Conrad Botes established Bitterkomix in 1992. The comic magazine quickly earned international fame for its irreverently daring potshots at the cultures, clashes and complexities of the new South Africa. The 16th edition was published in 2013.

What would you say is the biggest change that has occurred between the first edition and the latest one – and what has been the one thing that has remained constant?

CONRAD BOTES: The most obvious change must be the content and the way we approach our subject matter. We are almost twice the age of when we started out and our focus has changed. The thing that has remained the same is probably a desire to confront and make work with a subversive objective.

ANTON KANNEMEYER: Well, it’s been 21 years since the first issue. The biggest change would be that we are now professional artists – then we were aspiring comic artists. From my side the thing that remains constant is probably the fact that I make South African comics with South African content; in many ways my work will be best understood by South Africans. Also, I’m still struggling to get drawing right – that hasn’t really changed.

One of the comics in this edition satirises the fact that you take quite long to produce a new edition of Bitterkomix. I’ve read that for Anton it is a specific struggle to finish longer narratives. Could you talk a bit about the process of conceptualising and executing a new comic? Why does it take so long, discounting the evidently debaucherous lives of comic artists as portrayed in Bitterkomix 16?

AK: I think the biggest problem with comic drawing in South Africa is that you do not make real money. Which means that you have to live a dual life: on the one hand you have to make money; on the other you draw comics because you believe in comics. So the problem isn’t really that we’re debauched – we’re just busy with other stuff: exhibitions, printmaking, travelling, etc: all things that pay the bills. And in my case I draw what I want, which means that the material is often regarded as unfit for mainstream consumption. Bookshops do not want to sell us anymore. Things have become more conservative since the ’90s.

CB: Yes, I think Anton sums it up correctly; life gets in the way of drawing comics. 20 years ago it was actually a lot easier; we were basically responsible for ourselves only. No families, bills and hectic workload. Finding time to draw comics has become a challenge. Conceptualising comics is easier. I spend a lot of time thinking about certain narratives and I also do quite a lot of work in drawing books; a lot of the stuff eventually finds its way into my comics. I have been trying to have some kind of symbiosis happening between my gallery work and my comics. I think this has happened with both of our different artistic practices – somehow the comics inform our painting and the fact that we are also painters has definitely affected our comics.

Bitterkomix Extract

What drives and motivates you when you set out to draw a new comic? Do you see your art as fulfilling a function within society, or is the motivation more personal in nature?

AK: Well, both maybe. Primarily I make comics because I think I can address a certain topic that I can add value to. Give a new perspective, maybe. Of course, in the end it’s important that people read it, otherwise it really becomes ridiculous.

CB: I see comics as part of my broader practice; my motivation is purely personal. I like confronting my audience, and to challenge their ideas and belief systems. But I am not out to convince them of my point of view or illustrate some problem in our society, so I don’t see my work as fulfilling some function within society.

Do you think the book will remain a relevant medium for personal expression and social commentary? And would you consider moving away from the comic book as a primary medium for your expression?

CB: I don’t know whether books will survive the digital onslaught. I hope they do. I like reading books, making drawing books and publishing. As far as a primary medium is concerned, I have moved away from the comic book as a primary medium quite a long time ago. I also make paintings, drawings and sculptures. And although I don’t consider one practice to be the primary one, I do consider comics to be vital to what I do and I will certainly keep on making comics for as long as I can.

AK: I don’t know. I collect books and I don’t care if others regard them as worthless. They mean a lot to me. I would always like to publish in print, but if no one wants to publish or sell my books anymore, I guess I’ll have to change. Certainly online publishing is something we’re looking at now. Hopefully it will always be some sort of dual publishing deal, which allows me a hard copy to take home.

Your work tends to make people uncomfortable, and it would seem that you actively pursue this type of reaction or response. What is it about discomfort that excites you as artists and social commentators?

AK: I think it’s about challenging a mainstream perspective, always looking critically at the world around us. This is why I make art – if my work was the same as everyone else’s, why make it? And I feel it’s important for me that people react to my work. If I do mediocre work and there’s no response, I have failed.

CB: Making work that confronts the viewer is what it’s all about for me. People should want to stare and look away in disgust at the same time. I like to seduce the viewer and then give them a kick in the teeth. I find that by doing this, the viewer engages with the work in a much more meaningful and lasting manner.

You are outspoken in your disapproval of political correctness, and this is also evident in the comics. Why is political correctness so problematic to you?

AK: In this case you’re probably mostly talking about my work. I do not have a problem with political correctness – I have a problem with the white hypocrites who are pretending to be politically correct. And most of them don’t even know they are pretending or false. They are so used to a way of dealing (or not dealing) with racism, that they have like a default “I’m politically correct” setting. And they are so outraged at people who do not use their codes and conduct. I find it laughable and I think most black people will agree with me.

Whenever artists deal with complex issues like race and colonial history in their work, there is a minefield of possible ways to offend, perhaps unintentionally, different groups and role-players in that historic narrative. What are your considerations when you start drawing a comic and is there any sense of self-censorship involved? Have you ever finished a strip or drawing and canned it because you feel you’ve gone too far, or is nothing taboo?

AK: My approach is to try and stay as honest as possible – what are my original feelings about something; what does my instinct say? On the one hand you have an instinctual approach (the creative side, possibly); on the other you have an intellectual or academic approach. They have to be balanced, but I would argue the creative side is the more important. So yes, one sometimes offends some people, but every comic or artwork should be evaluated as a whole: what is the satirist trying to say? If you are going to make some gut-wrenching work, you will inevitably step on someone’s toes. And I do sometimes re-evaluate work and think, “Oh well, that isn’t clear enough” or “The message is misunderstood; I fucked up.” It happens. Then I will avoid publication.

CB: Years ago a television journalist interviewed a group of black students and showed them my comic Bloedrivier. Some of the students looked at the depictions of violence (white on black) and described the comic as evil and problematic. In the story it is evident that I am severely critical of The Afrikaner, and the origins of Afrikaner Nationalism. I feel I would not have achieved what I set out to do if I did not graphically depict the white on black violence that happened at the Battle of Blood River. So if I set out to achieve a specific goal, I will do whatever it takes, even if it means seriously offending different groups.

On your tongue-in-cheek letters page, you quote Susan Sontag, where she relates her cancer to pent-up rage. Do you ever feel the need to account for or explain your anger (and especially the expression of it)? Also, do you think you’ll ever be done with anger, or is it intrinsic to Bitterkomix?

AK: I think that anger drives us, although it can be directed at different people or spaces. I used to be angry about a lot of external things like school, the army, religion, etc. Now I’m mostly angry at my dead father. But maybe I’ll still work that out of my system..

CB: I will definitely be done with anger once the world is a happy, fair place.

Your comics have become collectors’ items, having been included in collections like MoMA in New York. Do you each have a full collection of Bitterkomix and would you consider selling it if the price was right?

AK: Yes, we both have a few full sets and sure, I’ll sell it eventually. But I need to hang on to it until I need cancer treatment or my first heart transplant.

CB: I have already sold mine for booze money.

Are there young South African comic artists who excite you? Who are they and what are they doing?

AK: yes, there are a few. Joe Daly certainly is one: he is one of the best comic artists in the world at the moment as far as I’m concerned.

CB: Years ago I read an Art Spiegelman interview in which he claims to not be reading any comics anymore and that there are no more good comics being produced. I thought that he was pretty arrogant and ignorant. Now, I have to confess that I am not reading as many comics as I used to and not really paying attention to what is happening on the comics scene. But of the little I have seen, it seems that the comics scene in SA is alive and vibrant, certainly much more so than when we started out. I love Joe Daly’s work.

Bitterkomix 16 is published by Jacana.

10 QUESTIONS: Joel B. Pollak

BY ALEXANDER MATTHEWS

Joel B. Pollak is the author of Wacko Birds, an account of the US Tea Party movement’s mixed fortunes and impact. He is the senior editor-at-large of Breitbart News, the right-leaning political news site founded by the late Andrew Breitbart. A graduate of both Harvard Law School and the University of Cape Town (where he studied a master’s in Jewish Studies), Pollak also served as Tony Leon’s speechwriter when the latter was leader of the official opposition in parliament.

Why did you write this book?

I wrote Wacko Birds firstly because I felt the Tea Party has been misunderstood. I wanted to show how it fit into the American political system as a necessary opposition force. In so doing, I hoped to explain its legitimacy to those who might otherwise be inclined to believe the worst media slander about it. I also wrote Wacko Birds because I think some constructive criticism of the Tea Party is long overdue—chiefly in regard to its failure to make the most of leadership opportunities.

How would you define the Tea Party?

The Tea Party can be defined by three core principles: a commitment to limited, constitutional government; strong opposition to runaway federal spending; and intolerance towards corruption, either for the benefit of business or labour. To that, some would add a traditional defence of American sovereignty. But that is more of a classic posture of the Republican Party, not the Tea Party in particular, which can be quite ambivalent about foreign policy.

What made it explode onto the political scene?

The seeds of what became the Tea Party were planted in the closing months of the George W. Bush administration, with inchoate conservative opposition to the massive Wall Street bailouts. Many felt that the big banks should be allowed to fail—that doing otherwise meant weakening the system of incentives that is necessary for a healthy, free market economy. What really triggered the Tea Party, however, was President Barack Obama’s massive stimulus package in February 2009—a law that spent nearly $1 trillion on propping up Obama’s political allies through grants to state and local governments, wasteful “green jobs” boondoggles, and the like. It was nearly 20 times larger than the stimulus Obama had promised on the campaign trail, nearly the cost of the entire war on terror, and a predictable failure. Many Americans were outraged by the plan—and by Obama’s clear refusal to consider Republican alternatives. That, combined with several political and media events I describe in Wacko Birds, caused the Tea Party to emerge as a political force that changed American politics.

What was the movement’s most pivotal moment?

Undoubtedly, the 2010 elections marked the high point of the Tea Party (so far), with massive victories for Republicans across the nation. Though the Republicans failed to take the Senate as well, it is important to understand just how important 2010 was, in terms of reversing the momentum that Obama and the Democrats had once had. No less than James Carville, Clinton political strategist extraordinaire, had predicted 40 years of congressional dominance for Democrats. So for the Tea Party to push Democrats to defeat so quickly was a great political achievement. It also halted, or rather slowed, the massive expansion of federal power and spending that Democrats had hoped to bring about in the wake of the 2008 crisis.

How much influence does it carry today?

The Tea Party carries tremendous influence in terms of defining American political debate, and holding the line on key issues. It single-handedly stopped Democrats and Republicans from forcing through was what euphemistically called “comprehensive immigration reform,” for example. However, in individual political races the Tea Party sometimes struggles. It has proven most effective at removing moderate Republicans from office, and rather less effective at dislodging left-wing Democrats, most obviously in the case of Barack Obama himself.

What was the most surprising thing you encountered while researching or writing the book?

I think the most surprising thing is how the Tea Party has embraced the book, despite some of my criticisms of the movement. I think that is a sign of political maturity.

What is the biggest misconception about the movement?

The biggest misconception is that it is racist. That is a lie propagated by the Democratic Party and its allies in the media. It is probably a lie that has filtered into South African perceptions of the Tea Party, via CNN and other sources. It has no basis whatsoever. Ironically, the Tea Party is actually responsible for the rapid rise of new, young black, Latino, and female candidates, who could not get around the gatekeepers of the Republican Party until they had the Tea Party to help them amplify their message. That is a reality the media ignore.

What lessons does this movement have for South Africa and other developing countries?

I think the most important lesson for South Africa is the importance of constitutional principles. My old friends in the Democratic Alliance may cringe—wrongly—to read this, but the fact is that the DA’s constitutionalism and the Tea Party’s constitutionalism are essentially the same. Without a strong constitution to restrain government, democracy quickly becomes tyranny. South Africa and other developing countries often define their goals in terms of what government sets out to achieve. But if they focused, as the Tea Party does, on the question of what individuals may achieve without interference from government, I think developing countries would benefit greatly. Part of the problem in South Africa is that big government is baked into the constitutional cake, as it were, with socioeconomic rights. That’s where the DA has been innovative in providing services by reducing the role of government. More of that is needed.

Your book has received an endorsement from Sarah Palin, one of the American Right’s most colourful and controversial characters. What’s your personal take on her, and do you think she’s got her sights set on the White House?

I think Sarah Palin can achieve anything she sets out to achieve. She is a uniquely authentic voice in American politics. I had the opportunity to spend an afternoon and evening with her and her family recently in Alaska, and they are wonderful, warm and genuine people. I think she has suffered greatly from the character assassination by Democrats and the media. But she has shown tremendous resilience, and she still has enormous impact on particular political races, when she chooses to become involved. I am not sure she wants to be president, but if not, any future administration should consider her for Secretary of Energy or Secretary of the Interior. No one better understands the balance of development and environment.

What does the future hold for the movement — do you think it will ever get someone into the White House?

I think any Republican who wants to win will have to be seen, simultaneously, as a Tea Party candidate and a candidate in general. In Wacko Birds, I describe how some Tea Party-backed leaders have managed that balance at the state level. There are several potential candidates in 2016 who could do the same at the national level. The more interesting thing to watch is how Democrats try to position themselves as more conservative than they actually are in order to minimize pushback from the Tea Party. That tells you the movement is winning.