Sibongile Mafu

Poverty has never looked so good

2012-10-03 09:01

Sibongile Mafu

Africa is really hot right now, especially the townships. They have become the go-to places for glamorous magazine shoots and music videos. International artists seem to have discovered new inspiration on our shores, flocking to countries like South Africa and Nigeria to explore the beauty in the have-nots. It’s almost as if Africa has been given a fresh coat of paint, and boy does poverty look good in HD!

Putting the 'own' in 'Township'

American singer and professional younger sister to Beyonce, Solange Knowles is the latest star to join the craze. She recently visited Cape Town for a photo shoot with ELLE magazine and to film her new music video. The video is set in parts of Langa and Khayelitsha (It’s cute how Khayelitsha is still considered part of Cape Town). Solange is seen dancing, riding a bicycle and even catching a taxi, as well-dressed township folk smile and dance with her. Her red lipstick never smears and her well-groomed afro never out of place. Townships have never looked so good.

There is this intriguing phenomenon, which I recently read about in Marie Claire, called “Poverty Porn” where beautiful photo shoots are set in poor, derelict communities. Luxury designs and brands mix and mingle with locals in pursuit of the perfect fashion spread. Oscar de la Renta meets Oscar Dlamini on the dusty township streets.

Lense love

I’m a videographer by day and have shot many times in and around Cape Town townships. I grew up in a township and we all have one thing in common: we love cameras. Aggressively so. Just point the thing at us. It doesn’t matter what it’s for or who will see it, just point it at us. People will throw their babies in front of a camera in hopes they’ll make it onto the television or into a magazine or newspaper.

I guess whoever you are and whatever you own or don't own, a camera pointing at you is the ultimate form of flattery. It’s almost as if the dire circumstances one is living under are briefly forgotten, and the pure human need of wanting to be looked at, wanting to be seen, in literally the best possible light, comes into effect. Just for a short while at least, someone is not ignoring the poor and downtrodden.

It does leave me with an uneasy feeling. We’ve exhausted the stylish European locations, let’s pack it up and move it to Africa!

The entertainment and fashion industry gives poverty fancy terms like “shabby chic” and “rustic feel.” All they’re doing is taking photographs around some poor people with shacks in the background while wearing one or other “bold” African shirt and headscarf.

Selling recreated realities

Africa has become a commodity. Or to be more specific, “African-inspired” has become a commodity. It was made by someone looking in, a voyeur, as opposed to someone with that genuine lived experience. Perhaps that is what art is. It is taking people’s realities, recreating or re-imagining that and selling it at higher price. They’re not murdering millions of Africans or displacing people from their homes. They’re just coming in for a day or two to shoot some pretty pictures and leave.

South African singer Thandiswa Mazwai tweeted last night: “So the African thing is only cool if a foreigner does it. It’s only cool when they sell it back to us.” She has a point. Maybe it is better to see the African struggle under some good lighting with a bit of extra varnish. African artists have been singing their lived experience for years now, celebrating their heritage and the African aesthetic in their work. It barely gets a second look. Ironically, Thandiswa is one of the very few artists in South Africa who have been quite successful with this. I would assume she’d enjoy the very African image she portrays , being disseminated all over the world.

Maybe we derive some sort of pride and pleasure in seeing humble Africa shimmering so brightly in these well-respected pages of high fashion magazines. The laughing, dancing, poor native is very appealing to look at. And besides, American poverty doesn’t seem AS glamorous. This new “poverty made pretty” doesn’t hurt as much to look at when we’re confronted with it in this form. The “big, friendly mama” with her fruit stand, standing next to the model with the pursed lips who is wearing a turban with a fruit print makes for a winning picture.


- Sibongile is a videographer, blogger and social media enthusiast who would be nothing without her thumbs. Follow her on Twitter: @SboshMafu.

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