Johannesburg - It’s a beautiful autumn day in Joburg, where Zakes Mda has been spending more time since leaving academia to become, in the senior stage of his career, a full-time writer and artist.
He arrives for lunch with his son Neo, who is also a fine artist, illustrator and animator, and is Mda’s collaborator on one of his more ambitious new projects.
Over the years and the lunches, Mda and I have talked mostly about books. Today I’ve asked if we can talk mostly about his paintings. Like Mda and like his books, they are intuitive, bright, impish and profoundly political.
Harmony does not make stories.
You left your teaching post at Ohio University. Why?
Well, because I wanted to focus on three projects. Especially on the project that I’m doing with Neo. The others I could continue to do while teaching.
So what are the projects?
Well, I’ve just finished writing a script for the Hugh Masekela Heritage Foundation on [Anglican bishop and anti-apartheid activist] Trevor Huddleston.
It’s titled Warrior Monk and the Horn Man. I did all the research and came up with many things ... Like, this guy, when he was back in England, he was accused of child sexual abuse. And, of course, that becomes my climax of the story.
Huddleston has been deified and everything they were saying about him ... he was just a perfect guy. And I was telling them, there’s no way I can write a story about a perfect guy. Harmony does not make stories. He must have some flaws. That’s when I went to England, to dig through various archives...
In a way, Huddleston discovered Bra Hugh Masekela.
In so far as he’s the guy who bought Hugh his first trumpet. It was when Hugh was a student at St Peters and Huddleston worked at the school. He got Jonas Gwangwa his first trombone. They formed the Huddleston Jazz Band.
Although, of course, Hugh would still have been a musician – though not a trumpet player. From an early age, his mother sent him for piano lessons and he had quite a flair.
And the second project?
The project I want to focus on even more is an animated feature film, The Prels of Ukhahlamba, my children’s book that Neo illustrated.
Zola Maseko is producing that. I’m directing it. And we’ve just applied for funding ... I’m actually busy working on the script now. It’s about the spirits that live inside a volcano in the Drakensberg mountains.
The Zulus of New York
And your fiction? Are you focused more on the movies for now?
No, no, no. I’m still writing my novel. That’s the third project I’m working on, The Zulus of New York. I would have finished it already, but for these scripts.
So what is Zulus of New York about? Or do you prefer not to talk about it until it’s finished?
No, no, no. I talk about my projects even at conception. I don’t believe in the superstition that you are jinxing your work. It actually makes it come to fruition. The Zulus of New York is set in New York, London and Ondini, the headquarters of Cetshwayo, the king of the Zulus, in the 1880s. My character is recruited as a performer.
There used to be a guy from Canada called The Great Farini. He was very famous, on par with PT Barnum. Although, of course, he always pretended his performances were much more intellectual and anthropological. He’d bring the savages from all over the world and they would perform their savagery in London, and were then recruited by Barnum to New York. So this guy, who used to be one of the warriors in Cetshwayo’s army, has to escape from Zululand because of a woman he has fallen in love with.
It wouldn’t be you without a love story.
Of course, it had to be there. Zulus were the fascination of the time because of the Battle of Isandlwana and so on – after they had defeated the British. If you look at newspapers in England and New York at that time, they were romanticised – their savagery and all that. It requires a lot of examination, this kind of practice.
The law school drop-out.
It remains amazing to me how prolific you are. How does it work organically for you? Like, do you wake up and decide today is a painting day, but I must do some work on the script? Or is every day a painting day?
I would’ve liked it that way, but no, because things like film scripts and so on, those are things that pay the mortgage. And sometimes they are so urgent that I have to put what is my first love – painting and writing novels – aside.
But now, once I’m writing a novel, I paint as well.
When I’m writing a novel, I get exhausted in the afternoon the older I get. I mean, I used to write for the whole day. Now I get tired and then I relax with painting. And sometimes the things that I’m writing about influence what I paint, you know. In fact, long before I became a writer, I was a painter. My first degree is fine arts.
Did you want to be a painter as a child?
Oh, no. As a child I wanted to be a lawyer, as my father was. Everybody in my family is a lawyer and I actually studied law. I’m a law school drop-out.
Your Marikana painting series is tied together by variations of City Press photographer Leon Sadiki’s work of the man in the green blanket, which became the symbol of the massacre. Were the paintings your immediate response?
Well, you know, I’m still responding to that and I’ll respond to that forever. I’ve had big exhibitions of those in the US, but there, of course, they don’t associate them with anything that they know and I leave it at that – I want my paintings to speak for themselves, in different languages, different cultures and so on.
Sometimes the green blanket features in some other paintings. In the Washboard series, I have a green blanket hanging there. I have another painting where it’s just a boy sitting down. There are mountains; he’s looking after cattle. And then, on the ground, it’s just that green blanket ... Because it goes beyond – it goes to the village, where these guys won’t be there any more.
Do you see it as a form of protest art?
Well, I leave labels to guys like you. I just create. What you call it is your problem.
Your newest work, the Washboard series, how did that evolve?
I live in the rural Appalachian region of Ohio, it’s an extremely poor area and unlike normal US poverty – which is in urban areas and is black – Appalachian poverty is white. My wife works there as a psychotherapist and deals with issues of domestic violence, drug abuse and so on. I also work with those people through various things that happen.
Now, one of the industries in this small town called Logan is a washboard factory. You’d wonder, do people still use washboards? But this factory continues to make them and does a roaring trade.
They are used by musicians to create washboard music or for collectors, who buy them as relics of the past.
So I’m taking things from that culture and mixing them with things from my culture here.
That’s also my culture, by the way. I’m using all the tools and implements of the various cultures with which I interact to create new meanings.
There’s a feeling of the oppression of women in the paintings.
Yes, yes. I do paint a lot about domestic power relations and things like that, you know. And that was what was suggested to me by the washboard itself.
But I’m also going to use the washboard as a musical instrument. They use spoons and forks and all sorts of things to create music. That’s part of the collage, they’ll be hanging there on the painting.
Is collage work something you’ve always done?
No, no, no, it’s something very new for me. That’s why I’m still excited about it.