The struggle of turning culture into art

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Telling stories about our cultural practices must not be left to outsiders. It must be done responsibly, to foster appreciation of our diversity, writes Lindi Ndebele-Koka

The controversy around the film Inxeba (The Wound) got me reflecting on the creative process and culture, its meaning, the message it conveys and its relevance. That is, its dynamic nature.

I had never understood that notion until I went through the initiation process of ukuThwasa. I’ve been a sangoma for 18 years and it is my perspective that it is easier to understand the sacredness of cultural practices from experience.

When I was young, I always had arguments with my father about cultural practices, especially their relevance.

One thing my father said, that has always stayed with me, was how, to a very large extent, the dynamic nature of culture and its evolution has impacted on the socioeconomics of the time.

There is a general view and understanding about how the introduction of Christian religions brought about a negative perception of our culture and heritage.

Due to a lack of knowledge and deliberate misinformation, there are silly notions and stories about how cultural practices and African spirituality should be represented and portrayed.

Largely, this comes through popular media.

On the other hand, we know and are aware of documented facts and stories about abuses that take place within some of these cultural practices.

They include alcohol abuse, sexual abuse, the perpetuation of discrimination against vulnerable groups and numerous nonsensical rules, all in the name of culture.

The following comment is a paraphrased message I sent to Inxeba’s producer, as my gut felt an immediate response after I had finished watching the film: “Congratulations on making the Oscar nomination list; Inxeba weaves a complex story about becoming a man and the meaning of being one, told against a canvas of a traditional cultural process towards manhood. I must say, I did empathise with Xolani, who was living with a wound in his heart of being gay and in love with another man in a cultural/traditional setting that can be notoriously intolerant of homosexual practices.

“Further, that he is a caregiver who keeps on returning to the mountain to render that service to incoming initiates, with the hope of healing his emotional wound, only to expose his wounded heart to a man he loves and who cannot be openly receptive to that love.”

My response was based on how beautifully the story was told and the strength of the characters. The plot was fascinating and the pace exhilarating. The acting was accomplished.

The setting of uKweluka as a backdrop to and a metaphor for a painful story about two adults who love each other, but who cannot do so openly, was encompassing and reflective of the times in our society, with its embedded and imposed taboos.

The sex scenes in the film were neither the message nor the point of the film, but added emphasis to the love story.

With respect, the discourse of initiation and cultural practices in this evolving socioeconomic context is not one-dimensional. Our stories must begin to shed light on this, so it can be debated and, eventually, accepted.

It is common knowledge that men have sex, be it in jails or behind closed doors and whether they are gay, bisexual or straight.

What is not common knowledge, however, is what exactly takes place during some of the sacred processes and rituals of uKweluka or ukuThwasa.

My opinion, as a modern sangoma, is that the sacredness of my spiritual process is not due to the apparent secretive nature of the events that occurred, but rather that it lies in the experience, interpretation and impact of those events.

That is an element no one has access to, unless they were there.

By the same token, divulging sacred information unnecessarily can be dangerous and may have a negative impact on those wishing to undertake the journey.

I say so because the privilege I have as a sangoma is that I often have people sharing their most sacred, deepest, sometimes darkest secrets in search of who they are in their journey of spiritual attainment.

Over the years in my practice, young men have confidentially shared with me their detailed experience of uKweluka, what happens and what happened to them. I will never violate that confidentiality.

Of course, I can never confirm if what I was told is a true reflection of what takes place on the mountain. I will never know because I will never experience the process of uKweluka, period.

How do we, as custodians of some of this knowledge and of these practices, make it available in a responsible manner?

How do we do so to foster the appreciation of the diversity of our culture and traditions and promote our beautiful culture and heritage – a product of pride which has the potential to contribute to social cohesion and sustained socioeconomic growth?

The creative content is sometimes inspired by cultural content and mostly reflects the reality of its society.

The artist is in continual pursuit of reflecting society from their perspective, regardless of how uncomfortable it is.

There will always be parts of society that are in disagreement, just like the apartheid government banned black films to silence the truth. If all art was safe, it would not be transformative.

The tension that continues to bedevil us is between the freedom of expression enshrined in our Constitution and the limitation of those rights. Particularly in telling the stories of African, cultural and historical importance.

Can this question really be answered by simply saying “it is our right to express ourselves, or this practice is our cultural sovereignty and should not be tampered with in a creative process?”

Or is it a myth that African black content creators and artists will never enjoy the freedom and the means to tell these kinds of stories because of cultural taboos, or due to a lack of skills and limited means of production? Most importantly, why are black African stories the subject of controversy?

There are huge disparities in this industry and the hegemony in the ownership of the means of production, investment and financing of film projects remains a challenge.

This, to a large extent, defines the ownership of intellectual property, which in turn dictates what stories to tell, when and how.

We do not see enough of our cultural stories and indigenous knowledge on television and in cinemas to empower the public and conscientise and educate our younger generations about the essence of being African.

With that knowledge they can reconstruct stories about our culture from an informed, sensitive view.

The lack of indigenous knowledge in the media has created an uncomfortable intergenerational and racial void and a bias about culture and heritage in our society.

It has become a serious threat to building audiences and consumers for cultural products in South Africa.

The state of our film industry, as a tool for the promotion of our culture and economic growth, is a promising one.

However, it will never attain its full potential if there is no concerted effort by all stakeholders to be open and to invest financially and intellectually.

If the status quo persists, where our indigenous stories are at the mercy of external financiers and funders, we will perpetually find ourselves in conflict about the portrayals of our cultural, traditional and historical significance.

This includes stories about our icons. It is therefore incumbent on us as a nation to continue the constructive discourse that will empower and encourage intergenerational and inter-racial debates about these issues to avoid the Inxeba saga.

Ndebele-Koka is a senior manager in the national department of arts and culture

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