Siyabangena22: The unofficial Art Fair afterparty's call and response to Cape Town's artworld

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  • Siyabagena22 is a confluent intertextual pop-cultural and artistic moment.
  • It reads Black queer sonic cultures as valuable repertoires and social documents of our ontology.
  • It is an insurrection: an unapologetic demanding and claiming space in Cape Town's art bubble of fanciful inclusion.

When I saw the account @Siyabangena22 floating on my Instagram feed, advertised as the unofficial Investec Cape Town Art Fair afterparty for 2022, I knew I had to be there. The same way you had to be there in 2008 when DJ Vetkuk vs Mahoota, featuring Thebe, released their hit song, also titled Siyabangena.

South African dance music was crystalising into various sound experiments from Pitori to eThekweni, with Pitori's DiBarcadi electrifying the thump of electronic dance music all over the world, and Durban evolving the sound of kwaito. Surely this cannot be a coincidence, I thought.

Siyabangena22 is a confluent intertextual pop-cultural and artistic moment. It is a moment that reads Black queer party music and sonic cultures as valuable repertoires and social documents of our ontology beyond the ocular-centric gaze of the visual arts. Siyabangena22 was and is an urgent call to Cape Town's art world, and perhaps the contemporary art market in general, to shift their senses and engage other praxes: the sounds of raucous Black queer life. A relevant call when we consider the current contestations of Black figures in portraiture in contemporary art circles.

D is for Dream Illustration poster for Siyabangena
D is for Dream Illustration poster for Siyabangena22 by Snalo Ngcaba (Supplied)

Writer and curator Nkgopoleng Moloi bemoans how "Black portraiture has been (and continues to be) ruthlessly commodified in its display and consumption". At the same time, scholar and art critic Ashraf Jamal boldly states that "today there is no greater currency in the contemporary art world other than black skin". Meanwhile, art historian Darby English suggests that the flood of Black figuration flattens the complexity of Black life. Worrying that such a boom distracts us from using our time and resources on parts we can't image or sell: the mysteries, the fractions, the freaks.

More so, Thebe Phetogo made apt provocations as an artist who was part of the SOLO section of the Investec Cape Town Art Fair 2022 with his speculations on the origin of the concept of a "blackbody" in physics and an audience participatory series where viewers got to vote for their favourite origin story. Even though Phetogo's series of fluorescent green zombie-like figurative paintings was playful and engaging, it also held a mirror to the art fair ecosystem as a site for the art market's current speculation on Black bodies, specifically in painting.

DJ, iSpeleti on the decks next to her mentor, Shak
DJ, iSpeleti on the decks next to her mentor, Shakes Mbolekwana. (Photo by Earl Abrahams)

This is the polemic terrain in which Siyabagena22 enters, after all the glitterati and gallerina gossip and hopping from the Investec Cape Town Art Fair 2022's day two Saturday programme. Siyabagena22 – "the unofficial Art Fair after-party" – begins at 21:00 at The Ramp, 15 Carlisle Street, Paarden Eiland, Cape Town. It feels immediately confrontational, addressing the long-standing history of Cape Town Art Fair after-parties being enterprises of socio-cultural exclusion.

The party calls for a different sensory engagement that moves beyond passively gazing at Black figures in art as symbols of inclusion. Much like Tina M. Campt's preposition and intervention for a new model of engaging Black subjects in photography in her book Listening to Images (2016), Siyabangena22 calls on the art world to engage the sensory register of "listening to", rather than simply "looking at", images of Black subjects. As Campt writes, this "is a conscious decision to challenge the equation of vision with knowledge".

So, I have to ask then, thinking of Marcus Boon's article on nationhood under a groove: what does it mean to understand our own being in the world through Black popular music and sonic phenomena? Siyabangena22 provides an answer in its slogan that states quite simply "less discourse more democracy at the disco!" This is not just another art fair afterparty.

Siyabangena22 is an afterparty that pertinently considers South Africa's relationship of political discourse and collective organising as shaped in the shebeens of Black townships during apartheid. It considers how the existence of ball culture was founded underground by African-American and Latin American LGBTQ+ communities – "Houses" – in New York City in the late 19th century, resisting queerphobia. These disco sites serve as robust incubators of radical discourse about questions of the Human, where a reading of sound, performance, and collective organising are grammars of certain philosophical positions of being.

Make-up artist to the stars, Khaya Mhleli walks in
Make-up artist to the stars, Khaya Mhleli walks in the supermodel category of the ball. (Photo by Earl Abrahams)
Siyabangena!22 dancing crowd. (Photo by Earl Abrah
Siyabangena!22 dancing crowd. (Photo by Earl Abrahams)

However, Siyabangena22 is also a refusal. It similarly challenges us to move past reading the sounds of Black and queer popular music and spaces as just sites of creative resistance. Or as just sites of reading Blackness in tandem with a tendency of a post-apartheid zeitgeist: oft an academic discursive scholarship that can have a restrictive and authoritative analytical-interpretive gaze. Siyabangena22 orders us to recognise the limits of such languaging – the limitations of academic scholarship on Black queer music and sonic sensibilities.

The afterparty calls us to think less discursively and more with the phonic materiality of dance music's four-to-the-floor beats and in a context like (South) Africa, through the call and response of democratic participation in ever-present social gatherings, such as ancestral rituals, political events, funerals, and weddings. Siyabangena22 provokes us to draw from the intersection of Black popular sonic phenomena and life as it exceeds ideological constraints of epistemology's obsession with interpreting "the Other". It calls for the art world – borrowing from Amber Jamilla Musser's book Sensual Excess: Queer Femininity and Brown Jouissance (2018) – to think with the flesh and the sensual as a starting point of making new knowledges.

Berlin Williams and Chesire V being awared prizes
Berlin Williams and Chesire V being awared prizes for the winning the supermodel category at the ball by founder of Siyabangena!, Siwa Mgoboza. (Photo by Earl Abrahams)

The ubiquitous hypervisibility of the Black figure in contemporary art right now does not, and should not, be seen as easy access points to Black and queer life because the registers of engaging Blackness remains manifold.

Siyabangena22 is responding to the consumerist art world by drawing the sonic and its dramatic forms or repertoires of the disco as one way to propose other sensorial engagements that the Black and queer figure holds. Siyabangena22 is an insurrection: an unapologetic infiltration of demanding and claiming space in Cape Town's art bubble of fanciful inclusion. Siyabagena22 is Bonang Mathebe's Tjovitjo whistle meme, where she excitedly declares in Setswana and English: "re tsene! We are within!"

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