ILLUSTRATINGJOZIBROUGHT ME RIGHT BACK HOME

I never thought my first trip to Africa would be to South Africa. I’ll admit it.

I’d always been enamored with the cultures of my friends from Kenya, Liberia, Nigeria and Ghana. Yes, there is the mouth-watering food and the can’t-help-but-move-your-hips music. But I was also taken by how they would disappear for weeks-long trips over the summer and return with the most amazing stories.

I wanted my own stories. And though I assumed I’d be visiting one of my friends first, South Africa offered me my first chance to visit the continent.

Plus, I’ve been meaning to document my travels through illustration for sometime. For the last few years, the main subject of my art has been black women and black femininity. Travel was a chance to re-explore what I could produce with my paintbrush. To push myself to see more outside of what I know.

And ‘Jozi’, as they call Johannesburg, was the perfect place to start.

My home for my week was in the artsy neighborhood of Maboneng. With cheap drinks and food, galleries and street murals, this area is the perfect spot.  As I passed under the many  M-A-B-O-N-E-N-G signs strung above the streets, I felt like a child soaking in the new vibes, lifestyle, the people, and their complicatedly rich history.

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After recovering from the 14 hour (!!) flight, and learning the hard way that Uber is everywhere (hate the song), my first big stop was the Apartheid Museum.

To experience the Apartheid Museum fully is to give yourself time. In many ways, it is like visiting the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington DC — a few hours in one visit will never be enough. I’d suggest five hours for the Apartheid museum. I only gave myself three, which was an awful mistake.

Upon entry they ask you to take a ticket, which indicates if you’re ‘white’ or ‘not white’ for your visit. I grabbed a ‘white’ ticket.

As I stood between the two signs, I thought about how  my history as an African American is deeply connected to that of South Africa’s. How these signs, these demeaning and damaging classifications, were the relics of colonialism, and how the effects linger and connect us throughout the diaspora.


And because of this connection, I think many black Americans come to South Africa in search of a sense of history –and often–inspiration. While my inspiration has always manifested itself with a paintbrush, my roommate at my artists’ loft, Dominique, was doing hers through dance. She was researching African dance in Hoedspruit, a province northeast of Johannesburg.

She came back with the most beautiful videos of the landscape and women dancing in this countryside. And for her, the dance connection with South Africa could be directly linked to HBCU band/Greek step initiations. 

The best way to see any city: go for a long walk. My walk from Maboneng to Braamfontein was eye opening. I saw the clear division of wealth in Jozi. Huge abandoned buildings held squatters, but the park was full of black men and women worshipping, hair braiding, fruit selling and most importantly, soccer playing.

Or should I say football playing. Apparently football is the move here. During my time in South Africa, I never saw a black boy with a basketball or an (American) football, but I saw countless soccer games in the street.

As soon as I turned the corner into Braamfontein, the wealth was apparent. Modern apartments and minimalist coffee shops were squeezed in between well maintained 19th century style homes reminiscent of New Orleans. 

In this part of the city, I attended an outdoor festival that put me right back in summertime Brooklyn. Every race was represented. As I dodged street style photoshoots everywhere, I saw blue-white braids, platinum crew cuts, hot purple lips and headwraps in surprising combinations of prints. Men and women were adorned in mixes of traditional and modern jewelry which was also being sold at the festival.

With the colors and sights I’d just witnessed, I’m quite sure all these styles will be staples in a few years. South African fashion is ahead of the game.

One thing I do know for sure: Race relations here have me shook.

Walking around with my new local buddy, I loudly questioned why I was getting no male attention. Come on, at least a free drink! I’m still a full-blooded woman!

My buddy quickly informed me I was considered “colored”, which basically meant I wasn’t black enough for the black dudes to approach me.

“But what if I was a colored South African woman and wanted to date a ‘buhlack guy’?”

The question sounds so weird coming out of my mouth. With my Caribbean father and Southern mother, I have NEVER had to question my blackness.  But here I was…

“Yea…that doesn’t happen much, ” my new dude says.  

“Cool”.

I wonder if it’s as weird for Africans navigating black American life in the US.

When back in Maboneng, I head to the bar.

With the country’s sprawling vineyards just 2 hours flight away, wine is far too cheap here. At USD $1.75  per glass (you read that right!!), this could be trouble!

“Sawubona,” the bartender greeted me, then explained it meant “hello” in Zulu after seeing my confusion.

As I snacked on fresh mango and kumquats,  my new friend talks me through the differences between the nine South African tribes.

He assured me that the Zulu people are most certainly the best (cue the eye roll from the rest of the South Africans I met).

So with my glass of wine, and google, I researched photos of Zulu tribes. I found images of the beautiful beaded headgear I’d seen sold at the festival earlier that day.


Back in our loft, I was inspired!

With the colors and sights I’d just witnessed, creating art was the only thing on my mind. And like any artist in the zone, I skipped any and everything that came my way so I could paint.

Don’t make my mistake! I missed an opportunity to bike around the city – an activity I plan to take on the next time I am here.

But as I painted, there was a teeny sense of deja vu in what I was producing. It was only later that I realized that I was feeling a familiarity with South Africa as an artist and as a human. I came here ready for brand new inspirations, to illustrate the unfamiliar. But painting showed me that the themes still felt familiar.

I kept going back to the same tropes and illustrations that matter to me anyway  — no matter where I am in the world. Because yes, even race, fashion and the  lives of young black women will vividly pop out at you in South Africa.

As I looked over my illustrations, I realized that even though I was thousands of mile away from home, with my art I hadn’t really left.

Until next time Jozi!


Edited by Paula Rogo

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