"'World of Zulu' reveals ties between New Orleans, South Africa"

Pelican Bomb | Nola.com
January 17, 2018

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Penny Siopis is a South African artist whose work addresses themes of identity, history and memory. Across her practice, Siopis has highlighted the intersections between national, cultural and familial narratives, a theme that comes to the fore in her latest work, "World of Zulu,'' 2017, currently on view at the Contemporary Arts Center, 900 Camp Street, New Orleans, as part of "Prospect.4: The Lotus in Spite of the Swamp."

This mixed-media installation, which includes a display of objects from South Africa and New Orleans taken from Siopis' personal collection, as well as a film constructed from found and archival footage, sheds light on a range of unexpected connections between New Orleans and Southern Africa.

Allison Young: When you first visited New Orleans for this project, how did you go about getting to know the city and its history?

Penny Siopis: I only had a few days in New Orleans, but I wanted an intimate experience with people and things--to feel a sense of history and geography. I often work with found objects, so I decided to begin by navigating thrift stores.

I became aware of the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club through my encounter with a Zulu coconut in the first thrift shop that I visited, and thought "What's Zulu doing in New Orleans?" I was told about the club, its role in Mardi Gras, and the significance of the coconut throw.

AY: Your installation at the Contemporary Arts Center, titled "World of Zulu," highlights the ways in which the idea of "Zulu-ness" has been appropriated and transformed both in South Africa and in the African diaspora. Can you discuss the origins of some of the objects that make up the installation?

PS: It was fascinating to learn about the Zulu krewe not least because of the connections with my home of Southern Africa. There's a kind of fiction around "Zulu-ness"-related to the Zulu warrior and Zulu Kingdom, in which Zulu material culture often signifies a broader Africanness, which offers an opportunity to see culture as mutable, rather than "pure" and fixed.

In 1980, after a year abroad, I moved back to South Africa to live in Durban, which is a city on historic Zulu land.

There, I was fascinated by the ways traditional crafts were being transformed by migrants who had recently moved to the city from rural areas--for example, urban materials being creatively appropriated in the absence of natural fibers to produce Zulu sandals. Traditionally made from ox leather in rural areas, the pair in the installation is made from old motor car tires. They are called iZimbadada, or iZingcabulela, after the sounds they make while walking. iZimbadada are good for dancing, so became associated with South African music genres with roots in Zulu music.

Then there is the knobkierie, a stick with a wooden knob. It's a weapon in its own right, but is also a sign of resistance to colonial rule -- it mocks the swagger stick of British imperialists.

Years later, after moving to Johannesburg, I started to collect makarapas: hard hats used by mineworkers and construction laborers transformed by soccer fans into decorative headgear with the logos of local football [soccer] clubs.

Finally, I collected coconut throws in New Orleans, through contacts I made, Prospect staff members, as well as Uber drivers. Everyone made a huge effort to collect coconuts, beads and other throws in time for the opening.

AY: In the film component, entitled "Welcome Visitors: Relax and Feel at Home," 2017, Louis Armstrong's 1960 visit to Southern Africa serves as one of many points of convergence that link political, cultural and personal narratives. For instance, it's a reminder that in 1949 Armstrong was King of Zulu for Mardi Gras. Can you discuss the context for his visit and some of the other connections between New Orleans and Southern Africa drawn out by the piece?

PS: The story revolves around "Skokiaan," both the song and its meaning in Southern Africa. Skokiaan was an illegal brew made by Africans during the colonial era. It was outlawed by the authorities, so the brew itself--and the culture of drinking it in shebeens [illicit bars or clubs], while dancing and singing--became a form of resistance.

The song "Skokiaan" was composed by a Zimbabwean, August Musarurwa, and recorded in 1947 and 1952. He also played the sax in this recording. It found its way to the U.S. and became a hit. Louis Armstrong covered "Skokiaan" in 1954, producing an instrumental rendition as well as one entitled "Happy Africa," with lyrics added by Tom Glazer. The film includes footage of Armstrong's tour to Southern Africa and is structured in relation to three versions of the song: a contemporary jazz cover by South African Kevin Davidson, followed by Musarurwa's version, then Louis Armstrong's.

There are further convergences in the film that touch on the global history of slavery and the culture of creolization. The Kaapse Klopse [Cape Minstrels]--captured in one scene within the film--is a carnival in Cape Town in which descendants of slaves celebrate their freedom. Dutch colonizers imported slaves to the Dutch Cape Colony from East Asia, India, Madagascar and other parts of Africa in the 1600s.

On their only day off, every Jan. 2, they were allowed to take over city streets with their carnivalesque performances: dancing and singing in procession, many in blackface (not unlike the Zulu parade's recognizable, and controversial, makeup), carrying umbrellas--and to claim city spaces that were usually off limits, exercising a freedom to imagine and craft their identities. There are so many visual and historical affinities, even if coincidental, with the tradition of Mardi Gras here in New Orleans.

This article was produced as part of a collaboration between Pelican Bomb and NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune. More information about Pelican Bomb can be found at pelicanbomb.com.