I’ve been working professionally in the fashion industry in South Africa for about 3 years. I started assisting photographers and then stylists at the age of 19 to help pay for my university fees and exhibitions.
Currently in South Africa there are eight creative agencies, collectively representing eighty-five wardrobe stylists, yet I am one of only seven people of colour signed to an agency. Of the one hundred and seventeen photographers in the country with representation, only one is black and after three years of being a signed commercial stylist, I have never yet been hired by a client or agency alongside a black photographer, director or make-up artist.
“…the system does not promote people of colour or encourage them to grow within the industry…”
This is not an accurate reflection of the talent that resides here; cities are bustling with talent but they are struggling because the system does not promote people of colour or encourage them to grow within the industry. The scale is far from level.
Unfortunately, racism in South Africa did not end with the dissipation of apartheid; it is rampant within the advertising and fashion industries. Don’t be fooled by the facade of covers and billboards that depict smiling black faces— Cape Town’s coloured* population, 4.7million in 2014, is still largely underrepresented, if not invisible. If you open a local magazine and reading the credits, there is a very slim chance that you’ll find the name of a black stylist or photographer there.
When I think about the industry, it’s sometimes hard to stay positive. I’ve seen start-up companies and creative development spaces open and then swiftly close, due to the lack of support made available to people of colour. I see my friends being hailed as some of South Africa’s brightest young designers by local and international media, receiving messages of adulation and support after every show, giving interview after interview, only to find that when the frenzy subsides they are on their own.
“People are paying attention but not actually supporting these young artists.”
One of these friends is without a doubt one of the most exciting young designers in South Africa and yet, when he’s not producing collections, he works as a waiter. He waits tables and then invests that money into producing his shows at South African Fashion Week, Mens’ Fashion Week and Cape Town Fashion Week. The Fader once included him in their list of ’10 People To Watch In 2016’ but that’s as far as it goes. People are paying attention but not actually supporting these young artists. It’s rough for a lot of black kids, it’s rough for a lot of coloured kids.
It’s especially ugly in the world of advertising, where people of colour are largely misrepresented, despite South Africa being a country in which the majority of the population is black. I’ve sat in meetings in which middle-aged, wealthy white men have instructed me on the best way to dress a 20-something black woman or a man from a township in the countryside. I sit there in bewilderment, wondering how they can consider themselves informed on these subjects when their whole creative teams are devoid of colour. There are a surprising number of white individuals in positions of power that are comfortable speaking for people of colour.
“…Don’t call the (black) model by his first name. We’ll call him Keith in front of the client…”
A striking example of this tendency for the industry to mould itself around white interests occurred when I was present at a pre-production meeting with agency clients, during which the owner of the agency floored me by saying, “…Don’t call the (black) model by his first name. We’ll call him Keith in front of the client as she hates local models and cannot pronounce their names.” On set, the client proceeded to call our black male lead everything from Kenzo to Kenneth. Perhaps unsurprisingly, she managed to remember our white male and female leads’ names quite well.
From time to time, I have noticed that there is very little interest displayed by older white clients and collaborators in accurately portraying or empowering people of colour through the imagery that they produce. There is even less interest in furnishing people of colour with the tools required to be able to discuss and narrate their own stories themselves. I have personally experienced far too many instances in which the depiction of people of colour has been entrenched in the fetishisation, exoticisation and objectification of the black body.
There is a critical lack of discourse surrounding the silencing of black voices in this country, meaning that these instances of misrepresentation, objectification and cultural appropriation often go unchecked. It’s enough to drive you mad sometimes—I often find myself staring at imagery produced here in South Africa and cannot believe that entire professional teams of creatives have deemed them acceptable to release into the world.
“If I am concerned that a certain depiction does not accurately represent the individual being shot, I feel duty bound to speak up.”
I have never been shy about voicing my discontent where my work is concerned. I feel that I have the right to work in a safe and positive environment and, equally, that if anyone feels uncomfortable with the work being produced on set, it is the team’s duty to listen and be open to other realities. If I am concerned that a certain depiction does not accurately represent the individual being shot, I feel duty bound to speak up. As a result, I have experienced instances in which I have been the subject of aggressive attempts to silence me and, on one occasion, have even had a photographer hint at threatening my career should I choose to challenge him.
Issues such as these have contributed to my decision to move away from styling and become more invested in my role as an art director. Styling can be a very empowering role when one is collaborating with a passionate and compassionate team, united by a shared vision; the process of transforming fantasies into tangible realities is thrilling. However there is a dystopian flip side to this—I’ve been in situations where I’ve felt gutted during and after shoots due to questionable directorial decisions and the atmosphere amongst the team.
In the past I have worked on shoots that felt like spectacles of unabashed objectification and exoticism, including everything from models having their skin darkened with make up to look more ‘African’, the use of snakes, body paint, spears and traditional artefacts to suggest primitiveness and a general disregard for the importance of sensitivity when dealing with cultural signifiers of this kind. Stories like this have a tendency to carelessly summarise African culture and present a simplistic and undigested image of this vast, nuanced continent. This kind of imagery is particularly dangerous as it contributes to a long history of erasure of the black narrative in South Africa.
“We must be careful not to limit or compromise our depiction of reality and to avoid playing into to Western ideals of African-ness.”
As an artist, I have no wish to partake in the further exasperation of my people by perpetuating the image of the primitive African discovering Adidas for the first time. These images possess immeasurable influential power and when we are creating work, be it in Africa or elsewhere around the world, it is important that we avoid sliding into photographic trends set during the height of the colonial era. We must be careful not to limit or compromise our depiction of reality and to avoid playing into to Western ideals of African-ness.
The way I see it is that, as image makers, we have a responsibility to be mindful and respectful of the people we depict and of the intentional and possibly unintentional symbolism and messages these images may convey. It is vitally important for individuals at every echelon of the creative industries to be alert to these sensitivities and to be receptive to criticism when it comes, as constructive feedback of this kind is the most effective method we have to achieve greater understanding and compassion for one another’s perspectives on a subject that is, fundamentally, subjective.
* My mother is white and my father is coloured, or “black” in the eyes of most of the world, bar South Africa. I lived with my mother and her family in the Northern Cape for a couple of years and was blissfully unaware that the fairness of my skin afforded me the privilege of passing for a white person in a world where it is better to be white. When I moved back to Cape Town, I went through years of struggle to find a safe space within my cultural identity as there was always an aspect of shame attached to my mixed race heritage.
Later on, I began to research the history of my people and my identity became a theme within my work as well. Identifying as coloured in this country can be seen as dissociating from blackness which is not entirely incorrect. In the past, being black meant being at the greatest disadvantage out of all people of colour and to be coloured meant one was invisible, which was the lesser of two evils in a time of terrible oppression. In the greater scheme of things, however, coloured people have suffered extreme marginalisation. Although black and coloured people fought oppression together for equal rights and equal access, the experiences are ultimately different and the marginalisation of coloured people has lead to an entirely different experience.
Today, I’d like to think that coloured and black people stand together, respecting each other’s struggles regardless of race classification, however this is not always the case. Things are slowly changing but this bizarre race experiment introduced by the apartheid government is still ongoing; the beast is still alive and untethered.