zandile tisani’s johannesburg is an electric city and a haven for black artists

Across her short films and upcoming web series, Zandile is looking at evolving African identity, the echo of gentrification and how the rest of the world got South African street style all wrong.

by Wendy Syfret
28 September 2016, 1:40am

Photo by Gontse More

Zandile Tisani's films are sensitive and fantastical portraits of quiet existences. Largely inspired by her home city of Johannesburg, tinted with humour and an instinct for the ridiculous, they pick at fashion, culture, identity and race. While many local artists are using their work to answer the ever evolving (and endlessly exciting) question what is South African identity? Zandile is looking in a different direction. With an unwavering focus on the individual — the way they dress, eat, speak, breath in and out — her work vibrates with ideas about class, gender, sex and violence.

Conversation with Zandile slips between thoughts on personal safety to globalisation's impact on South African street style. Her manner of speaking is easy, and lulls you into a tangle of perspectives. But when the chat is done one thing lingers: the sense that something very exciting is going down in her hometown, and she's right in the middle of it.

Hey Zandi, your work is so anchored in the Johannesburg scene, can we start by getting a bit of a sense of what the city is like right now?
There's a kind of energy with Johannesburg, a relentless feeling of progression. You never really feel like there's a moment to stop and wait, or look around and doubt, there's just this momentum that hurdles you forward. It's very much under construction, literally and I suppose culturally. There are a lot of people moving in and out: there's a strong African immigrant community and then also this gentrifying process. It's not an ordered city, but for me the chaos is part of what I find inspiring.

Where do you feel the art community fits within this discussion of gentrification. Are you part of the creeping change or the original chaos?
It's a combination: it would be a lie to say I haven't benefitted from, or engaged with, the gentrified aspect of what Johannesburg is. In many ways it's helped to shape or order creative life. It's definitely not without its problems and its limitations, but I think it has drawn a lot of people back to the city centre. Before people stayed in the suburbs and the arts scene was only in affluent areas. It's important for art and culture to live among people, among the hub, it makes it more accessible, particularly in a "developing country."

Zandile's film 'Highlands' was about Johannesburg's relationship with water.

You see South Africa as "developing"?
When I say developing, I'm not speaking in political terms. I mean we're still learning a lot about our South African identity. Everyone understands their own traditional identity — Zulus, Afrikaans — but trying to come to a cohesive South African identity, that's very much under development. It's something creative people are making as it happens, not something you can look and find somewhere, it's something we're all involved in creating. That's what I mean by developing.

You obviously love Jo'burg, do the perceptions of it being violent play on your mind?
Aspects of that are true, it can be a very dangerous place, but it's also an incredibly soulful place. It's an odd thing to say, but it's also a very comfortable place to be black, or a black artist. It feels like you have room in Johannesburg, you don't have to fight for space as much as you would have in a place like Capetown.

You've worked as a stylist and your interest in fashion is apparent in your films — especially Yeoville. Are you engaged with the South African fashion scene?
I am, but I think what we understand, or celebrate, as South African fashion, isn't realistic to what SA street style is. When the SA street style wave came to the world, essentially it was people reacting what they saw in Brooklyn or Copenhagen or whatever. I was trying [in Yeoville] to talk about what people are really wearing. It wasn't really influenced by stuff you were seeing on The Sartorialist, or whatever style blog you were looking at, it was about how people were dressing and fashioning themselves on a daily basis. As opposed to how people were re-enacting what's fashionable elsewhere.

We should point out that Yeoville is the name of the suburb the film is set. Tell me about it.
Yeoville has changed dramatically over the last 10 years. During the apartheid it was one of the few places that people of cross races could interact, it was very much a Jewish liberal community. That kind of changed over the years, now there's a very strong African, particularly West-African, immigrant community. I was interested in was how people were carrying their homes with them in the way they dressed. That was talking about how modern, urban Africa was representing itself. People move into these cultural centres, but you can still tell just by looking at someone, "that guy's Nigerian." It's not because he dressed in traditional garb, there are just elements of where he's from, he's representing his culture.

'Yeoville' is a look at South African fashion, and how it knits together the country's immigrant communities. 

At the time you lived there, but you don't anymore, right?
No I don't, I had to get out. It's dangerous. I was living by myself in a ground floor apartment — it was a matter of time before something happened. The building I lived in was amazing, a lot of SA artists lived there, no one had their doors locked, everyone walked into everyone's apartment, it's a really great vibe. But on the streets it was getting a bit hairy.

It must have been hard to admit this place you love and take inspiration wasn't safe anymore.
It definitely was. It was a long conversation with myself. I wanted to participate in Johannesburg culture and not be stuck in the suburbs sipping coffee, disconnected from what was going on. But I realised that idea can be quite romantic, and not necessarily how I contribute to culture. The way I contribute is by producing good work. Putting myself at risk isn't part of what I'm doing with my work, it seemed silly to insist on doing that. It wasn't easy though, there was a lot about myself, my comfort and my pride I had to confront.

Are inspired by your new area at all?
I wouldn't say inspired, but there's a lot I've picked up on. The area I live in has a WhatsApp safety community group, you can report suspicious activity. It's really like a poor black person watch group. I dunno if I find it inspiring, but I've become very aware of how we protect our privilege. Safety can be such a loaded term, such a loaded concept. You can get away with almost anything in the name of safety.

Before we go, let's talk about your new web series People You May Know.
I started writing this when I was still in Yeoville, the character's apartment is actually the apartment I lived in. I suppose it's a version of myself and a group I know from the Johannesburg scene. They're in their late 20s and about to come into their 30s not having achieved anything near to what they imagined they were going to. It's about people who graduated in 2008 as the world was going through a major financial crisis. People who did everything right, went to varsity, studied the degree their parents told them to and realised the world didn't have room for them or their dreams at that time.

With a project like this, do you feel pressure to have a message? Or be taking a stance?
Yeah I do, I think had this series gotten made quickly, when I was writing it, I might have fallen to that pressure. The fact it's taken time helped me, I grew along with the process. I can't represent anything outside of myself. It's important people know there are many different types of black females. I'm not "the black female." I don't represent what all black females are thinking. There are a lot of black females that think very differently to me, love very differently to me, and I've tried to include those characters. I can only be honest about my own experience. 



Text Wendy Syfret

South Africa
street style
zandile tisani