In September 2019, as South Africa was seized by yet another paroxysm of xenophobic violence targeting mainly African nationals, another scourge was pulverizing the beleaguered nation: the scandal of rape and gender-based violence. Rather than focusing on its apparently innate xenophobic nature, South Africa sought to normalize herself by decrying the unacceptably high rates of gender-based violence. There have been numerous initiatives in the past that attempted to minimize the problem of gender-based violence. Sanya Osha beams the spotlight on one of such initiatives, focusing on the work of a performance poet, Ntsiki Mazwai.

In 2008, the magazine, Marie Claire published twenty-two nude photographs of celebrities trying to draw attention to the almost epidemic proportions of rape in South Africa. One of the photographs featured Ntsiki Mazwai, a performance poet, a designer using the medium of beads, and a local celebrity. Mazwai’s photograph, understandably, caused considerably controversy because it was heavily loaded with implications. Indeed, there are multiple layers piling up on the meaning behind her gesture. In order to appreciate the full import of her act, it would be necessary to consider the convoluted politics of the body and by extension sexuality, class, race, gender and the dynamics of mass media among other issues. Apart from these related matters, there is also the question of Mazwai’s psychological profile to consider.

Ntsiki Mazwai was born in Soweto in 1980 to a journalist father and artist mother. Many of her early lessons were derived from the Black Consciousness Movement. Ntsiki is the younger sister of Thandiswa, the widely acclaimed singer, and the elder of Nomsa, another award-winning singer. Of this immensely gifted family, Thandiswa has the highest public profile by dint of starting her career two decades ago as lead singer of the kwaito combo, Bongo Maffin featuring in several of their albums and eventually going on to have an impressive solo career. She launched her first album, Zabalaza, in 2004 and the second, Nbokwe, in 2009. Thandiswa has won the South African Music Award (SAMA) numerous times and so her considerable public reckoning is both understandable and well-deserved. Ntsiki Mazwai once struggled to emerge from the shadow of her elder sister and is now able to stand as a formidable artist in her own right. In fact, in a few ways, it is possible to view Ntsiki as possessing more diverse talents than her older sister. One never knows where they would lead her, either to ruin or prosperity and this makes her, possibly more potentially interesting. She radiates constant creativity from her vivacious poetry readings, her bold music videos and her work as a fashion designer. As an artist, Mazwai is a seductive embodiment of Afrocentric beauty: bright, clear eyes, luscious lips and cascading curves. And of course, she is aware of this fact.

Each time Mazwai read a poem, the packed space erupted with the volume of cheers meant for a hip-hop act

I first sighted Mazwai performing at the Poetry Africa Festival in Durban in 2004 along with her ‘sister’ poets, notably Josie Winter, Lebo Mashile and Napo Masheane who together formed the Feela Sista Spoken Word Collective. She wore a brief white mini dress that glowered brightly against her terra cotta complexion. Her gleaming white teeth, which she displayed after every captivating reading of a poem, increased the contrast between white and black. At the crammed Bat Centre, by the orifice of the ocean, where the reading took place, Mazwai was already a personage marked for distinction. The event was unlike the staid poetry readings I was accustomed to. There was sweat and other bodily vapors literally dripping off the luridly painted walls. Each time Mazwai read a poem, the packed space erupted with the volume of cheers meant for a hip-hop act. And she loved every minute of it. So, she had been used to adulation quite early in her life.

Ntsiki Mazwai has always exuded confidence and a positive body image.

She published her first anthology of poems, Wena, only in 2010, under the imprint of African Perspective Publishing, Johannesburg. Perhaps this goes on to demonstrate the importance of the performance over print. Mazwai is both gutsy and rootsy and the rapport she has with her audiences is immediately discernible. It is hard to imagine a fan enjoying her poetry in the quiet seclusion of a book lined room. She needs to be out there brushing headlong against the loud ululation of a desirous throng. And those poems of hers definitely work better on the ears and body as opposed to within the context of the formalism of the printed word. This evident opposition in her poetry reveals a great deal about her sense of aesthetics. Instead of confining the art of poetry within the elitist grounds of the ivory tower, it ought to be on the streets, in stadia,embracing all and sundry. It is no surprise she is called the “street queen.” Mazwai rebels against the (T.S.) Eliotian conception of poetry as a deeply contemplative and personal enterprise. Instead of being merely an excursion in mastering the iambic pentameter, it ought to embrace the forms of jazz, house and kwaito all of which espouse a corporeality that is at once genuine and immediate. It is not often clear whether her rebellion against poetry as a sterile and elevated art form is deliberate or whether she has just stumbled upon an individual form of expression that comes quite naturally to her.

But Ntsiki Mazwai is not content with being a seasoned performance poet who releases her work as recorded albums. She is also a highly imaginative designer whose work with beads can be stunning. And her modeling of her work is also equally arresting, all of which have contributed to her not insignificant public profile. Controversy never seems distant from Mazwai’s public persona. In June 2014, it was reported in South African media that she had made a formal complaint against a bread & breakfast establishment at Welkom for abuse. The complaint had been made to the South African Human Rights Commission. She accused the caretaker of the B & B of calling her a sex worker when she had visited the facility after a poetry reading engagement. Mazwai objected to being called a common tart and hence laid her complaint. If she hadn’t been selling sex as a denizen of the low life, the media paraded a photograph of her in which she was scantily clad and presented as a sex symbol. The media, on its part, was clearly selling her as a sex icon albeit one who was palatable to the requirements of postmodern advertising and visual consumption. She objected to being ‘consumed’ in a particular way but was unable to prevent her visual devouring in another manner in which raw sexuality itself is what is being touted. This context unearths the power of civilization to transform seemingly simple activities like eating, sleeping, watching, bathing and copulation in their essence to something else. The way in which a pair of eyes caresses a stranger is filtered and assessed through an elaborate code of mannerisms that may confer acceptability or disapproval. The human world is littered with mirrors of manners many of which need to be shattered to strip both meaning and essence of their innumerable encumbrances largely derived from civilization. The shattering of each mirror of manners is therefore a radical gesture, a rolling back of the glossy veneer of deception, of often needless moralism and prejudice that places a widening as well as sterile distance between nature and culture. If only Mazwai could have thought about her embarrassment at the B & B in these terms then her radicalism as both artist and activist would have considerably been less predictable.

This brings us to the various lenses in which her posing nude for Marie Claire as a way of coming out against the violence of rape may be construed. Mazwai, full figured and in the nude, certainly invites a welter of interpretations. Her prominent slope of her shoulders display a friendly attentiveness if not slight vulnerability. Her voluptuous curves unveil themselves in their full African glory. There is a slight display of her labia minora. Her stance is almost indecisive, as if she is still reflecting upon the appropriateness of her nudity sending out the precise message she intends to send. The photograph exudes full blown Afrocentric sexuality and not scorching outrage against the high incidence of rape in South Africa. Marie Claire, the publication in which the photograph originally appeared is read by a specific demographic who are most unlikely to be rapists and who are most likely to appreciate the political significance of the act. And ultimately this makes up an insignificant proportion of those who need to be sensitized against the scourge of rape. The photograph later appeared in the Sowetan. Many rapists are bound to have seen it or at least heard of it. The average reader of the Sowetan would not fail to notice the lush sexuality evident in the photograph. And a large part of the Sowetan deals in sensationalism into which the photograph smugly fits. Instead of confronting the everyday violence of rape, the average reader of the Sowetan would fantasize about what Mazwai would be like in bed. What would it feel like to run lecherous fingers down that deep slope of her shoulders? What would it feel like to grope at those generous Afrocentric curves of hers? The two publications in which the photograph appeared are questionable as to their appropriateness as the desired outlets. One trades in the cult of celebrity and the other, in the cult of sensationalism.

There is another issue to consider: the particular politics of Mazwai’s body. This is a young woman in (at the time) her twenties and as such in her prime. Her body is certainly not a neutral presence. It is blessed with the abundance of youth and an inviting sexuality. It is a body impregnated with an abundance of meaning of which she has no control. Neither does she have any power over the numerous lecherous eyes that would probe every crevice of her body, nor the senses that would process the conflicting sensations brought about by her arousing nudity.

Most certainly, the rapist who contemplates Mazwai’s nudity is not about to renounce abject criminality inherent in the act of rape. He would most probably begin to entertain wayward fantasies about making her his next victim. Rape is about total disregard for the victim, it is about exercising a pernicious sense of power that cannot completely make sense to the non-criminal mind. In a way, Mazwai’s photograph is not meant for the unrepentant rapist who would probably remain unreformed. The photograph is probably intended more for decent society which needs to wake up and defend itself against the perpetrators of sexual violence. It is therefore more of an indictment of society which continues to allow the scourge of rape to prevail. This is the most positive light in which Mazwai’s photograph can be read.

Also tied up in all of this is the particular nature of Mazwai’s personality. A part of her obviously craves a lot of attention. As mentioned before, this is evident in her packed poetry readings and the way in which she builds a rapport with an audience. In interviews, she has also displayed prickly discomfort at being compared with her older sister, Thandiswa. Incidentally, Thandiswa had also been asked to appear at the nude photo shoot Ntsiki accepted but bowed to family pressure not to participate and so spared herself a great deal of needless controversy. Thandiswa, instead, has studiously concentrated on a single art form, music, and has built up a respectable reputation along the way. Her profile continues to rise with relatively quiet but solid achievements such as working and performing with the likes of the late Hugh Masekela and Paul Simon. So rather than merely peddling the cult of celebrity, she has let her not unimpressive accomplishments speak for her. It is in her work she finds unassailable vindication and triumph.

Ntsiki, her younger sister, is forced to rein in her far-flung talents. She is also compelled to explore the sometimes conflicting compulsions of her spirit within the ambit of an unforgiving public eye, a number of times, much to her discredit. But she also has other unique advantages which even Thandiswa cannot match. She is fully aware of the power of the photographic image and can be quite successful in manipulating it to her advantage.  In her constant playing around with her images she mixes an innovative assemblage incorporating verdant sexuality, iconic textuality, Afrocentricity, radical chic and artistry. Text and image dissolve into one another as a seamless whole. Her main art forms, poetry and design, though would, to her inevitable dismay, always remain slightly elitist pursuits.

These forms have always been rarified and in order to retain their enormous powers they need to maintain some distance from mass-oriented populism. Populism tends to lag behind the most vital boiling urns of culture. It is not clear if Ntsiki is ready to accept this sobering fact in the face of her gregariousness. Traditionally poetry—in its late modernist incarnation—has rid itself of populism and its audience as consequently diminished. So the greatest challenge that faces Mazwai is to transcend the restrictive formalism of her chosen art form effectively in order to merge it with the populism her spirit so keenly yearns. It should be comforting for her to know that outdoing her older sister is not her greatest aesthetic challenge. She has already emerged as a distinctive artist in her own right. She is aware of the seductive influence of glamor and celebrity which, should come naturally to overly media-conscious—and often attention hungry—pop singers rather than poets.

This is why it is sometimes difficult to understand why she couldn’t have correctly predicted the consequences of posing nude for a photograph. In this specific instance, the power of her deeply affecting image totally slips from her into the equivocal cauldron of sensationalism, misplaced sexuality and shallow celebrity. In an instance, when she might have stood for the indomitable strength of African women she gave off an unintended hint of vulnerability which does not particularly work well in this context but might be perfect for another.

In South Africa as elsewhere, the power of the image is particularly potent. A white artist, Brett Murray, once painted a nude of former president, Jacob Zuma entitled The Spear and elicited a violent public reaction which resulted in the destruction of the painting by a black man on the one hand, and a white man, on the other.

On one side, advocates preaching the sanctity of the artwork argued that it represented an incontrovertible index of artistic expression. On the other side, black South Africans screamed that it brought back unsavory memories of apartheid.  The Spear saga further underlined the complexities of South African post-apartheid sociopolitical dispensation as the country lurches jerkily along paths of modernity while casting uncomfortable gazes at its sectors still mired in anachronistic traditions. Zuma is an unrepentant traditionalist, a proud polygamist who publicly confessed to having unprotected sex with an HIV-positive woman and who endured a grueling rape trial to eventually become the president of the nation in 2009. Polygamy, rape (although unconfirmed in a court of law), and unsafe sex are forms of aberrant sexuality to the postmodern palette.

But the supporters of Zuma went to great lengths to protect the dignity of the president thereby giving him a puritanical hue while at the same time branding Murray’s work as decadent. As such, Zuma’s public sexuality is reconstituted in an implausible moralistic manner that denies the actual truths of the lurid details of his life. Here, power displayed its full fangs and implacable force in altering the terms of what could have been an interesting public debate. Murray had probably not anticipated the sort of political reaction his work came to elicit, and it ended up providing the opportunity to shroud the president’s persona with a moralism it would have been impossible to acquire under other circumstances. All of a sudden, the rape trial and the plight of the aggrieved woman become inconsequential and also, the incongruity of polygamy, as underneath the carapace of power, is permitted and all is forgiven.

Murray’s work rather than intensifying the scrutiny of the president’s private life granted him a clean slate upon which he could successfully manipulate his own image to make it squeaky clean and less controversial. Thus, rather than sexuality undergoing rampant aestheticization as is the case within postmodernity with all the sleights of constant advertising and the endless stoking of desire, it experiences instead rigid politicization and foreclosure. Zuma is made to partake of a judgmental discourse that thoroughly contradicts as well as denies the realities of his life. But where Zuma has the entire machinery of Africa’s oldest political movement behind him, Mazwai is left open to the whims of the media.

This unfortunate incident occurred in the same sociopolitical milieu Mazwai elected to display her body.  It is arguable that she misread the severity of the context and perhaps also misjudged the effects of her image. As an artist well immersed in visual culture she must have been aware that her body loomed without neutrality. In order to speak out frankly and truthfully against rape, a nude photograph must encompass the ethos of neutrality, something that must entail both imagination and restraint.  On another level, Mazwai’s photograph might reflect a deep-seated, ongoing conversation with herself about her possibilities and limits as a creative artist.

Mazwai’s video, Ex Cherry, marries most of her artistic pursuits and reveals much of her personality. Ex Cherry is addressed to the new catch of a former lover to whom Mazwai pledges her intention not to invade her space or enter into a dispute with, over a man. In the video, through poetic devices, she recounts a love affair gone awry atop electronic dance music. Here she is, an African Venus, lavishly bedecked with beads, rings and bracelets. The ornaments do not merely serve as ostentation; they address a well-defined conception of aesthetics. As the reel proceeds, her verses work off their charm, she claps her hands in tune to the beat, sways her generous hips in a bright and full African skirt, sits by a pool in a bikini with an umbrella-like straw hat gingerly perched on her head. Mazwai’s world is a multi-layered one; sensual, colorful, frolicsome, and constantly creative. The video also attests to her central idea of poetry. For her, the art form is primarily demotic. It should be about connection at both primal and mass levels which explains why she maintains a deep association with music and musicians of different genres.

In spite of Ex Cherry’s eye-catching visuals, there is more than a hint that the work is more of a privileging of style over substance. At a glance, it does not even begin to assert all the power and potentials of poetry in terms of depth and history. Mazwai is also keen to appear as a pop diva thereby undercutting the force of both oral and written poetry. This unresolved dilemma in the work may be related to the broader issue of how she intends to harness her wide-ranging talents for maximum effect. She does not appear to be decided on whether public attention should be solely focused upon the work and nothing else or upon herself, the semi-glamorous and somewhat conflicted diva who could prove to be quite a handful as a personality.

Poetry has always been threatened with extinction when it fails to connect at broader levels as opposed to being confined to marginal or elitist milieus. Apart from the declarative deportment of American beat bards, poets who have sought to re-ignite the relevance of the art have often explored the more direct musicality of popular forms of expression with music being the most obvious example.

In other scenarios, there have been notable cases in which poets have probed and employed popular music as ways of reaching more engaged audiences. Steven Jesse Bernstein, the tragic American grunge poet made his name not by holding his controversial readings in prim and proper libraries or university common rooms but by frequently performing in punk rock clubs which were usually intense and violent engagements. Sometimes he would perform with Twinkie, his pet mouse, twirling its tail around his mouth. What other way than this to engage with a possibly bored audience? For Bernstein, his poetry had to be as intense as a sharpened rake. And rather than via books, he is mainly remembered through CD compilations such as the Sub Pop releases, Sub Pop 200 (1988) and Prison (1991).

Another interesting example is the experience of John Cooper Clarke, the British punk poet. When he was at school the most encouragement, he got from his teachers was that they told him to forget about the art and do something else. The art was meant for a certain class of people to which he did not belong. Instead he persevered taking his burgeoning art directly to the people and out of the discouraging classrooms where teachers had scoffed at him. Just as Bernstein, he developed his craft in sweaty punk rock clubs. Clarke has always been closely involved with musicians from The Clash (punk), and The Fall (post-punk) to the Arctic Monkeys. The saving grace for him as an artist was in recognizing the demotic qualities of punk which involved a different mindset in chemical and aesthetic terms.

Finally, there is also the case of the Last Poets in the United States who are often labeled the godfathers of rap. The Last Poets emerged from Harlem during the political turbulence of the 1960s and managed to articulate the rage and frustration of Black America. Their poetry broached a different cerebral category. It was poetry that was meant to inspire radical thought but also to serve as the backbeat for sociopolitical revolution. And once again, music provides the basis through which to articulate their pressing concerns. The Last Poets are best remembered for delivering two seminal albums The Last Poets (1970) and This is Madness (1971) which chronicle Black America’s fight against political servitude.

There is the contention that poetry that is largely performance-based is often disappointing on the printed page. Perhaps this is why it took Mazwai several years to release her first collection of poems even after spending quite a number of years on the performance circuit. Mazwai’s performance mode is one that seeks to break away from the strictures of scribal poetry while at the same time, her work ends up embracing a wider appreciation of performance encompassing music, visual culture and individual stylization. And so, while there is a noticeable withdrawal from scribal culture and its more durable qualities, it is substituted with the infectious potency and immediacy of orality.

Mazwai’s art connects at a number of levels with these different traditions but obviously not due to any deliberateness on her part. First, in seeing poetry as a demotic art and secondly, in drawing upon popular music to reach a broader audience. Her sociopolitical concerns are also noteworthy: the plight of the contemporary South African female folk forced daily to confront the problem of domestic abuse, gender-based violence, the dehumanization of rape and femicide. In order to pass across this urgent message she has had to re-discover and re-model the fading art of poetry whose future in her inventive hands becomes bright, relevant and interesting. More importantly, her nude photograph operates with varying degrees of success in the contexts of her life and work. It could serve as piece of cheap fodder for celebrity hounds, it could end up throwing the warped fantasies of unreconstructed rapists into further disarray, it could attest to the ever-unfolding horizons of her sexuality and finally, it could act as a spur for decent society to act against sexual violence. Mazwai’s body, as argued, is far from neutral and the contexts in which it articulates different messages are also ridden with numerous conflictual meanings. All these combustible elements and scenarios are as fortuitous, unpredictable and potentially interesting as an anonymous sexual act.

Mazwai’s controversial nude

Sometimes it is difficult to disentangle in Mazwai’s nude display the strong element of performativity from the act as a purely political event. This complexity would tend to embody that of the South African nation which has both modern and premodern attributes, parochial and cosmopolitan tendencies and humane and brutal tendencies. Whatever the case, Mazwai is not fully in control of her image within the unruliness of furious national internal interrogations as her message gets obscured, at some moments, by the multiple contradictory proclivities within the South African viewing public, on the one hand, and by her own internally antagonistic resolutions, on the other. In other words, the meaning of her nudity is far from being simplistic as it incorporates the opposing sentiments expressed by the South African public just as well as it includes numerous and often unclear anxieties of her own.

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