Discovering the value of Creative Collaborations

Paul Cezanne's The Boy in the Red Vest, 1889

by  Thokozani Mhlambi

We have lot of artist-as-loner myths, that seem to imply that the best art is one in which the artist places themselves in isolation, only to emerge after sometime with a masterful musical score or canvass.

But that is not the case in the real world.

As a classically-trained musician who finds himself in KwaZulu-Natal, where Gqom music dominates rather than Beethoven, creative collaborations have proven effective as a way of building a sense of community around my work.

Street dancing to Gqom

In every moment in which artists and creative practitioners need to produce work, life happens. Artists must come into confrontation with real people, going about their usual work, and traffic jams, in order to get through the day.

Creative work never takes place in a vacuum. In each encounter with the real world, it collides with others. I have learnt that my creativity is best discovered in those context where I have to be economical about the means. Sometimes even without the procession of a brass band and angels on harps, creativity does happen.

When you look at the archive of composers of serious art to come from the region you get this sense. In the songs of Princess Magogo, the great Zulu bow player, you hear her singing the dialogues of her own dramas, and using her instrument as an accompaniment to portray an army (amabutho) stamping feet. Through her simple gesture of call-and-response, we get a sense of a larger world than her own.

This is the case too in the Zulu epic poems of Mazisi Kunene; Kunene’s creative imagination draws upon different epochs and historical moments in the rendering of dramatic portrayals of African life.  At times, while reading his work, it may feel as though one has become swept into Lord of the Rings, at other times as though one is in the arenas of the Ulundi mountains. Such a historical consciousness brings one to even wider dimension of community than the immediate present, of those who lived before you and the still-to-be-born.

In our modern lives, we are restless, we move from city to city, but in the process we lose touch with ourselves, and what it important to us. Collaborations are a way of bringing us into those cherished familiar places, with familiar smiles that help us as artists find our place in the world.§

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