Lefifi Tladi’s cosmological influences came from the Pedi, Tswana and Xhosa folklore, stories, songs and dances that he heard growing up in Lady Selborne and Ga-Rankuwa in today’s Tshwane. In the late 1960s, Lefifi transformed these influences into anti-colonial, Black Consciousness (BC) and Pan Africanist thoughts, through his collaborative music projects with De-Olympia Club, Malombo Jazzmakers and Dashiki. With their African expression of drums, flutes and voices of the traditional music of baPedi and baTswana, these groups performed to students all over the country from Durban, to Ongoye , Fort Hare, Western Cape, Natal and Turfloop. Lefifi was a member of the Cultural Committee of the BC of the 1970s. He was imprisoned and forced into exile in Botswana for his political work. In 1980 he started to study art in Stockholm, Sweden.
In addition to producing art, Lefifi Tladi, collaborates with the Universities of Stockholm and Stellenbosch, with recording artists and studios in Stockholm, and with a Collage Project in Stockholm. He encourages younger art history students to interpret, to critique, and to develop new theories about his artistic output. He is calling for more Masters and PhD thesis on his work and the works of other S.A. artists like Mashiangwako, Fikile Magadlela, Winston Masekaeng Saodi, and Louis Maqhubela.
His multiple projects focus on preservation and include digitisation of his writings, digital photos of his artworks, preparations for book publishing and for exhibitions, and re-prints of Jazz Poetry CDs.
Pre-task: Black Consciousness Philosophy
The huge task ahead of us is to re-discover the authentic, sovereign, unifying history, heritage and cultural identities of Africa and its Diaspora: the liberated African Voice.
For Lefifi, Black Consciousness brought in a new vision for poetry, music, dance, painting and photography. The focus was the use of the mother tongue, and no imitations of Europe. Black Consciousness does not buy into “this township thing,” as Lefifi calls it. The township has always been used by the Apartheid system to limit the perception of African creativity. Township music, township art and all definitions of township have only created a victim mentality, causing artists who come from the townships to complain, lament their township situation and placing their focus on telling the world about their suffering.
But the Black Consciousness movement places importance on creating a uniquely South African art form. Black Consciousness does not tap its roots in the township situation, thereby reflecting the suffering of the township dwellers. Rather, Black Consciousness pushes art towards transcendence. And as a result Black Consciousness artists begin to manifest a new vision of writing poetry, making music, paintings and photography that was very much informed by the indigenous languages, activating a vision and history that came well before the township experience. Black Consciousness offers a larger canvass and experience to draw from, for not only our country, the sub-continent and the continent, but also the whole world. The role of the artist is to raise the perception of people, so to be able to hear, to smell, to taste and to feel our creative output. That’s what art should be all about. It is not a vehicle of complaint. It is a vehicle of enlightenment.
The Black Consciousness movement gained knowledge by reading the important authors of African origins of civilization such as Cheikh Anta Diop; studying the ancient African histories of Egypt, Kush, Meroe, Mali, Ghana, Songhai, Mapungubwe, Great Zimbabwe, and Mbanza Kongo civilisations; and learning from the USA civil rights movement, the Caribbean struggles and the anti-colonial wars in Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Angola and Namibia.
Colonialism sought to colonise people by destroying their spirituality. Colonialism promoted a white God, angels and heaven, and made the devil black. And then once colonialism had destroyed African spirituality, the colonists built schools in an attempt to master these false doctrines. Colonisation deprived Africans of the tools for defining themselves.
And what are the fundamental tools? Indigenous Knowledge Systems (IKS) are the tools inherently used to define ourselves. IKS are ancient, local, experiential and spiritual. IKS includes cosmologies, healing with traditional herbs and incorporating traditional histories and knowledge which are holistic and oral.
Building an Afrocentric arts education
When we realise how enormously Africa contributed towards the development of humanity, we become Afrocentric – which means placing Africa at the centre of global affairs and human experience.
Arts education in South Africa is neo-colonial. Very little has been incorporated in the arts curriculum, in the arts history subject by way of indigenous methods of creating arts in the schools and universities today. The perspective given to students is narrow and one-sided, and cements the Euro-centric traditions in their knowledge base. Creative aspects from South Africa’s rural past include the mathematics of keeping count of cattle based on skin colour, the scrutiny of our landscape, the rivers, the fauna, flowers as inspiration for art creativity, and developing a sixth sense of smell. For Instance Lefifi’s mother, Nomazizi, when blindfolded and doing the family’s laundry, could tell which piece belonged to whom, just by smelling it!
Artists have to be trained to have the intention to observe closer, and not just to look AT. Artists need to learn a lot more about other African artists. Art students should be able to talk about artists in Botswana, Zambia, Mozambique, Malawi, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Sudan, Nigeria, Senegal, Gambia and Ivory Coast. There are 54 African countries and all countries from East, West, North and South need to be in the syllabus.
Pre – Task Questions
1. According to Lefifi, the real issue to consider in developing our talent as a creative artist include is to know where we come from. The contribution of Black Consciousness in the ‘70s to the poetry, painting, photography, literature, and live performances was huge in expressing African greatness. From the Black Consciousness movement, what are the finest creatives that you have come across – and why?
2. Lefifi makes a powerful discernment between so called Township Art and the Black Consciousness Arts. In the current situation do you find there are any definitions or categories that push you into a victim mentality – and how do you plan to break free of this?
3. The Dutch and British colonialism and Apartheid had a negative impact on the spirituality, the culture and the arts of South Africans. By familiarising ourselves with Pan Africanism and an international movement to find the greatness within, many South Africans were able to find a personal solution for their creative identity. Can you visualise your identity from a Pan Africanist perspective? How will it look like?
4. The Afrocentric approach brings the African artist to the centre. The imperative is being free and expressing ones creativity from a Pan African approach. How does Afrocentricity inform your approach? What conscious steps do you take to bring your African-ness to the centre of your creative output?
Jazzoetry is my life with Lefif Tladi
Post-Task: Evolving your African and Jazz Poetry
For Lefifi, to create poems, you have to think like a poem and be the poem. Many think poetry is arranging words in stanzas, forging some rhyme, and standing up to explain the poem. How awful can that be? Poetry is rather the practice of one’s ability to perceive.
Lefifi’s training programme is called “Word Consciousness”. He uses word consciousness to sensitize writers about words, about language and its many possible applications. Many would-be artists are word blind, or even word deaf. They fail to perceive the feeling, time and breath of a word, which is inherent in the African experience of the indigenous poetic renditions of the Praise singer-poet, the Imbongi, and of the participative performances of drums, hand-clapping and dance.
Writing, chanting and reciting in our mother tongues, allows one to navigate, to discover and re-create the depth and breadth of these languages. Lefifi writes in seTswana and sePedi. These are languages that are very rich in proverbs, metaphors, allegories, axioms and aphorisms. The cultural context, history, cosmology and vision of these languages is totally different from English. As Lefifi says, “The British perception is ‘beauty is in the eyes of the beholder and the African is , ‘Beauty beholds the elevated sense!’”
The most important colourists in South Africa
Lefifi is a very good painter. He was taught by Harvey Cropper in Stockholm, Sweden. Colour theory is one of the most basic teachings but it is crucial. Harvey told Lefifi, “If you want to be a good artist, ‘my boy read, read, read.’”
Harvey had a unique style of writing letters. He had an incredible letter from his girlfriend based in Japan. The letter was 1 metre by 1 metre in size. And Lefifi adopted this style. The biggest letter he wrote was 20m by 1m in size. No one had written such a letter to other artists. Some of the letters Lefifi wrote were like books, 78 pages long. A beautiful and challenging letter he wrote was on the back of a 500-piece jigsaw puzzle. Lefifi put this puzzle together, turned it upside down and wrote a letter on the back. He then mixed the puzzle up again, put it into an envelope and sent it. To read the letter, the receiver had to first put the jigsaw puzzle together again, turn it upside down and then read.
The significance of documentation and archiving
Lefifi Tladi has developed a life-long habit to preserve, keep records, store his artworks properly and grow art libraries in Mabopane, Tshwane and in Stockholm, Sweden, with Arts Ubuntu in Cape Town and with Capital Arts Revolution in Pretoria.
What he has created and what he has collected, therefore, becomes a heritage tool. It exists in space and time so we may have pride in it, and be able to share it as a tool of education for emergent artists. Documentation and archiving keeps the memory alive.
“Why are our museums still like graveyards? Why do they remain so irrelevant in the history and artistic evolution of today? Why are they not borrowing from the memorialisation methods in our indigenous system?” These are some of the questions that still plague Lefifi. He wishes to re-introduce people’s shrines in the heritage landscape. Shrines are spaces of respect, remembrance and ritual.
What makes us South African?
1. The name: All countries when they become independent adopt a name. South West Africa became Namibia. Bechuanaland became Botswana. Northern Rhodesia became Zambia, Southern Rhodesia became Zimbabwe. Gold Coast became Ghana, Upper Volta became Burkina Faso but South Africa still refers to a location. Let us hope a proper name is still unfolding.
2. The flag: The South African flag today is a flag of national unity and includes the colours of the ANC and Nationalist Party cut and pasted together. It was meant to be transitional, that is, to function only for that 5 years when De Klerk was vice president to Mandela’s Presidency. It is time now for young artists to design a new flag that represents the energy of the country.
3. The national anthem: Nkosi Sikilele iAfrica was written for the collective of Africa during colonial days and was sung in languages of Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Mozambique. he South African national anthem has cut and paste this with Die stem van Suid Africa. It is time for the poets to come together and write a national anthem that represents the spirit of the people.
4. The currency: All countries when they become independent give their currencies a name. Lesotho has Loti, eSwatini has Lilangeni, Botswana has Pula. Ethiopians have the Birr. And South Africa is still beholden to the Kruger Rand!
Post – Task Questions
1. How has Lefifi’s Word Consciousness started to change how you write, how you perceive and how you recite and present your poetry? Please re-work one of your poems following these teachings and share the outcome with us and other artists.
2. Emulate Lefifi in writing a letter as a creative product. Use differentiated calligraphies, fonts, collage, montage, and imagery to create a letter that is 1metre by 1metre. Share the letter with other poets and painters and send it to us too.
3. Imagine yourself standing in front of a Grade 12 arts class, and teaching the Matriculants about your process in creating a poem, a painting and music. Use the Afrocentric approach to bring the African experience to the centre of your lecture. Share with us the bullet points of your presentation.
4. Your project in documentation and archiving should be a scrap book with striking, attractive texts, photos, graphics, poems and drawings, that preserve some items from your poems and your visual art output. Please photograph the scrap book and share with us and other artists.