Fashion & Identity
11 years ago in his foreword to Helen Jennings’ book New African Fashion, Iké Udé qualified that while African fashion and art was not new, at the time “African artists and fashion designers [were] deservedly operating with a creative autonomy that has not been seen before”. It seems pertinent that now in 2022 we revisit this idea of unique creative autonomy in South African visual culture as a new wave of young black South African artists, musicians, fashion designers, and photographers are contributing work to the visual culture of the country that is distinct and reflective of the country and the world now but that also draws from and grounds itself consistently in heritage and memory. While the work of the creatives that comprise this wave is varied and while the expression is typical of the diverse range of backgrounds and cultures that inform that work, there is, and has been, a certain common thread in South African visual culture of the past 20 years.
It is no accident that the “re-” prefix is central to many academics’ readings of South African visual culture. The re-mix, the re-imagination, the re-vision, the re-evaluation, the re-definition, the re-work, the re-thinking – all come up again and again and all suggest a kind of searching engagement with history in the present from these visual artists. And a search is only necessary when there is something to be found – and a search through history is only necessary when there has been something lost: erased, hidden, or otherwise removed. The violence of colonial erasure, and the persistence of it in the become-unnatural fit between traditional African fashion and spaces that young people occupy (the home, the workplace, the streets, and even the stage) seems to spark this creative need to ‘find a way’ to synthesise the traditional and the modern since the two have been historically and presently so removed from each other. This series aims to understand how a number of different South African visual artists are creating this synthesis and so, in one sense, repairing a rift between the traditional and the modern brought about by the colonial project – the implicit rule that says ‘you can’t wear that, not here, not now’ as a practical and limiting manifestation of the persistent colonial forces that have enacted epistemic violence on the colonised margins, the “silenced, silent centre” (Spivak, 1985:25) of the subaltern.
In the trailer for Madjozi’s “History of the Xibelani” (2018) project, one of the interview subjects, an older black woman, reflects on how colonial missionaries condemned the Xibelani and its wearers, saying “when you wore a Xibelani, they called you a heathen”, while another speaker says “if your mother walked past wearing a Xibelani, you wouldn’t feel good about it. You would even ask your mother not to come to school anymore”. The garment, whose original name was Tinguvu (with ‘Xibelani’ replacing that term more recently (Madjozi, 2018)) was demonized by the European colonizers, and cast as primitive in comparison to the dresses they brought with, leading to internalized insecurity about wearing it or being associated with others wearing it, because of the meaning that the colonizers had imposed on it. What was a garment of celebration had become a mark of shame under colonial rule, and the beginning of the marginalization of the garment and the people who wore it. South African creatives like Madjozi engage directly with the reality of this kind of erasure, first by making it known (as Madjozi does through the “History of the Xibelani” video on YouTube) and then through delving into historically marginalized tradition with their own modern aesthetics.
Mbembe in Afropolitanism (2007) acknowledges that navigating the world as Africans involves engagement with dominant western “forms and signs which we have not been able to choose freely” (2007:28), but which “we have succeeded, as best we can, at domesticating and putting at our disposal” (ibid.). This is a key part of this conversation – the idea of domesticating, of localising, of using the existing western rules for African empowerment (Mbembe, 2007) versus the criticism of tailoring African work to suit the dominant rules of the west to the detriment of Africa and Africans (Dabiri, 2014). Sho Madjozi’s aesthetic is a prime example of Mbembe’s point here - describing her style as “21st century Urban Tsonga” (Madjozi on BBC News Africa, 2020) Madjozi animates, centralizes, and celebrates traditional Tsonga fashion and brings it with into the cosmopolitan world of high energy fun, sportiness, and unapologetic self-expression that is her personality and public persona as a rapper. She takes the fun, vibrancy, dynamism, and volume of Tsonga fashion to its extreme end in the new world of her style that is characterised by “the bright, the beautiful, the floral, the whimsical, the fairytale” in a significant departure from the dominance of the brown, yellow and deep green “earthy tones” and grounded, serious colour palettes drawn from the African landscape or Thabo Mbeki’s 1996 I am an African speech.
In speaking about her version of the Xibelani with Edgarsmag (2019), Madjozi says that the Xibelani is a moving thing – both literally in the act of dance that is its purpose and figuratively as a garment whose look has evolved with its wearers. She says “When I was young, that is how women and girls dressed for special occasions; it became what I understand to be beautiful… I have been criticised by some who say I wear my Xibelani too short. But I’ve stuck to my style; this is my version that I have modernised to maintain practical wearability and relevance” (Madjozi in Edgardmag, 2019). And her version of it, she says, is different from her parents’ versions of it, which is different from their parents’ version of it, but the core of the garment and what it means and the celebratory dance that it is for always comes within the evolution – nothing is lost as this garment moves and as those who wear it through time move with it.
Figure 1: Traditional Xibelani: Sayeridiary.com, 2018
Historically, the construction of the garment has also evolved over time, from the use of grass and maize meal bags, and then wool, which brought in much of the colour it became known for (Young, 2020). It really is only the length of Madjozi’s version that represents a real change to the more traditional Xibelani itself (which is typically at knee length or lower) as Madjozi’s Xibelani retains the modesty and the volume of the tradition, and the explosion of colour in her version is certainly not alien to more traditional wool versions in which bright blues, pinks, reds, and greens are common. The specific wrap-around rainbow arrangement of the colours is perhaps new, but the bright colour had always been there – Madjozi’s take is perhaps then best read as a magnification of what had always existed, as opposed to a move away from heritage.
On another key point, Madjozi says “Senegalese people dress like Senegalese people all the time, and not only on Heritage Day. I wanted to find a way to be a whole version of myself all the time” (Edgarsmag, 2019). This is something that she raises in many of her interviews – this search for consistency and wholeness in African aesthetic and identity, which, because of colonial erasure, has become something that needs to be achieved with creative experimentation and effort.
Figure 2: Madjozi’s version: Edgarsmag. 2019
She makes the point in her “History of the Xibelani” (2018) video as well, saying “if we are only VaTsonga on special occasions or public holidays, then who are we the rest of the time?” In a similar vein, in an interview with Slikour Onlife in 2018 Madjozi asks “why must this globalised culture erase everything African?” and goes on to say “there must be a way that I can be still globalised but you can’t tell me African people didn’t have any import on fashion” and “it’s not possible the only way we can slay is to erase everything of who we are, it’s not possible”. There is a search for the synthesis of heritage and the modern in the language here (“there must be a way…”), and a drive to be able to connect them against the odds and the norm (“why must…”), to ensure that one has a place with the other and that the two can belong together in the same aesthetic (‘…possible…’). And, in the discourse of wholeness, a trace of the reality that the colonial project brought about a fragmentation of identity that Madjozi and other South African visual artists have committed to piecing together in creative ways through the re-interpretation/re-mixing/re-vising of history.
In a similar point, and regarding her braids, in particular, she says: “I reject the idea that I have to take off my tradition to be palatable” (ibid). What she has had to do instead of taking off her tradition, in order to “be a whole version of [herself] all of the time” and not only on demarcated/sanctioned days is to fuse that tradition into a style that is complete in and of itself and that can move and live between spaces and between days – where the Xibelani, now shorter, worn with sneakers and pom poms and surrounded by international fashion markers and brand logos (Nike, in particular, is often featured in her looks, and is a brand with whom she and Melaninboysclub collaborated for a collection in 2020), is not reserved exclusively for the ceremonial dance, but is now about dancing through life, wherever one goes.
Figure 3: Local and international: News365.com, 2020
The aesthetic keeps the tradition as central, but moves it to fit with the young, athletic, modern, playful spirit of the aesthetic that is comfortable not only on the local and international stage but also on the streets (it may not work in the corporate workplace, but that is arguably why we have MmusoMaxwell, who achieve what Madjozi does in terms of aesthetic synthesis between traditional African fashion and more modern dress codes, but with a very different kind of look and feel). In this way, she celebrates and centralizes tradition in the face of a world that is at times intolerant of it, or at the very least has not made natural space for it in the system. This is a creative fusion that begins to work against the “modern/colonial order which separates what is seen, what is heard, and what is dignified from what is racialized, negated, erased, exploited, and extracted” (Vásquez in Dankert, 2018:148) by creating more space for African tradition to be seen and heard in opposition to its systemic, racialised silencing, negation and erasure. In this way, she is “evolving, shaping, and altering” (Viriri & Mungwini, 2010:40) historical “African gifts” (ibid.) as part of her search for African identity – which she casts as youthful, bright, and reflective of the ever-changing, dynamic, and evolving nature of what African history has been (Viriri & Mungwini, 2010).
BBC News Africa. 2020. Sho Madjozi: How my Tsonga culture defines my look – BBS This is Africa interview [online]. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Og1yA-kpIOc&t=18s. [Accessed: 22/7/2022].
Dabiri, Emma. 2014. Why I’m not an Afropolitan [online]. Available at: Why I’m not an Afropolitan (africasacountry.com). [Accessed:8/6/2021].
Dankert, Zoë. 2018. Decolonial Listening: An Interview with Rolando Vázquez. Soapbox. 1(1). 148-156.
Edgarsmag. 2019. Sho Madjozi’s style is more than just a fashion statement [online]. Available at: https://mag.edgars.co.za/2018/10/sho-madjozis-style-is-more-than-fashion.html. [Accessed: 23/7/2022].
Madjozi, Sho. 2018. History of the Xibelani trailer. [online]. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zYRSQDgAfXI&t=5s. [Accessed: 23/07/2022].
Mbembe, Achille. 2007. Afropolitanism. Jacanda Media. pp. 26–29.
Slikour Onlife. 2018. On the ground: Sho Madjozi on Championing her Xitsonga identity in a globalised world [online]. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KRCVc4pUPZI&t=7s. [Accessed: 23/7/2022].
Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. 1985. Can the subaltern speak?: speculations on widow sacrifice. Wedge.
Viriri, Advice and Mungwini, Pascah, 2010. African Cosmology and the Duality of Western Hegemony: the search for an African identity. The Journal of Pan African Studies. 3(6). 27-42.
Young, Norma. 2020. The colourful truth behind Sho Madjozi’s ‘proudly Tsongan’ style [online]. Available at: https://www.thesouthafrican.com/lifestyle/tsonga-rapper-sho-madjozi-xibelani-style-video/. [accessed:20/07/2022].