Atiyyah Khan is a writer, researcher and arts journalist based in Cape Town. She has been writing about music and culture in South Africa since 2008. She is also the co-founder of music collective Future Nostalgia, which hosts regular vinyl listening sessions around Cape Town.
At the Cape Town launch of The Initiation, a book heralded as “the first graphic autobiography by a Black South African,” Mogorosi Motshumi, in keeping with his character, gracefully sidestepped having to dwell in the limelight for too long. “Thank you and thank you,” he said to the packed audience before taking his seat.
But it is because Motshumi speaks sufficiently through his art and has done so throughout the last 30 years working as a political artist, beginning with The Friend newspaper in the 1970s. What better way to convey his life story than though the medium he communicates best in and has dedicated his life to. The Initiation is the first instalment of a three-part autobiography which has been ten years in the making – Book Two: Jozi Jungle and Book Three: Back to the Blues are still on the way – but when asked about it, he replied, humbly: “I’m a little bit worried that the lines are too thin, but that’s my fault anyways.”
The significance of the work is doubly important as, at the time of publishing, Motshumi had lost sight in one eye and the other is slowly deteriorating. Like many often overlooked and underrated South African artists, he has not reaped the benefits of a country still in transition. The work put into the book was done with minimal materials, living alone in Bloemfontein, in the home where his story begins.
In the opening pages, we are transported to Batho, a small township in Bloemfontein, and into the house of Oumama, Motshumi’s grandmother. The innocence and naivety of childhood is captured beautifully with lightness and humour, using simple, cartoonlike drawings for the early years of his life. Here we meet Motshumi’s family and discover his deep love for drawing and his respect for his grandmother. Her teachings are carried throughout. In one scene, he is found crouching on the ground in his backyard, drawing in the sand as he fondly recalls his brother teaching him how to draw. Boyhood is a long, sweet kind of nostalgia and through it we discover Gori, Golo, Gurah, Godda and many more of the nicknames he is called.
The story shifts between Bloemfontein and Zeerust, and the difficulty of moving around as a child. There is very little emotion revealed and we get only hints of the commonplace acts of racism experienced in daily life during apartheid.
This quietness that Motshumi possesses today comes after many years of rebellion. Finding his voice and identity begins at school, where among peers there is already motivation to stand up against figures of authority. One instance is pointed out, where he gets beaten by a teacher out of racial hatred rather than discipline. He states: “I grew up with a healthy disrespect for authority.” This loathing continues throughout his schooling career in various instances as he joins the student movement and uprising against an all-Afrikaans curriculum.
For a solid chunk of the book, the pace is slow, each day unfolding a life lesson. Haphazardly, lines get bolder as Motshumi grows older; shades get darker and time speeds up. A turn of a page could mean the jump of a few years and this lends to the later quickness of the read. A look into Motshumi’s earlier work, such as in Sloppy done in the 1980s, shows bolder stand-alone comic strips, whereas The Initiation reads rather like a stream-of-consciousness exploration.
The Initiation also details Motshumi’s political awakening and his involvement with the Black Consciousness Movement. Motshumi’s work as an activist and political commentator is also highlighted, showing the artist following the voice of his own mind, fiercely guarding his autonomy, even if it means falling out of favour with publications. One of the most chilling moments happens when he is arrested and detained by the security police. Motshumi illustrates his inner demons during solitary confinement in the form of amorphic figures, with only a spider on the ground as a companion.
The first part of the trilogy concludes with Motshumi being forced to move to Johannesburg and leaving his wife and newborn son behind. What is redeeming, though, is that the title graphic illustration of the book, showing three generations from boyhood to adulthood, was done by the same son, artist Atang Tshikare, with whom Motshumi reconnected years later over a joint love for music and art.
The Initiation is a transportation to a reality within realities, and manages to resonate even in another time, showing the brave nature of an individual’s struggles. Motshumi’s ability to recall these deeply personal early events of his life and transfer that via images is astounding. While he continues to keep a low profile, the most important result is that we now have an invaluable documentation of this work, with the story continuing in two more installations on the way.
This review appears in Chronic
Books Foods, a supplement to the Chronic (April 2017). An edition which aims to complicate the questions raised by food insecurity, to cook and serve them differently.
Food is largely presented as scarcity, lack, loss – Africa’s always desperate exceptionalism or exceptional desperation or whatever. In this issue, we put food back on the table: to restore the interdependence between the mouth that eats and the mouth that speaks, and to delve deeper into the subtle tactics of resistance and private practices that make food both a subversive art and a site of pleasure.
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