Now Reading: South Africa’s Black Cultural Renaissance: Excellence in Spite of Western Recognition


South Africa’s Black Cultural Renaissance: Excellence in Spite of Western Recognition

October 16, 20178 min read

Far beyond the periphery of an all-too-coveted Western purview, is the emergence of a cultural renaissance within South Africa. No, these visionaries aren’t ‘up-and-coming’ simply because you may not have heard of them. They’re also certainly not reproducing the sound or image of Europe and the Americas. Instead, these creatives are thriving within their own cultural vacuum — to which, the boot of their influence is wedged solidly between the door of South Africa’s domain. Below are six innovators who exemplify the best of art, photography, music and literature and are also shifting an otherwise euro-centric world lens to their work and homeland.

Tony Gum

Tony Gum “Black Coca-Cola Series” – Pin Up (2015)

Visual curator Tony Gum, once given the esteemed title of “the coolest girl in Cape Town” has been featured in publications such as Vogue, Elle and HuffpostSA, to name a few. Responsible for seminal artworks ‘Black Coca-Cola’ — a retrospective examination of whitewashing in Coca-Cola advertisements —  and ‘Ode to She,’ which can be seen as a celebration of traditional Xhosa heritage and womanhood. The stunning series showcases the artist adorned in native attire, then heavily juxtaposed by modern technological aspects of Western culture. The works, which are exhibited in Cape Town’s Christoper Moller gallery, serve as a metaphor for the struggle of maintaining native identity and the beauty behind the ritualism of womanhood.

Langa Mavuso

Langa Mavuso courtesy of @LangaMav on Twitter

If you’ve not yet been acquainted with the dulcet tones of singer Langa Mavuso, perhaps now is an excellent opportunity to do so. With the jazz-soul singer’s classical, almost operatic vocal ability undoubtedly rivaling that of James Vincent McMorrow or John Legend. His EP “Liminal Sketches” is an unquestionably intimate body of work, rife with themes of heartbreak, love and personal loss. In an interview with Between 10and5, Mavuso himself described the album as an “honest and open expression of [his] own experiences, shortcomings, moments of clarity and growth”. It, therefore, stands to reason that Mavuso and other young innovators like him are an integral part of the creative scene within the country. Outside of singing, the vocalist has also ventured into modeling and was featured in H&M South Africa’s denim campaign. Standing alongside other models and influencers of colour, the recent campaign was a much-needed recognition of the importance of diversity.

Sabelo Mlangeni

Sabelo Mlangeni – “Country Girls” via Stevenson Art Gallery

Internationally acclaimed photographer Sabelo Mlangeni’s ‘Country Girls’ provides a glorious insight into the lives of queer folk in Johannesburg. Delving into gender and sexual politics through a single black and white lens, Mlangeni illustrates how these aspects interplay with racial and cultural denominators. Where ideals of masculinity are everything, the depiction of queer black men showcasing a reality that subverts this, makes for powerful imagery. As a documentary photographer, he predominantly looks to the human condition for sources of inspiration and this is beautifully depicted through the series ‘Men Only’. Reserving all judgment, the images Mlangeni takes speak for themselves and provide insights into interesting sub-cultures. His works, which are exhibited in the Stevenson Art Gallery in Johannesburg, can be found here.

Black Coffee

Photo courtesy of Jabulani Langa for City Press News

Perhaps the most commercially known influencer featured on this list, DJ Black Coffee’s prominence in Southern Africa has been well documented within the deep-house music scene since before the early 2000’s. To the rest of the world, the DJ’s collaboration with Drake on ‘More Life’ signified another instance of chart-topping Aubrey giving an artist an endorsement. Drake’s tendency of cultural ‘sampling’ notably influenced the multi-genre album, which saw the artist draw various influences from all facets of the diaspora. ‘Get It Together’ which was a Western sequel of sorts to Black Coffee and Bucie’s original song ‘Superman’ and ‘Madiba Riddim’ were undoubtedly odes to South Africa. Proving that the country is a cultural hub in its own right and that artists like Black Coffee are only further shining a world spotlight.

Themba Mbuyisa

Photo courtesy of Themba Mbuyisa on Youtube

Having been featured and given the role of Elle’s ‘Style Reporter 2016’, photographer and visual artist Themba Mbuyisa has already reached an array of milestones in his early twenties. Labelled “the most influential visual artist” at the Young Influencer Awards and currently contending for the Hyeres Award at the Villa Noailles Fashion and Photography Festival, in France – it seems the trajectory of this young artist’s career is now limitless. Beyond the world of high fashion, the subject matter of Mbuyisa’s other works largely centres around what he cites, in an interview with Manifesto XXI, as “troubled youth”. His series titled ‘Arrested Development’ poignantly examines this sense of millennial angst against the backdrop of Johannesburg.


Image courtesy of @KwestaDakar on Instagram

Twenty-nine-year-old rapper Kwesta is another artist who’s now only just achieving ‘mainstream’ recognition. Collaborations with Tory Lanez, Rick Ross and a feature from Wale on his most recent track ‘Spirit’ have highlighted his artistic lucrativeness. Opting to rap predominantly in his native tongue of Zulu, Kwesta’s prominence within South Africa’s hip-hop landscape symbolises that success doesn’t have to be achieved solely through Western ways of story-telling. Kwesta’s standout record ‘Spirit’ represented a merging of cultures between South Africa and Wale’s dual US and Yoruba heritage. It’s crucial to distinguish, however, that the rapper successfully avoided falling into the pitfalls of excitement that many international artists often fall into — which is losing the essence of what got them to where they are in the first place.

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Vuyo Mtukela

Vuyo is a 19 year-old law student and writer of South African origin. Her love of Beyoncé, social justice and literature written by women of colour fuels her day-to-day.