Some Notes on Decoding Myself: the Funky Mad Hatter by Nolan Stevens
I am writing this piece as a black, disabled South African man in an attempt to decode my creative exploits in an environment where everything is racially politicised. This is largely due to the systemic after effects of the Apartheid regime which created gaping holes of inequality that continue to impact upon the country’s non-white population; inequality of opportunity in regards to education, work, and standard of living. In terms of the arts, this has meant that pathways into the arts for non-white people have been restricted and access has been made incredibly difficult. This inequality is echoed in our arts narratives and marks the nature of this country’s art scene.
Ask people in my circle what it is I do and nearly all would say that I am a writer or arts journalist, but unbeknownst to most of them, writing was something I fell into purely by chance. I always saw myself as an artist. At art school and university, I studied graphic design, fine art and multimedia design.
Since I left university, I have worn the funky hats of an artist, an arts facilitator, a curator and a writer. My first exhibition outside of the university and my first taste of the dynamics of the South African art scene was Lemoncholy; a melancholic excursion into unrequited love. It was a compilation of photo-montage work inspired by the film noir aesthetic.
The first stumbling block I faced when I made the decision to create a photographic exhibition was that I didn’t have a camera. I couldn’t afford one. Financial challenges are an ever-present element within the arts and are felt far more keenly by our country’s black population. This was a stumbling block I was able to overcome by relying on the knowledge I gained from studying multi-discipline design. I made digital collages of photos from magazines along with images found on platforms like Facebook to create the work for this exhibition. The exhibition sold out and I decided to concentrate on narrowing the gap for others who did not have ready access to visual arts. I began by facilitating classes on visual literacy for teens who could not afford to continue studying past high school level. I offered classes at David Krut Publishing Taxi Art Education Programme (TAEP). Later, I designed and facilitated a film theory course alongside the art course. This phase of my practice confirmed two distinct societal issues present in South Africa; the first being the large racial divide within the arts, and the second being how closely this divide was linked to the class and economic divide in the country. The funding for these courses ran out, and although I attempted to continue facilitating the courses using my own funds, I didn’t get far. I turned my attention to independent curation.
The curation bug bit when I joined an art collective called BATAKI Kollektive. It was here that I first began hearing artists express their frustration at always being only one of two or three artists of colour in group exhibitions. This sentiment stayed with me throughout my time with BATAKI, where I was a part of the curatoral team. We created socio-political works, including explorations into themes surrounding blackness, xenophobia, feminism and providing a voice for the voiceless. I chose to represent those who were marginalsed, creating Femme Fatale, a film-inspired body of work exploring female superhero film posters. We mocked up posters of everyday women of different racial, social, and economic status which highlighted the disparaging differences between representations of strong women in mass media and the strength ordinary women manifest in their daily lives. I also created a T-shirt series interrogating the misogyny implicit in the original movie posters, and made a film documenting how the women in the mock-up posters see themselves as strong.
I also explored the idea of blackness and identity by creating portraits that shone light on recent attacks on people with dreadlocks in Johannesburg’s inner city. This photographic-based, digitally-constructed work explored what dreadlocks symbolized in terms of black identity. I subsequently wrote about this identity to provide an additional layer of information.
The idea for this body of work came about because at high school and most of the time I was at university, I had dreadlocks. After I cut them off, a friend told me I could have sold them to a hair salon for quite a sum. They would have been used for hair extensions. We then talked about the muggings of people with dreadlocks. Many saw these attacks as a bit of a joke, I saw it as a form of self-hate that ventured beyond the aesthetic, the same kind of self-hate that informed the rise of xenophobic attacks against fellow Africans in South Africa. As I researched the subject further, I discovered that the term ‘dread lock’ originated from the slavers who first came to the African continent. They recoiled in fear from what they saw as the dreaded locked people. Africans with locks were not captured. Subsequently, slaves in the Caribbean dreaded their hair in homage to those who were not taken in slavery. I saw the act of growing dreadlocks as a positive reinforcement of black identity. I felt a similar consciousness forming in relation to my own body and my experience of disability.
In terms of my own arts practice, it was an important boost to my career to be included in a group exhibition of print makers showing our prints at the Washington Print Gallery in Washington DC, USA. One of my digital prints was bought by the then custodian of the Smithsonian Gallery. I continued working on the idea of black identity and pride by representing the black face in a selection of pen drawing portraits created for the Nando’s Creative Block Project.
I commented on how I believed that representations of self and the idea of seeing one’s self was a contemporary idea which is relatively new to black South Africans. It was this kind of conceptual thinking that led to me winning the Best New Comer Award in the Black Like Us Competition with my A1 charcoal drawing of an imposing and defiant Miles Davis. This reflection on the black self is one which was being emphasised by many of South Africa‘s younger crop of artists like for example, Nelson Makamo. Makamo’s work of brightly-coloured prints, paintings and drawings, often depicting black African children as extreme close-up portraits or black children running and playing. In hindsight, it occurs to me that the conceptual seeds relating to blackness also influenced and intersected with the nascent underpinnings of art work around my disabled body. I was tilling the soil of disability art at the time I was studying Fine Art, grappling with feelings of being trapped in my body. While the medium and subject matter of wax-cast disabled limbs and deconstructed figures seemed not to have a place within the South African arts landscape of blackness – themes of being othered and the search for confidence in who I was were taking form within me and were intrinsically linked.
In addition to my curation at BATAKI, I independently curated group exhibitions under the banner of ‘A Funky Mad Hatter Joint’. The title was a nod to film director Spike Lee’s self-funded, ‘A Spike Lee Joint’ films. I was at that stage also exploring gender oppression and identity. I tackled femininity in the all-female exhibition ‘Pink Light District’. This exhibition asked women artists to respond to a brief on prostitution by creating work which addressed ways they felt prostituted by society, culture, or the media. In the subsequent two years, I curated annual thematic group-art exhibitions focusing on the complaints surrounding the lack of exhibition opportunities and discrimination surrounding artists of colour and women in the local art scene. Whilst my first curated group exhibition was female centred, the three that followed sought to address gender and racial representation.
I was also concerned about socio-political issues relating to children. ‘Deck Society’ was a collaboration with the international skateboarding and educational organization, Skateistan. I asked participating artists to create Afro-Pop art work on skateboard decks addressing the oppression of children. The project raised funds for the construction of a Johannesburg headquarters for the Sounds and the City project where artists came together and using a musical track as their point of entry made visual art and music to comment on the social dynamics and perceptions of inner city life.
My writing often weaves a path through other art forms. I write about the arts to bridge gaps between creative artistic expression; from theatre, dance and music to visual art. I hope to present each art form and subject in an accessible manner to those who have not previously been exposed to art but also to unearth new and exciting view points for those who already interact with the arts. By constantly being aware of the systemic divide that affects black people in this country, my arts writing is most often from the viewpoint of those who have not had access to the arts. Similarly, my writing on disability, although mostly for international publications, aims to introduce readers to the challenges of disabled creatives. This writing is a political action that pushes against the expected norms of the South African arts industry.
By seeking to present a truth which is rarely part of the dominant narrative, my writings often take the form of conversational pieces which offer alternative understandings of subjects previously untapped or thought to be old hat. This was the case with ‘Urban Concerns’, a collaborative cultural exchange project between Johannesburg and Umea, Sweden. I wrote about life in inner-city Jo-burg for both the project’s website and fanzines, encouraging cross-cultural Skype dialogues between the Umea hub and the hub at the Johannesburg Art Gallery (JAG).
I also use my writing skills to aid other artists in constructing their artist statements and catalogue texts as many artists of colour are self-taught or unable to find the words to articulate the concepts or meanings behind their creations.
While the various elements of my practice may seem disjointed, they all stem from experiencing life as a black, disabled man living in South Africa. I, like many black South Africans, am acutely aware of discrimination, barriers and oppression but as a disabled person my awareness is sharpened that much more. This positioning enables me to look at the world from alternative angles while attempting to find creative solutions to the systemic challenges facing South Africans.
My experience with disability arts is limited but growing. It has allowed me to understand life from the perspective of those on the fringes of society. Particularly as during the course of my life, I have not been allowed to speak out about the disabling factors within my society. I battle with marginalization and self-censorship and this has seeped into my arts practice. In short, my work is about seeking justice and providing platforms for those whose voices are not being heard. This, I hope helps in decoding me, Nolan the Funky Mad Hatter Stevens, the artist.
Published 14 February, 2020
NOLAN STEVENS was born in exile in Swaziland but has lived the better part of his life in inner-city Johannesburg. His mother, Stella May Ntsihlele wrote children’s books, short stories and plays. He attributes his love of writing to her. Nolan is a visual artist who works with ideas of Blackness in an Afro-urban context. He explores various aspects of black identity in his art making, arts writing and curatorial projects. He was chosen as UK Unlimited’s 2018 international placement. The experience has shifted his perspective of how he views disability and how he sees himself as a disabled creative contributing to the understanding of disability arts. Nolan feels that barriers faced by people with disability in South Africa are difficult to overcome, both in terms of infrastructure as well as public education. He was the only disabled artist at art school, university and in his immediate artist environment. He did not want to be pitied and tried to fit into the ‘norm.’ He has always had to make do and try to work within the structures that are already in place. He is only now beginning to seek out others in the disability arts community.