As Nataal’s special project at AKAA opens, we introduce the artists who make up our exhibition
Meet Chris Saunders. The South African photographer and video director approaches his projects from the standpoint of a visual storyteller. His documentary work investigates the people, environments and sub-cultures of Africa with a vibrant and experimental eye. Based between Johannesburg and Paris, Saunders’ recent projects include Alicia Keys’ 2014 Keep A Child Alive campaign, the video Ghost Diamond in collaboration with musician OK Zharp! and the Not X CS exhibition with New York fashion designer Jenny Lai. Saunders was the recipient of a yearlong grant at Benetton’s Fabrica research centre, and has worked with leading agencies such as Ogilvy and Saatchi, brands including Virgin and Red Bull and magazines including Dazed and GQ.
For AKAA, Saunders presents Pantsula, his long-term exploration of South Africa’s predominant township sub-culture in collaboration with art historian Dr Daniela Goeller and Pantsula practitioners Impilo Mapantsula. In advance of the project’s full exhibition at Fowler Museum in Los Angeles next spring, Nataal has selected four images as an exclusive preview.
Saunders has also just launched a Crowd Books campaign to secure the release of a boxed special edition Pantsula book. It will come with a limited print and 12 flipbooks. To learn more and secure your copy click here.
Pantsula is a dance form and a lifestyle that tells its own, original story of life in South African townships and has shaped the identity of generations of young people. The word pantsula became common in the late 1970s to describe a township sub-culture, whose practitioners were known to swagger whilst clad in the expensive imported clothes. The actual dance form came to prominence in the late 1980s and was developed from a fusion of traditional and modern dance, Jazz and other music, and theatrical observations of everyday life’s gestures, such as mime, clownerie, acrobatics and magical tricks. According to its practitioners, it can trace its roots back to the 1940s and to the legendary and multiracial Johannesburg suburb of Sophiatown and its famous writers, musicians and notorious gangsters. Pantsula has outgrown its past, long characterized by township social ills such as gangsterism, crime and the abuse caused by apartheid and has transformed into an internationally respected dance form. For many talented and unemployed young township residents, becoming a member of a Pantsula crew provides with a much needed social security structure, a rewarding activity, and career opportunity. Pantsula dancers articulate their identity in specific poses or signature movements. The poses and gestures are individual expressions and create strong visual signs of identity and belonging to the subculture.
As a South African born photographer who works in fashion and commercial photography, my general interest lies in manifestations of cultural identity and has led me to developed a body of documentary photography centered around street-fashion, music and sub-cultures. My intention as a photographer and an artist is to document my times, especially the cultural expressions in the world that I live in, and specifically those of contemporary South Africa. Being of the same generation as most of today’s pantsula crew leaders and, having lived through the transformation of South Africa from apartheid to democracy with them, but in the same time totally separated from them, I am fascinated by the way space and time transform realities and change our perceptions.
I started documenting pantsula in 2010, with a series of photographs of the dance company Real Actions Pantsula from Orange Farm. In 2012 I met German researcher Dr Daniela Goeller, who introduced me to Impilo Mapanstula, an association of pantsula dancers, and I have been working collaboratively with them since then, recording the first-hand history of pantsula through the voices of the people who carry the culture, with the aim of revealing its historical heritage and showing its intrinsic link to South African culture. My main focus lies on the movement, the style, and the fashion of pantsula, and I am using photography as a tool to communicate with the dancers and develop the images together with them. The aim was to create pictures which ‘tell’ the dance, and show both the intricacies of the movements and how the dance form is embedded in a culture, a fashion and the township environment.
The challenge with documenting a dance-form is how to slow down time sufficiently in order to capture a rapid dance movement in a particular moment in time and create an image that is comprehensible to the eye of the observer. I decided to capture the basic and most significant steps of pantsula-dance as a reference and asked several dancers from different neighborhoods and crews to perform these steps, either one singular step, or a basic combination of steps. Because of the sheer pace of the dance, I recorded these complex movements on video, and later, in post-production, changed the format by breaking the video into individual frames, ultimately compiling a large-format digital contact sheet and a flip book of each movement. In a similar way to early photographic experiments with the study of motion, such as those conducted by Eadweard Muybridge, the pictures allow the viewer to read the form and grasp the intricacy of the movement.
About Impilo Mapantsula
Impilo Mapantsula is an association founded in 2012 by the pantsula dancers Vusi Mdoyi, Sello Modiga, Joshua Mokoena, Sicelo Xaba, and German researcher Dr Daniela Goeller with the aim to document and protect the living legacy of this vibrant and fascinating street culture and to create a network for all the dancers to support their professional development. Despite its increasing international success, the social responsibilities taken on by its practitioners in their communities and its potential to provide interesting job opportunities for the disadvantaged youth, pantsula struggles to gain mainstream acceptance. Impilo Mapantsula contributes to the broader investigation of pantsula as part of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of South Africa. Between 2013 and 2016 Impilo Mapantsula has collaborated with Chris Saunders to create a series of photographs to document a large number of pantsula crews in the different townships around Johannesburg.
AKAA is at Carreau du Temple, 4 rue Eugène Spuller, 75003, Paris from 11 to 13 November