If creative output can be seen as a kind of moulting and shedding process, then writer, creative director and producer Tanlume Enyatseng is in a perpetual loop. His work sits prominently on his ARTivism blog BANANA EMOJI – often collaborated on with photographer Giancarlo Calameo LaGuerta – and features his beautifully organic posts and artistic creations that explore topics ranging from sexuality to art and capitalism. These stories are subsequently picked apart, then measured and weighed during panel discussions that happen via his additional BANANA CLUB portal.
In an age where one’s identity is seen as currency, where a person is the brand and the inherent mess and gracelessness of humanity often shows itself through inauthentically curated experiences, Enyatseng manages to explore and translate a type of balance and grace in his work.
However, over the course of his life, there has also been an interest in the aforementioned gracelessness. In times of duress and death, when humans become primal. As society stands at a series of intersections and we globally face a crossroads, now is as good a time as any to theorize on the human condition, creative coalitions, authenticity and transformation.
This is a conversation about life, emotions and a series of orchestrated deaths and rebirths.
In past interviews you’ve mentioned your childhood fascination with the horror genre. It’s easy when you’re younger to find cliff hangers and sudden loud noises scary, but I’m keen to know, as you’ve aged and explored the peripherals of people, what new horrors or fears have you found – especially in relation to your work?
OK, what a question! I would say recently: loneliness. Not the fear of being alone but rather the concept of loneliness can be quite a scary thing. It is a fear that only you have control of.
We are overwhelmed by so much self-affirmation and bad bitch content out there that it almost makes it wrong to admit to loneliness or allow yourself to feel it. It is one of the most perplexing paradoxes of modern society as well, how despite technology bolstering our ways of communicating, loneliness has become one of the leading causes of mental illness. During these unprecedented times, people are documenting everything – creativity and Individuality are being prized more than ever – but weirdly we haven’t learned to celebrate our time alone as part of it. Instead, capturing our lives for content somehow validates [our value] and what would be perceived as intrusive has become inclusive.
Whether we like to admit it or not, we really are alone all the time. You wake up alone, no matter how many people might be waking up next to you or texting you good morning. You read tweets alone and think alone. Behind the online performative irony and projected image is just you. I have been writing a lot around this and have even been confronted by my own anxieties around accepting that despite any kind of love I may have and continue to receive I essentially need to foster a close relationship with myself. Human beings are complex, and our feelings of loneliness are just another filter over our lives that take time and care to shift.
If *Leina ke seriti as the saying goes, what does discovering and honouring yourself look and feel like if you align this with expressing and sharing your creativity?
“Tanlume Enyatseng is a passionate advocate for creative intellect and culture” … This is the opening line to all my grant applications. I do this through my work as a writer, creative director and producer. I believe I’ve found that my purpose is to curate and direct multi-media content, which seeks to provoke emotive action through authentic storytelling. From as young as 7, I was entering writing competitions and by 10 I was writing (very bad) horror film scripts and later in my teens ventured into writing disturbingly terrible erotic literature. My whole life has been one big art experiment. And this blogging thing that I’m actually good at has just got me here. (*Your name is where you hold your weight and relates to the belief that your name foretells or defines your destiny as well)
Back then, were you already trying to make some sort of creative impact when you started out?
From a young age, I identified the power in storytelling. How a good story can heal, raise awareness and encourage discourse. In fact, it recently dawned on me that I started making friends only in my late 20s, after an adolescence consumed by film and television. I am constantly honouring myself by pushing both personal and societal boundaries and exploring new means of creative expression as a way to tell stories about issues close to my heart. I believe that despite the uniqueness, in my view, of my chosen means of creative expression, I contribute towards the growth of an authentic community of creative sector professionals, expanding beyond its traditional definition, and this is something we all need to strive for.
Still on your name and identity, and you being the first-born son; as you’ve explored manhood and your personal interpretation of it, what lessons or teachings would you want to be considered staples when it comes to how you explore this part of yourself in your work?
I have three older sisters (Shathani, Shirley and Ngwatshi) and a little brother (Kabelo). Family is very important to me. Before having anything in life, your family is all you have. And when you lose everything, family is usually all you have. I grew up in an all-female household. After my father passed away, I was essentially raised by my mother and sisters. Having so many strong women in my life was a tremendous blessing and to date, a majority of the strong voices closest to me are female (99.9% of my friends are women). Despite growing up in a household without a father, I feel like I was still given a dynamic understanding of masculinity. I learnt that masculinity is not defined by the traditional societal norms. Culture tends to teach us that manhood is about domination, control and greed and that winning at any cost is not only acceptable but is the only way to be successful. Being raised by women, I was taught otherwise.
I learned that real masculinity doesn’t come at the expense of another’s well-being. My version of masculinity is built on sacrifice, love and compassion—a lesson that has proven invaluable to me as a creative, and hopefully someday, as a husband. While I still deal with the impact of the lack of a male voice in my life every day, I am grateful to have been able to learn valuable lessons about masculinity through the dynamic lens of femininity. This has influenced the way in which my work has challenged heterocentric narratives by employing a queer and sometimes feminist approach to nationalism. The most defining moments in my work have been when I was most vulnerable and open to share stories that were – in a world where chaos can feel like the only constant – soft, extremely meta and at times surreal. Choosing to address issues of domestic violence against men and the vulnerable side of the journey queer men face when coming out are just some of the themes that I don’t believe I would have been able to open up about if I wasn’t raised how I was.
You’ve used these personal, softer versions of masculinity in your films…
The toxic notions of masculinity we’ve been fed by society for so long can be unlearnt. When I put out the short film They Shoot Boys, Don’t They? the only people that were troubled by the piece were those who, because of their notions of masculinity and how they see themselves, were threatened by seeing two men share a kiss. Through my work, I have been able to express many things and claim many things and fight my fights as awkwardly as ever. I know, it’s a bit of a stretch, but it’s been like this and it will be like this forever.
Fear is often an enemy, an eroder, a shrouder of love, I find; Love of self, love for a certain thing or path – Fear falls like snow on seedlings and gives newness frostbite. Your work, however, is guaranteed to be a documentation of something new every time …A new musing, new thoughts to think, to reject, to uplift, to shoot and share… What do you do with your fear when it pops up in life and during the process of creating?
I’d like to think that I am no different from any other creative entrepreneur. It is a wonderful field to be in, but it also tends to surface a lot of issues that people in different industries don’t have to face. I am constantly struggling with things like writer’s block, the impostor syndrome and a constant fear of burnout. How do I deal with all this? I really don’t know, but I can tell you that it’s an on-going journey for me. Some days I find a way to figure it all out then the next day that very formula doesn’t work. I am naturally an overthinker and suffer from anxiety. It’s such a stressful situation not being in control and feeling trapped. But there is something in all of us that enables us to keep going. We just need to find the tools that keep us motivated. I have always journaled. That tends to help and more recently I have tried breathwork which is boring but helps a little.
The only fear that I have been able to conquer are my insecurities. I don’t feel insecure anymore, but I do doubt. I doubt everything: my ideas, my choices, my behaviour, my decisions. I just don’t doubt my ability to achieve things if I don’t succumb to the fear of displeasing people – or the obsession with pleasing them.
Creative collaboration seems to be a huge thing for you. Has this always been the case, and how has the current lockdown affected your output?
Collaboration has always been very pivotal to my creative journey. Through my published ’zine TA ENDA (I journeyed) for instance, I championed a new form of creativity, and the idea of co-collaboration and cross-platform existence of creative expression. I’ve had the privilege of working with some truly talented individuals so far and the process has been organic and simply easy because of the trust and passion towards the work we created. The lockdown has affected some projects I was working on, but it has also brought about new ways of visually expressing myself and this will be shared with the world soon.
In your Stranger than Fiction post on BANANA EMOJI you mentioned how Holden Caulfield from Catcher In The Rye is one of your favourite protagonists. Holden’s main qualm with people was how pretentious everyone seemed to be. Phonies. How do you maintain authenticity as someone constantly going through metamorphosis in public view, when the distinction between the brand and the person is so often blurred?
I have a love hate relationship with the attention I receive for my work. It often occurs to me that because of how personal the work is, people can only relate to it through me as a person and I hate that. In Botswana for sure, there is definitely a blurred line between professional and human interactions. For example, should the fact that I used to date your friend prevent you from viewing and appreciating the work? It really shouldn’t. I am a big mouth. People can dislike me and think I’m a narcissistic brat. However, one thing they can never take away from me is that I’ve always spoken my mind, and I have always been true to myself.
What affects has your outspokenness had?
It has certainly brought me closer to the people that I really love, and the people who really love me, and who have helped me shape who I am. People who have helped me get rid of the bullshit — of the superfluous friendships or the superfluous traits of my own character; moments in my life where I thought it was cool to hate everything and hate on everyone. I’ve maintained an authentic voice mostly because of the fact that I try not to buy into any hype that may come with what it is I do. I am not an influencer; I have no aspirations to be a celebrity and this has made me want to explore new avenues in which the brand can shine and speak for itself by removing myself from any images going forth.
How have you handled ‘failure along the way?
I’ve been told “No” many times, when I was pitching editorials or trying to get profiled in local media. People would flat out tell me that my work wasn’t good enough, so there were hardships along the way, which is good, and which is normal, I guess. That has humbled me enough times to remember not to get wrapped up in all of it. I’ve known what I wanted to do, and I know that my primary purpose has never really been to drive impact in the lives of others through my work, but in sharing what is authentically me. This, should it inspire others, as it appears to do, is an added benefit. I have confidence, perhaps not in myself, but in my ideas and in what I want to do and I, too, am learning as I grow.
What have you been reading or watching during this global lull?
I have recently revisited one of my favourite television series’ ever, Joshua Thomas’ Please Like Me. That show goes down in history for me, as one of the most ground-breaking TV shows ever because it is so real. It is rare that gay men are presented to us on television with an honest portrayal of queer life that truly captures the versions of being gay that aren’t enhanced for entertainment. I have also discovered some new favourites; Search Party was an instant hit for me, I love shows with flawed characters. I’ve been eagerly awaiting The Real Housewives of Atlanta’s first ever virtual reunion and I am following this season’s RuPaul Drag Race as well. The competition is at that stage where I get upset when any of the queens are eliminated because I am invested in all their journeys and progress. I am also really invested in the series, Normal People, an adaptation of Irish author Sally Rooney’s novel of the same title.
I’ve been watching a lot of films as usual. Some that stood out are Trey Edward Shults’ Waves, Céline Sciamma’s French historical drama Portrait of a Lady on Fire and Ari Aster’s Midsommar. There are so many visionary filmmakers working in the horror genre right now. I love to see it. My attention span is all over the place lately, so I haven’t been able to focus long enough when reading. However, I started reading Homi Bhabha’s Of Mimicry and Man. Presently, I have been thinking of trying to locate and examine various notions of class; specifically, how the idea of “working class” and “middle class” exist in Botswana.
What’s your favourite medium of expression to work with?
Film. Film is life. It breathes, it sweats, it cries, it drips, it pulsates, and it lives. Filmmakers like Xavier Dolan, David Lynch, Woody Allen, Paul Thomas Anderson, Stanley Kubrick, Andrei Tarkovsky, Alfred Hitchcock and Lars Von Trier have shaped how I approach my work. I like to think I share stories through my blog posts. I’ve stopped calling my work “content”, I don’t create content, I share stories. Content just sounds like a unit of production. A story, by the very nature of that word, implies that there is an arc, and some sense of drama and enlightenment and some journey and some reward or question that you’re going to be left with. I have been working on two scripts simultaneously during this time that I wish to start production on when humanly possible and hopefully share with the world in the coming years.
Are you able to discuss any other upcoming projects?
I am currently working on a joint cross-border project with two other creatives, that we wish to exhibit in late 2021. Of course, with the current climate the project has been on halt temporarily, but we are finding ways around it. I am also looking for ways to further grow BANANA EMOJI into a fully-fledged website. This has been the goal since inception, and now that my baby turns 4 this year what better time to open the doors to other writers and fully utilise this platform for its greater potential.
Last year, I launched BANANA CLUB, which serves as a safe space for social dialogue on key issues affecting the LGBTQI+ community. Issues such as mental health awareness, creative expression and identity. With the current social distancing restrictions, I am looking into new ways to continue these conversations. I am not a fan of the whole virtual zoom call route, so its proven tricky.