For those of us who use the internet frequently, we are living in the age of the image. The visual has become one of the most (if not the most) important ways that people engage with not only the world, but themselves. The number of images we are bombarded with daily, the sheer amount of material we are expected to process, is staggering. However, while images are always present in our sight and our consciousness, what generally remains hidden, is their production – the actual conditions of their making. Stylist Yonela Makoba, through her experience of creative production, has a personal perspective of the industrial construction of images.
A scientist by education, Makoba always thought that physics had “an artistic way of envisioning.” For a long time, she’d wanted to do fashion, although her high school headmaster dispensed with Design as a subject because, in his opinion, “you can’t make money from it.”
By 2015, the year that radical Black student politics erupted at South African historically white universities, Makoba was studying at one of them. She had given up on the whole art thing, only expressing it by “dressing in particular ways.” Swaggering down the chemistry corridors, in the science faculty of UCT (University of Cape Town) she was often thought to be an outsider. However, during RMF (RhodesMustFall) her appearance and presentation weren’t questioned; people only asked what courses she was taking – with other activists assuming she was studying for an Arts degree.
“RMF felt very art-based” with Makoba finding ways of contributing to the broader political struggles through creative means, like the collective planning of a protest to dress a naked sculpture of Saartjie Baartman. This kind of involvement led her to the realisation that “this art thing can work!” On the occasions when her scientific knowledge came into play it was “cautionary.” At a certain moment it became necessary to tell other cadres in the radical action task team – who had somewhat artistic approaches to chemical (read: Molotovian) cocktails – “no, don’t do that, we’ll die!’”
Since university, with a belief in the potential to pursue a radical political agenda through artistic practice, Makoba has found herself working, mostly as a stylist, in a variety of situations that have raised serious questions about the possibilities and limits of this creative position.
She recounted a film shoot for a musician where a group of amateur Black actors, who – despite playing major roles – were recruited and paid as extras. These people were asked to relive moments of repressed trauma for the camera. Trigger. This was to get a shot of Black people smiling through pain. If that wasn’t bad enough, they were asked to re-take the scene because the focus-puller missed the shot. The instruction here, Makoba recalls, was akin to “please cry in this direction.”
After the scene was shot there was no counselling available or emotional support for the actors. The show went on, as it also does on the fringes of the industry, where on a recent trip to Johannesburg, Makoba saw a large group of aspiring influencers and photographers shooting on a particular corner in Braamfontein. The size of the group surprised her, so she asked her friend about it. “This is what these kids do” he explained. “Many of them wear outfits worth more than R5000 but are homeless, sleeping on friends’ couches and chasing the influencing dream.”
The opening of a boutique clothing store or a branded party will attract these aspiring influencers. They will arrive, pose and post on social media about how amazing the event is, how cool the crowd is, how much they love the brand … This is all essentially free labour. They help to raise the online cred of the company through their prostrating posts, by associating it and themselves with an iconography and life of style. If the precarious influencing workers are ‘lucky’, their aspiration and loyalty might be rewarded. Perhaps a message from the marketing division of the brand might slide into their DMs a few days after the event. This comes with either the possibility of future paid work on an ad campaign, or some ‘free’ merchandise – which comes with the expectation of more unpaid marketing work making posts.
While it wasn’t through the above-described channels, but rather through her personal style and a link through a friend, Makoba got a one-off job as an ‘everyday’ influencer for a clothing company. She received a pair of jeans and quite a lot of money for which she had to make a series of instagram posts over five days with photos of herself wearing the product and, of course, looking and feeling fabulous in them.
Influencing is branded as a progressive social force because of how it ‘empowers’ normal people by using their image and making the labels ‘inclusive.’ Seeing through this, Makoba insists that the ‘everyday’ turn in marketing is precisely to open up the market. “You are seen, included, and represented so that you can buy, so you can be sold to.” Black faces on bank loan adverts, people with albinism on glossy magazine covers, queer people in jeans, why? Not because the brands are in solidarity with the struggles of oppressed people, but because they profit from appropriating the aesthetic. Influencers do the work of selling bourgeois lifestyles to everyone. Lifestyles that even they, for the most part, can’t afford.
“In art you can take radicalism, put it in a box and monetise it. Black resistance art – box. Afro-futurism – box. The result of this is that the art doesn’t have the intended impact because even when it has radical political content, there is a category for it, a place for it to sit down and shut up. So, while there is a familiarity between art and politics, it is often that very familiarity that renders the politics ineffectual as they get swallowed by art.”
In early 2018, in an attempt to create something themselves outside of the parameters of swallowing corporate work, a collective of young Black artists, including Makoba, collaborated on a number of shoots that they autonomously initiated, coordinated and executed. One of the concepts for this series, called ‘WVTER’, was an imagined birth – being new in a world without the various forms of oppression that so violently shape Black life. The images capture a beautiful sense of aliveness, curiosity and intrigue in a far-out context where we are not forced to navigate and resist patriarchy, racism and capitalism to realise ourselves as people.
By spending time with Makoba, I got to see not only the final images but also ‘behind the scenes’ – with her chilling out on the rocks, and the ensemble sharing a joke. These visuals looked much more like a group of friends hanging out than a scene from the industrial world of images. In describing the work, Makoba had initially said that it wasn’t political – which she clarified to mean work that focuses explicitly and unambiguously on the material conditions of oppressed people. But we came to think together that this – the possibility of imagining something else, dreaming freedom beyond the confines of the moment, and a collective rather than exploitative way of producing work – is perhaps part of the politics we need right now.
WAVTER Creative Direction – Yonela Makoba and Imraan Christian
Talent – Tatenda
Photography – Imraan Christian
Fashion & Hairstyling – Yonela Makoba
Make up artist – Xola Makoba
Assistants – Waseem Noordien and Joshua Pascoe