Neo Matloga, ‘Ka Mbabane II’, 2016, Christopher Moller Gallery

Afropolitan. By Ashraf Jamal

Neo Matloga lives in multiple time zones - present, past, and future. Similarly, he also lives between styles and art forms, seeing music, literature, and visual art as intimately connected. It is the drive to stitch the world back together, despite persistent rupture, which gives Matloga’s art its syncretic appeal. While he may not obviously work in mixed media, he is nevertheless a collagist – someone who connects, makes sense of dissonance.
As the Dutch-Tamil Canadian novelist Michael Ondaatje notes, ‘Everything is collage, even genetics. There is the hidden presence of others in us, even those we have known briefly. We contain them for the rest of our lives, at every border that we cross’. This is a view that Matloga profoundly understands. While deeply ‘nostalgic’ he is no sentimentalist. ‘This affection for the past has increased over the years’, he says. ‘I am of an age where (I) we are constantly accused of not knowing where we come from, but on a real note the spirits and the ghosts of the past still live in us. In a way historical and political context has become an everyday psychological experience for me’.
Genetic, psychological, socio-political, and cultural, Matloga’s ‘everyday’ world is also a world of ‘spirits’ and ‘ghosts’. And indeed it is these very spirits and ghosts we see in Matloga’s artworks. Deliberately de-faced, emptied of any peculiarly distinctive physiognomic facet, one might assume that Matloga is being impersonal, that his spirits and ghosts are mere husks. But then as Milan Kundera points out in Immortality, the face is but ‘The serial number of a human specimen, that accidental and unrepeatable combination of features. It reflects neither character nor soul, nor what we call the self. The face is only the serial number of a specimen’.
A detail that deflects, the face, for Matloga, must be replaced by a greater Idea, one that rebukes the fetish of singularity and embraces a greater collective. Which is why it is Sophiatown that has become his country, his place of the imagination, his heartland. Moreover, it is a particular time – the 1950s and 1960s – which Matloga is drawn to, the time of writers such as Lewis Nkosi, Can Themba, Bloke Modisane, Nat Nakasa, Todd Matshikiza, Henry Nxumalo, and Eskia Mphalele, and photographers such as Peter Magubane and Bob Gosani. And at the epicentre of all this creative hub stood Drum Magazine, the apogee of sartorial style and urban cool.
But it is not only Matloga’s nostalgic love for what remains one of South Africa’s most potent creative periods – our Harlem Renaissance – but also the struggle which underpinned it that matters the more. The two for Matloga are indistinguishable; together they are our root, because struggle – centred on ‘identity, relationships, cultural dislocation, racial conflict’ – ‘still resonates today in the quest for a post-apartheid South Africa’. Indeed, as Matloga bracingly reminds us, ours is a ‘not-always-so-after aftermath’.
But if Matloga finds himself enmeshed in a paradoxical time of freedom and entrapment, of bigotry and compassion, it remains, however, the paradise of a greater and more inclusive life – one embodied in the romance of Sophiatown – which stays with him. That vision, however, is further enriched by a greater, more metropolitan and continental vision. As Steve Bantu Biko famously declared, Africa’s role would be to give the world a ‘human face’. That ‘face’, however, is not one that is literally distinctive but imaginative, ethical, life affirming – an African Remix.
Achille Mbembe captures this transformative power and fire in his notion of the ‘Afropolitan’ - a sartorial, knowing, worldly creature. ‘Afropolitanism is not the same as Pan-Africanism or negritude’, he says. ‘Afropolitanism is an aesthetic and a particular poetic of the world, refusing on principle any form of victim identity – which does not mean that it is not aware of the injustice and violence inflicted on the continent and its people by the law of the world.’ Therein lies the paradox which Matloga cannot shirk, even, and especially, as he seeks a greater life-affirming moment.
While it is doubtless the creatives of Sophiatown which have greatly inspired Matloga, one should also acknowledge the on-going vitality of our music and theatre worlds and, all importantly, the influence of Sam Nhlengethwa, collagist, jazz fundi, historian of cool, who has championed in recent years the power of influence. His odes to the jazz greats and our visual arts canon reveal a similar desire to enshrine history, nurture memory, and divine a future through the past.
‘Our way of belonging to the world, of being in the world and inhabiting it, has always been marked by, if not cultural mixing, then at least the interweaving of worlds, in a slow and sometimes incoherent dance with forms and signs which we have not been able to choose freely, but which we have succeeded, as best we can, in domesticating and putting at our disposal’. Here Mbembe’s view segues smoothly into Matloga’s quest. He is not enshrining nostalgia but reminding us that the past is not another country. Everything is connected, genetic, spliced sometimes crudely, sometimes effortlessly. It is this overlay of times and feelings which makes us - Afropolitan.

About Neo Matloga