Mongezi Mcelu widely known as "Bambatha Jones" is a multi-disciplinary artist, photographer and art director based in Diepkloof Soweto. We spoke to him about his artistry, Black representation and socio-economic progress in Soweto and more. His latest work titled "One Love" is aimed at promoting love as a driving force to do better and a way of re-aligning with ourselves as artists.
What is the deepest and highest intention of your work?
The deepest intention of my work is to explore black post-apartheid narratives in the fashion, music, cultural and spiritual space. I seek to make work that translates inherited trauma and optimism. I like for my work to be both informative and inspirational.
The title "One Love" is a polysemy, with word play on the tennis scoring system and also represents Black love or general unity and inclusion. What does Black love mean to you?
Black love means recuperation, growth and a newly found knowledge of self. The idea of single parent households is doable but not feasible to build generational wealth where our communities are run by family owned businesses. This way, more functional and sound relationships are able to be examples for kids. Loving one another as Black people is the most powerful tool for us to become self sufficient.
Besides being born and bred in Soweto, why is it important to you to represent the township and black culture in general?
I went to a multiracial all boys school which oftentimes made me feel like I was merely being re-integrated into longstanding traditions of whiteness, which had no tolerance or interest in the culture of my people. I think it’s important for me to represent black culture as a form of archiving our excellence for generations to come. Growing up I was mostly exposed to western media which inspired me to make images of people that look more like me.
Soweto has historically been the birthplace of many South African icons whose impact is still felt today. Do you think this generation has the same capacity to shift their current realities?
At this point it’s hard to say, this generation has the hard task of redefining blackness into a more harmonious state of being. I fear that classism may plague us as a people in the future based on capitalism being a western ideal. “Ubuntu” in a capitalist society is almost non-applicable. As we look to gain economic freedom this may create a divide amongst us and that’s why collaborations outside of our comfort zones are important for us to create a genuine sense of unity amongst ourselves
(Some of Bambatha Jones' photography shot in Soweto)
In terms of socio-economic progress, townships have not progressed as readily as suburban areas, why do you think that is?
Legacies of white privilege still persist. High levels of poverty and rampant unemployment still haunt black communities. Majority of South Africa’s wealth is held by the minority. A lot of big South African businesses were started pre-democracy. These same businesses have become monopolies which the majority depend on for employment and survival (i.e Shoprite, Pick ’n Pay, Eskom, Telkom, Clicks etc.) This is the consequence of imposed racial harmony and the silencing of trauma in the absence of serious consequences for historical injustice.
And in your opinion, how can townships progress to be economically empowered societies, in a self-sufficient and self-accountable way?
I’m no economic analyst or expert but in my opinion there are many challenges and constraints facing township entrepreneurs that need to be overcome, challenges such as historical background, location, aeing infrastructure, lack of investing to townships, overpopulation and corruption from agencies such as the NYDA. From an artist point of view, I believe that a culture of creativity and entrepreneurship is needed in the townships in the form of workshops and seminars, teaching people about becoming self-sufficient within their immediate environment this way people start holding themselves more accountable for their financial situation. Trade schools are also necessary for people who can’t afford higher education but still want to be employable on a consistent basis.
What do you think are some of the treasures that Soweto and its people have that have yet to be highlighted and appreciated?
A new wave of designers, musicians and artists that are making work that is authentic and relatable to the experience of the indigenous people.
Tell us about your association with Intergalactic studios and how that relationship came about?
Intergalactic Studios is a London based artist agency that specialises in film and image making. The studio represents photographers and directors from South America, Europe, Asia and Africa for global bookings. I’d met one of the founders while he was on an exchange music program here in South Africa. At the time I was still re-aligning myself with my artistry and we had interesting conversations about the making process especially in the analogue space. A year later he’d pitched a proposal about me joining their agency as an African representative and I officially joined them earlier this year.
You've described your work as "pro-black", a term which is misconstrued as creating racial divides by some of today's societies. How do you think we can elevate under-represented stories that resonate, beyond race?
By allowing the influx of storytellers a platform to say what’s on their mind. Unfortunately racial divide is the reason why we are here. We need to continue to address the root of the problem that way we leave documentation of our mistakes for future generations to avoid perpetuating ignorant ways of thinking.
What are some of the core principles of how you create that you've learnt in your environment, that you may have not been exposed to otherwise?
The ability to see richness in an environment that is considered impoverished.
And finally, what excites you about being young, Black and gifted?
The opportunity to create work that is closest to my heart. The ability to be a thought leader
within my community by means of expressing my world view in a constructive manner and more importantly being transparent about the things that I am learning and unlearning at the same time.
Photography: Bambatha Jones
Models: Siphelele Veti and Leago Scars
Interview: Phendu Kuta
Producer : @bambathajones
Colour Grading: @yeahlenzo
Starring: @leago_scars & @siphelele_veti
Assistants: @cedricnzaka; @foxy.brown_ ; @ughneo