Around the world in 80 days – Part 7: South Africa

11 June 2013

 zwelethu still

Over the course of four months, Barry Gibb visited our major overseas programmes in Africa and Asia to make a film about Wellcome Collection’s Art in Global Health project. In the last of his diary entries, Barry describes South Africa.

The last stint of filming for Art in Global Health, all the way to Cape Town, South Africa, proved to be bewildering, amazing and, at times, disconcerting.

For a start, this was an incredibly compressed trip – around 36 hours from touchdown to take off and, on the day of the flight, I’d still not heard anything from the person who was my main interviewee, the artist Zwelethu Mthethwa. Reluctant to leave the house and travel more than 9500km without at least a hint of contact, I called Zwelethu, desperately hoping he would answer.

To my relief, the phone was picked up by a warm sounding man, full of good humour, and we discussed the next day’s plans. At the time, everything sounded so certain.

The 11 hour journey meant I arrived in Cape Town the next morning, with little sleep and just a couple of hours before the adventure with Zwelethu was due to begin. The trip from the airport to the hotel left no doubt I was in a new continent. Table Mountain loomed over us for the entire duration of the trip. Countryside gave way to shanty towns, urban spread and eventually to central Cape Town itself, a beautiful city with a distinct architectural feel.

Several bounced or missed calls later, Zwelethu and I eventually found each other in a frenetically cool café beside the hotel. Tucked away amidst the chic crowd, slurping espresso and sporting a Kangol cap plus long trench coat, Zwelethu felt like a mysterious, coiled spring of energy, intense and energetic. I was very much looking forward to asking him all sorts of questions about his work at the Africa Centre for Health and Population Studies in South Africa’s eastern region of Kwa-Zulu Natal.

Still standing, Zwelethu despatched his strong coffee with a practiced gulp before we exited the café like a stiff breeze, heading to his studio where I hoped we’d do the interview. The area of Cape Town we were in felt like a Parisian version of London’s Camden; hip, fashionable and full of people of every colour as they relaxed or shopped. It became clear this was Zwelethu’s domain, breaking off from our trip to briefly talk to friends, firm up arrangements, and so on. I was quickly building a picture of a man who is fully ‘on’.

In stark contrast to Katie Paterson’s pearl-esque studio in Berlin, Zwelethu briskly welcomed me into his frenetic studio; a living museum of his mind. Canvases were everywhere, piled up or mounted in various states of completion, the walls were covered in ‘notes’ and scribblings and more than anything there were pastels. Small pastels, big pastels, huge pastels like bricks; as if a rainbow had exploded in this room, shattering into these varied pieces of chalk and dust.

From a filmmaking perspective, this was a gift. As I set up the camera for our interview, Zwelethu took me by surprise, stating that he hadn’t been sure he was going to go through with the interview until he’d met me, to see if I was giving off the ‘right kind of energy’. Part of me was mystified – I’d travelled 9500km! However, even in those first few minutes together, I could see how tuned in this artist was to people – how easily he ‘got them’.

Relieved that I was, indeed, emanating the right vibe, we started the interview. Only now did I see how experienced Zwelethu was in front of a camera. There were no nerves, only long thoughtful pauses as he digested each question before unfalteringly providing a wonderfully articulate and insightful response. I should have known this would be the case in advance, after all, this man is one of the most prominent artists in South Africa.

Zwelethu allowed me to film various aspects of his studio. Naturally, a range of charcoal shots made it in but he also took great pleasure in showing me a very bizarre piece of furniture: a dresser filled with human hair. I was so struck by the oddness that I completely missed the intent of this particular piece of art, but there was something lyrical about this one specific component of a multitude of humans being hoarded into a drawer.

I’d explained to Zwelethu that during my other trips abroad it had been useful, if possible, to capture a sense of the place we were filming, largely to help create visually and culturally distinct locations for the film being made about the project. He thought for a long moment then smiled as he stormed away, ‘Let’s go, I have something special to show you.’

Even as we drove, Zwelethu wouldn’t tell me where we were going. His preferred weapon of choice is a beautiful, large format digital camera; at least when taking composed shots. But for general research whilst driving or walking around, he uses a cheap, plastic disposable camera. Riding along with Zwelethu amounts to lively conversation punctuated with the occasional ‘click and ratchet’ of his research tool as he captures another images to feed his imagination and wind on the film for the next shot.


At last I saw where he was taking me, the local township, or shanty town. As a London dweller, the sight of a full-scale township is so incompatible with my worldview, that it took a good while for it to sink in. A sea of thousands upon thousands of multi-coloured dwellings, none higher than one story tall, none larger than a decent sized shed. All of them made of a potpourri of basic materials, corrugated metal, wood, brick.

Just like Zwlelethu’s studio, the township was peppered with bright primary colours; attempts to add individuality, some vague uniqueness to the habitats in this monolayer of life so powerfully symbolic of the aftermath of years of oppression.

As we drove slowly through the streets, Zwelethu explained the history and meaning of the township (“click, ratchet”), that the people here are, by and large, content (“click, ratchet”), that he feels safe here and crime is low. He explained that, if someone from the township appears one day wearing designer trainers or underwear, they are not targeted for theft (“click, ratchet”). Instead, they are celebrated as a symbol of what is possible, that anyone can ‘make it’ in this new South Africa.

Spontaneously, Zwelethu decided he wanted to locate an illicit, unlicensed, bar he’d heard about from a friend, so off we drove. Past people, goats and dogs roaming the streets, savouring the smells of street markets and barbeques selling cooked meat. And everywhere, the ubiquitous sign for a brand of fizzy drink so popular I can’t bring myself to write it down.

When we did find the bar, it was not what I expected. Externally, it looked near identical to all the other loosely fabricated dwellings, if a little bigger. Inside however, the owner had taken pains to make this a decent, club-like environment. Sure, it was small, but there was a bar, soft seating, good lighting and a DJ. Expensive champagne, whiskey and a range of other spirits occupied the bar. Zwelethu, in a display of generosity bought an entire bottle of whisky for us and the owners to share. Clearly, he knew the team running this place and it was made abundantly clear to me that, even if I left my camera equipment sitting at the door of the bar, absolutely no one would take it – not whilst I was under the owner’s protection. Just one small insight into a layer of life I’d never have seen without Zwelethu’s guidance.

As I cautiously sipped away at my dram, we were brought some much needed nutrition on the house, a barbequed goat’s neck. Having eaten nothing all day, I attacked the neck with gusto, much to delight of my companions. In hindsight, my only faux pas was to avoid the fat – a lesson learnt a little too late as I watched them eat slabs of cooked adipose tissue with glee.

Turning a unique experience into a surreal one, a beautiful girl then glided into the bar who, it turned out, was a local music star. Carrying her album with her, she was going around the township, selling this album, symbolic of far more than musical creation. The owners insisted we have a photograph taken together, which is how I ended up with a photograph of myself looking baffled and confused, standing alongside this diminutive South African pop star.

As the night drew on and the bottle’s contents surrendered to good company, it was time for Zwelethu and myself to leave, waving goodbye to our new friends and one of the most special evenings of my life. Zwelethu wished to give me some of his actual photos for the film and insisted on driving me back to his apartment to burn them onto a DVD. Slightly confused, I asked him why he couldn’t just email them to me (they were digital, after all). His answer: “We started this journey together, we must finish this journey together”.

Barry J Gibb

Barry J Gibb is a Science Multimedia Producer at the Wellcome Trust.