Manthe Ribane & Okzharp. Photo: Chris Saunders.

Defying Borders, Genres and Mediums: The Multimedia World of Manthe Ribane, Okzharp & Chris Saunders

The three artists unveil an album, short film, installation and tour around their debut full-length, Closer Apart.

Why settle for a genre or a medium when there's an entire world of creativity to draw from?

That's a defining ethos of the collaboration between Manthe Ribane, Okzharp, and Chris Saunders. Through music, performance art, video, and more, the three pull from anywhere that could possibly help create the world they're trying to build.

"What's most important is creating an experience with the different mediums that we showcase," says Ribane, a South African artist who handles vocal and performance duties.

Closer Apart, their first full length album on Hyperdub Records, finds them in progressive form, with London's Okzharp on production and Ribane singing, occasionally slipping into the Sepedi language. It's a clear vision—an individualistic project that avoids identifying too closely with any specific genre or scene, but the stark electronic beats and chanted lyrics do expose their respective roots.


Their output goes far beyond music, including a new residency in Nirox Sculpture Park at the Cradle Of Humankind, located outside Johannesburg; a short film featuring a crisp array of changing colors and scenery; and a multimedia installation in London that includes a lighting system designed specifically for it. Each manifestation includes paintings by Jonathan Freemantle, music from the album, and dancing—both previously recorded and performed live—all of which is altered a bit each time.

Every piece is developed in tandem. They repurpose the choreography, video, singing, and production as they go, using a sketch of a game plan and chunks of previously finished material, and improvise from there. This method is a deeply rooted aspect of all their work together. "That's kind of a guiding principle for us," explains Okzharp, also known as Gervase Gordon. "We like to be prepared, but in the moment you have to trust your intuition to go off plan and improvise. That's how you get the best results in everything." The music wasn't even finished when they started the film, and they worked with demos for the album. "We had to choose which songs we would use in the film and hoped that Hyperdub liked them as well," laughs Okzharp. "Luckily everything in the film made it onto the album."

The collaboration between the three started with a short film called Ghost Diamond. Saunders had brought Okzharp on to do music for the film, and then they brought Ribane on as a dancer. Saunders wanted to go through a list of dancers and Ribane was the first he had mentioned. "I wasn't aware of her beforehand, but I was like we don't need a list, let's just approach her," Okzharp recalls of her immediate impact. Pretty soon after the film they released their first EP together and started touring with Saunders doing live video. "The beginning seed for this project was a film and the music came out of that," says Ribane. "It shows the different mediums that we want to explore."


Chris Saunders is a South African photographer and filmmaker who often works with local dancers and released a book on a style called pantsula. Okzharp has family in South Africa but was raised in the UK and was previously a part of the British electronic dance music group LV. As he got older and started making friends beyond his family, he started traveling to Africa more frequently, engaging with the music there. Ribane grew up in Soweto, a township of Johannesburg, and has been creating all her life. She first performed for Nelson Mandela at 8 years old, toured with Die Antwoord as a backup dancer a few ago, and recently created outfits for Black Panther.


While Ghost Diamond was very focused on Johannesburg, using the city as a character in itself, Closer Apart and the accompanying projects are somewhat region-less. Ribane performs in a collection of settings, with themes based on color, her makeup and outfits matching each space. They range from natural scenery, to undefinable built environments, with the paintings making stealthy appearances in the background. Musically, the project is even more slippery, primarily concerned with vibe and emotion over genre or location. "Music is a global language, it's within the experience of listening to the music and how you define that moment," explains Ribane. "For me, it's just connecting with different borders of the world, not just South Africa or the UK. It's beyond us, beyond the world even."



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Collage by Ta'Ron Joyner

I Would Rather Breathe Than Think Outside the Box

South African artists were already working for little to no pay, but the pandemic has unleashed a flood of exploitative work requests right when we need money the most.

This essay is part of OkayAfrica's SA Reframed series, featuring personal writing from some of South Africa's best young writers edited by Verashni Pillay.

On the radio the other day, I heard a small business owner of a costume design company being interviewed and asked how they have managed to:

a. Reinvent themselves during this period, and

b. Think outside the box while doing so.

Their conversation made me think about how I have not managed to wrap my head around any sort of future, or reinvention outside any kind of box—beyond the one that wraps itself around my immediate reality. When the lockdown was announced, three friends and I withdrew to a remote area where internet access was dubious and, most times, simply not available. I would need to walk a bit of a distance to locate a spot under a tree or up a mountain to be connected for thirty minutes, or so.

Then I would do a basic comb through my emails and respond to work or requests that were already underway pre-lockdown. I only responded to new requests that either afforded me the opportunity to earn an income or those that allowed me to be productive on my own terms.

I was tired, lowkey grateful for the global pause, and no longer interested in the overly productive, overloaded nature of my previous normal. Something about the forced halt made me realise that I was on the edge of everything—myself included. I turned down anything that required me to join the endless online festivals, zoom panel discussions, Instagram takeovers and live readings. I refused all opportunities that needed me to grapple with any sort of forced normalcy. The ones that offered data or airtime or solidarity as compensation or assumed that I had gone pro bono. I needed a moment. I needed the space and time to re-bargain with the point of it all.

The pause was both useful and scary. It brought to the surface fears and revelations about the shortfalls of our industry and how creatives are positioned within the productivity machinery and economy of South Africa, or rather all the ways we fall outside of it.

As Minister of employment and labour Thulas Nxesi mentioned in a briefing two months ago, "On the issue of freelance workers—unfortunately with the current legislation they fall outside. Maybe what we are going to do is that after this we will have to re-look at it in terms of our legislative amendments and start a debate about that." Why are there laws that have gone unchallenged? Who should be challenging them? Why are artists hearing, out loud for the first time, of convenient loopholes that render us outside of an economy that taxes us like everyone else, and consumes us and our work. Yet, in times of crisis, this same economy engages with our art and our productivity and our products, but still deems us on the margin, outside, and non-essential. If we are not assisted financially, how can we be productive, how can we acquire the resources to produce? How can we apply our minds to anything else outside of survival and scrambling to stay afloat.

Pandemics do not mean that artists have gone pro bono

When you approach an artist with the assumption that they have gone pro bono during this time, when you draft an email to request a collaboration, a commission, a participation, a productivity of any kind, please bear in mind that artists are up against an unconcerned and corrupt government that has failed to provide aid and assistance to their sector during this time.

Theatre critic Sara Holdren says "Art is hard and most of it fails—either in small ways or catastrophic ones." In South Africa, the process of making art is hard, sure, but more than that, the conditions and the context in which we make work fails us in catastrophic ways that will require more than a debate and amended legislation. It will need, for starters, a minister who cares about the arts and understands its soul and mechanisms. This pause has brought about more questions and concerns for me than inspiration to reinvent or think outside the box. I have questions about the box itself and why I feel asphyxiated and trapped by its design.

I would rather breathe than think outside of the box

This pandemic has made me question what my career, livelihood and stability have been built on; what has been propping them up all this time, and what has been allowing me to appear valued and valuable in this economy? What does and will the spectrum of value look like in a normal that has been disrupted and now sits in a near distant future that may or may not be near?

Then I find myself vacillating between hope and concern. My hope is that when the pandemic is no longer with us, artists can have a come-to-jesus conversation about what has contributed and exacerbated this attitude and disrespect toward our practice and industry, I hope we can challenge the legislations that we have been dared to challenge, I hope we can be productive in ways that serve us and make sense for our well-being, that we will be paid our worth and that our society will realize that without the artist producing, there will be no art, or music, or films, or books and things that have kept people entertained and creatively nourished during this time.

My concern is that the "free"content artists are currently creating and the free access to art or performances, will not make this realisation possible, and that this kind of access, that was already undervalued and exploited, will be irreversible. The exploitation dialogue is tiring. Being treated as non-essential is tiring and terrifying too, and while most of the world can slowly start going back to work, most artists will probably have to hang tight until 2021, maybe even 2022.

While artists deal with a hoax of an arts and culture department that is dead to us and a minister who tweets more than he does his job, in an ideal world, I wish that artists could afford to indulge uncertainty, and fear, and pause, in ways that allow them to heed the call made by Nicholas Berger in his piece The Forgotten Art of Assembly [Or, Why Theatre Makers Should Stop Making] "We must lean into this pain. We must feel the grief. We must mourn. Mourn the loss of work, the loss of jobs, the loss of money, the loss of life. Mourn the temporary loss of an art form that demands assembly. Lean into the grief. Lean in. Lean in. Lean in. We must remind ourselves that mourning is a human act, not a digital one."

Koleka Putuma is an award-winning poet, playwright and theatre director. Her bestselling debut collection of poems Collective Amnesia is in its 10th print run and her play No Easter Sunday for Queers Sunday for Queers won several awards.

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