Arts + Culture

Revolutionary Sex in Johannesburg

This young curator is sparking a Joburg sex revolution.

Lerato Bereng, currently walking about the second room with a visitor, is black girl magic personified. She went on a vertical leap and curated a show where Mapona's straight-to-DVD shenanigans can exist alongside Steven Cohen's titillating––albeit multiply-problematic––work around sex/nudity and Pamella Dlungwana's virtuous poetry-as-performative-turn-on; where you get drawn in while Lady Skollie's illustrious poussey drawings quietly read Lineo Segoete's Basotho Women Love Sex Too; where names like Simon gush over FAKA, and all that spank and spunk and sweat captured in Jalada's Sex Anthology assume a deviant literary format, contrasting with the names of murdered lesbian women written with a black marker on the white wall opposite the one where stories from the collection are pasted.


"It was important that sex really wasn't just the fun stuff. I wanted to include the dark sexual violence history that South Africa has," says Bereng, referring to the names and dates accessed from an up-to-date––as in April 2016!––hate crime timeline drawn up by Zanele Muholi, which stretches back to the late 2000s. We're currently upstairs. Bereng’s seated on one of the benches in the attaché she'd hoped would house the exhibition in its entirety, but which now serves as the second part of it, housing what she calls “less visual things.”

Lady Skollie “The Woman made me DO IT” A phallic ode to the Blame Game we were born into Contractually bound by Genesis 3: 12-14, if you are into the Bible and stuff. 2016

"For me what was interesting was researching sex. I was starting to understand sex in relation to the context that I'm in. In relation to Johannesburg and South Africa and politics," she points out. Bereng acknowledges 2010 as a year which stuck out during her research. "There was a debate around legalising prostitution for the World Cup," she says. She adds that the period she was interested in was the ten years between 2006 and 2016. Then, as a reminder: "In 2006, we had the [President Jacob] Zuma rape trial."

In hindsight, the trial marked a pivotal moment in how South Africa engages with sex; how patriarchy and all its internalised forms operates; how power relations work to influence favourable outcomes and how, if we let feelings and emotions cloud our judgment, we could miss out on taking giant steps in how we address not only sex, but everything else surrounding sex (including sex work, sex-positivity, shaming, and more). For reference, look at how the ANC Women's League moved swiftly to silence the violated––an AIDS activist and daughter of Zuma's friend––as opposed to the perpetrator of the violence (Zuma himself). The silencing continues in multiple formats. Rap groups and rappers who've sexually violated women are still allowed to walk streets, book shows, post up on Insta, and generally go about life unperturbed. Unbothered.

Themba Siwela, Temptations on Madala’s pension day, 2012

"Initially when you're looking at it as a curatorial subject, you're kind of removed from the actual act of sex. You start to look at it as a subject that you can address artistically," Bereng says. The past few months have been filled with tonnes of "yeah baby's" and "aaaah's" and "fuck me, harderrr!!!" for both her and anyone who was around her. "We've been watching a lot of porn," she adds with a chuckle.

The initial spark for the project, one of many, came during her encounter with Deep Throat at the Museum of Sex in New York. "It was just this amazing thing that I'd never seen before," she says. Bereng then learned a host of things about sex she was "completely oblivious to."

"Everybody that I told I was doing a sex show had a sex anecdote for me. There are all these spaces throughout the history of Johannesburg, and [of] South Africa, that exist but are not Google-able. I found out about swinger's clubs that got started, I found out about a sex stokvel in Pretoria, Hammanskraal, that happens every Monday." Through the show, Bereng says, one will find out "exactly what is happening here." The 'here' being her point of reference, South Africa (and Jozi in particular).

Nandipha Mntambo, Resolution II, 2016

It's therefore appropriate that Jozi served as the city to host the exhibition's opening night. It was a chilly Thursday evening. Braamfontein was regaled in its First Thursdays' best. Heart-and-art types clamoured for space while browsing paintings and installations based on what still is a “deviant”, “taboo” subject to engage in. In public anyway, away from the bedroom, and the secrecy of surfing RedTube on Chrome with AdBlocker installed (though the plug-in doesn't work in incognito mode).

So there they were, the FAKA collective, queening atop makeshift bed structures, naked and ripped and muscular, sweating while they performed the act of sex––not on each other, though that would've been so ill!

Another snapshot: the cum.

Another snapshot: the comments; the shocked looks on people's faces.

It was at that point that I realised maybe we, the visitors, are the performers. Our outlook on sex is performance art of the highest order. We disguise our true feelings––the ones we let rip in bedrooms, over Whatsapp conversations while trying to get laid with multiple partners, in Hammanskraal where blessers go to find blessees every Monday (there's a TV special).

"This is the beginning of a conversation. I see it as not a final stand-point or presentation of sex," concludes Bereng. "This is a collection of interpretations on sex."

SEX is on view at Stevenson Gallery in Johannesburg through 2 June.

Interview
Image: Courtesy TIFF

Jenna Cato Bass is Capturing the Horrors of an Unhealed Nation

The film marks the South African director's third debut and stride towards making a name for herself in the international film circuit.

Ever since premiering her debut film, Love the One You Love, which won the Best Feature Film at the Jozi Festival in 2015, Jenna Cato Bass has been a name to watch on the international film festival circuit. Her 2017 feature, High Fantasy, was the first of her films to land on the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) lineup, followed by Flatland in 2019. Her latest offering, Mlungu Wam (Good Madam), debuted at TIFF in September of 2021 — marking her third time at the esteemed Canadian film event.

Often provocative, always thought-provoking, Bass' films have come to establish her as a director who looks at South Africa's youth, the lives they're living and the future that awaits them, with a nuanced, open-minded lens. For the first time in her career, Bass uses the genre of horror to dig into an enduring mark of the country's past — that of the fraught, complex relationship between madam and domestic worker, in Mlungu Wam (Good Madam). Set in Cape Town, the film follows the unusual, disturbing things that start happening when a young woman moves back in with her estranged mother, who is the longtime caretaker for a rich, white household.

Bass also co-wrote the film Tug of War (Vuta N'Kuvute), which became Tanzania's first film to be selected for TIFF this year, and she co-wrote Rafiki, which was Kenya's first film at TIFF in 2018.

She spoke to OkayAfrica about playing in a new genre and her hopes for African cinema.

Still from Bass's film Mlungu Wam Image: Courtesy TIFF


This story revolves around the relationship between a domestic worker and her 'madam.' What made you want to make a film about this subject?

When I make films, I like the concept to revolve around something that we all have in common - because, despite the many fractures in our society, these shared places exist. And in South Africa, we felt that everyone - in some way or another - has been deeply affected by domestic work and domestic workers, who are a keystone in our society's structure. Additionally, the 'maid' and 'madam' relationship is the ultimate symbol of race relations in South Africa - as well as how they haven't changed significantly, despite almost thirty years of democracy. So a domestic worker was the perfect character around which to centre a South African horror.

The genre of horror works really well to explore this subject and tell this story — when did you know it would be the genre you'd want to use?

The early stages of developing a film aren't always linear for me. I'll be thinking about a genre I'm interested in, and then parallel to that I'll have an idea for a story or a character, and later on, will realize that these pieces all fit together. In this case, I'd been wanting to make a horror film for ages, but hadn't found the right story… until I had the idea for Mlungu Wam, and I realized I was finally ready to try this genre.

What challenges did you face in making a horror?

It was my first time working in this genre, and it was intimidating because there's no saving you if you fail. We were also working on a very, very limited budget, so it wasn't possible to show as much as we'd like to - but then again, this story was all about the subjective and the unseen, so I did as much research and planning as we could, and just had to trust it would work.

Where did you film, and did that have any impact on the process at all?

We filmed in a house in Cape Town, in a gated community in the Southern Suburbs. The house and the environment had a major impact on the film - especially because we were also quarantining there for the full 7 weeks of rehearsal and shooting. The house was our set and our accommodation, so it was very intense, very claustrophobic, and very triggering for many of our team members.

How did you and co-writer Babalwa Baartman work on the story? You've included cast members in the writing process in your previous work — did you do that here too?

Mlungu Wam was made along similar lines to my first two films, Love The One You Love and High Fantasy, where we started with an outline, cast actors, then workshopped the characters collaboratively before completing the story breakdown and using improv for the dialogue. Babalwa and I had worked together using this method on a short film we made in 2019 called Sizohlala. She really understands the process, and it was a really rewarding experience exploring the story with her and our cast.

How did Kristina Ceyton, who produced the excellent acclaimed horrors The Babadook and The Nightingale, through Causeway Films, come to be involved in this film?

I had met Sam Jennings, who is also a producer with Causeway Films, several years ago at a festival. We really connected and kept in touch over the years, sharing our work, and hoping there'd be a chance to collaborate. So when we were developing Mlungu Wam, I pitched her and Kristina the concept and they were immediately supportive. It has been a massive pleasure working with them both.

Your films are known to venture into themes of identity and healing from the past — how does this film speak to that?

Mlungu Wam is definitely about this too - it's a story about three generations of women (actually four, if you include Tsidi's grandmother, who is an unseen character in the film), how they are haunted by the past and eventually refuse to remain chained any longer. Their healing is collective, linked to each other, and wouldn't be possible for them alone as individuals.

Still from Bass's film Mlungu Wam Image: Courtesy TIFF


You've been at TIFF before - how has your experience of it been this year, with it being a hybrid of virtual and in-person?

Things have been quieter and a bit harder to navigate, but the TIFF staff have done incredible work getting the festival off the ground, despite endless challenges. It has felt very surreal to be here, and a privilege - and inspiring too, that we can still get together to celebrate films, even though our world is in such a mess. We had over 200 (socially distanced) people at our last screening, and that was an amazing feeling.

Yours is one of few African films on this year's line-up - is there anything you'd like to see happen to try improve that?

Regarding African cinema, TIFF has a real range of films this year, across several sections. Compared to many other festivals, they seem really invested in supporting cinema from the continent. Of course, this could be better, but it's also an example to other festivals who claim there aren't enough African films, that this is clearly not the case.

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Tanzanian Filmmaker Amil Shivji is Making History with a Story of Love and Resistance

As the first Tanzanian film to be chosen for TIFF, Shiviji's film is sure to get the African country a seat at the table.