Mxolisi Dolla Sapeta is perhaps best known for his work as an artist and sculptor. In 2019, he made his literary debut with his first collection of poems, Skeptical Erections, published by Deep South.
Reading Skeptical Erections makes it quickly apparent that drawing too sharp a distinction between Sapeta’s art and his poetry would miss a rather important point: Skeptical Erections is a canvas and Sapeta’s words his paint.
A recent profile of Sapeta, appearing somewhat unexpectedly on the Nando’s website, describes him as an artist who “employs colour, form and composition to portray an emotional environment rather than the physical one”. It continues:
[Sapeta’s] work speaks of the alienation and degradation of existence in the impoverished urban townships of South Africa – and the societal ills that congregate around such existence. These complex and brutal circumstances are deliberately reduced, condensed or distorted – brutalised even further – by Sapeta’s expert treatment in acrylics, creating works that confront and unsettle the viewer.
Narrative is fragmented, characters and objects isolated and stripped down, threatened and overwhelmed by flat backgrounds of vivid colour. His figures are simultaneously heavy and untethered, decontextualized and anonymous – they speak of the human condition rather than the particular human, in service of the artist’s pursuit of prioritising another, abstracted identity, what he describes as “an alienated atmospheric character in my work”.
Such a description remains apt for his poetry too. Upon opening the collection, the reader is confronted with reduction and an instant sense of hopelessness. The first poem, ‘bottom of an envelope’, conjures an individual requesting forgiveness for his “apologetic speech and reason” and who, at the poem’s closing, remains “armed with nothingness”. This is a man who personifies the environment of despair in which he lives; the New Brighton township of South Africa’s Eastern Cape. As Robert Berold, writing for Africa in Words in May this year observes, Sapeta has “a deep emotional and physical connection to life in [South Africa’s] Eastern Cape townships 25 years after the end of apartheid”. Sapeta himself, only a few poems into the collection, writes:
I am a talking township
I rise and fall where the township falls
I have a colossal share in its fatherless children
And ownerless dogs in the barking streets.
Between Sapeta and New Brighton the poems speak of a shared sense of loathing. They depict the widespread unemployment, crime, sexual violence and political corruption that has grown within the township and begun to seemingly contaminate all who live there. Unavoidably, the socio-spatial and the personal have become entangled, which is highlighted by the personification in ‘my town’:
I want to lose this disappointed town
With a broken face that stands for everything rotten
A forgery with no soul on its way to oblivion
The brutality of township existence is only enhanced by the sexualised physicality that so often takes centre stage. Frequently it is unnervingly, unashamedly base — for example, the description of “the loud snoring of her pussy/and its endless spout of dead semen”; at others, however, a subtler combination of the physical and spiritual serves to complicate and distort any initial reading of the poet and his relationship with New Brighton. Consider the poem ‘and by all means’, where the opening, ‘your bosom is my heaven and I remain your pilgrim”, gives way to “the murky wetness of your body”.
This description typifies the monsoon of visual imagery that floods the pages of Skeptical Erections. Sapeta’s art used its colour palette – though at times muted – to “suffocate” his subjects, offering them “nowhere to retreat to”. Similarly, the imagery in his poems forces an overwhelming encounter with the truth laid bare. Individuals are distorted into something hyperreal; Sapeta’s perception of himself and his surroundings taken to extremes: “I am from a violent seed – a legacy of vulgarity”. You cannot but help respect such honesty, a self-assurance that suggests a sense of control at odds with the unsettling and threatening evocations of the past, of the violence and the despair that would otherwise sweep through the page.
The African Books Collective suggests this is a collection in which Sapeta describes the “deception and self-loathing prevalent in the people he encounters in his work, including (or perhaps especially) himself”. I agree that Sapeta implicates himself more than anyone else because the poet we see is a man who owns his own situation. In doing so, Sapeta maintains agency and prevents any voyeuristic judgement from those who look upon him. This is a realist who accepts the situation of self, community and country as it is:
each day I am repeatedly told that it’s ok, that I am truly part
of a harmony. the next day I am erased and promised to be
redefined with detailed contours […]
i know we won’t have a proper war or monuments
like other places. our dreams and heroes will be for sale as
disposable statues in the city storefronts.
There are no grand illusions or announcements of change. The holes within the rhetoric of the new South Africa are also accepted. But that is not all there is. That is not the end. New Brighton and South Africa have changed. Sapeta has too, inextricably bound to them, “taught in your crucifix”. All will continue to change and build anew but, given the current situation, one perhaps must question what the future holds. As the final poem declares:
the light flickers through your mouth
and I realise I am wrestling for life
a frightened fetus at the bottom of your gloom.
Put more simply, the future is one of Skeptical Erections.
To get hold of Skeptical Erections, go to publishers Deep South at the African Books Collective online store here.
“Skeptical Erections is a book of startling visual and verbal imagination. In his poems Sapeta describes the deception and self-loathing prevalent in the people he encounters in his world, including (or perhaps especially) himself. Despite their distortions, however, the characters who come alive in these poems are depicted with respect and compassion.”
We are also delighted to be able to share Mxolisi Dolla Sapeta’s Words on the Times, an AiW Q&A set initiated to connect up our communities and experiences of the pandemic around our common focuses and shared interests.
We caught up with Sapeta to discuss the simultaneous flows and power struggles between painting and writing, the ruins of art initiatives ‘scattered everywhere’ in the black townships, particularly New Brighton, and the possibilities of setting up an art school for the immediate communities under our changing and developing pandemic conditions…
AiW: Could you tell us a bit about your work and the ways that the pandemic has affected your plans?
Sapeta: I paint and write simultaneously…I try, even though it’s not easy to jump from painting and just go into writing seriously. It takes a while to transform from one discipline to the other. For instance, if I develop a line or two, or something triggers for a few lines to be penned down while I am painting, I do attempt to sit and write those two lines, and at the back of my mind I urge to go back to the easel immediately…but then more lines flow into the fingers and I have to keep going while the creativity for the lines is coming, but then, maybe I have this pressing deadline for the painting I am working on, it is an internal power struggle between the two sometimes. But I do manage to keep the practices separate in most, and when I do that there is a harmonious progress for each creative process. I live in the Eastern Cape in South Africa, a dead end of a place where nothing really happens for artists. This has been the situation for a long time but for some reasons, I remain here. I live in the black townships of Port Elizabeth, an industrial town, much bigger than the rest of other towns in this Province. There are few white managed galleries in the city and a pseudo-British art museum that refuses to adopt a true South African identity, and it’s always run by white women who obediently abide by their predecessors’ instructions and influence. In the black townships, particularly in New Brighton where I reside, there is a continuation of monumental death to art initiatives and their corpses are municipal related ruins scattered everywhere. By the time the pandemic stormed in, I was in the process of transforming my studio into an art school initiative for the immediate communities.
In what ways are you working now that you weren’t before?
Now that the galleries and gatherings are closed everything creative is in constant process, and in a way, as funny as it sounds, it seems like this is the best time to create. I was supposed to collaborate with two artists in October for an art show, and that’s not happening until further notice from the political authorities. I am more in computers now, attempting to engage with the working progress of the pandemic world, particularly persisting with my art school plan…an online approach.
What have you found most supportive and/or heart lifting in this time?
There have been great responses and aims to support the artists from the department of Arts and Culture Dep, National Arts Council and other government initiatives during these times. I have responded together with fellow artists by applying for the funds, most of us are still in waiting though. It looks good and I hope it becomes real.
How can our blog communities support you?
It is great to hear your eagerness to help, well I can say for starters…your blog can help by supporting my vision of bringing to life an art school in New Brighton where I reside.
Watch this space for more on this! Ed.
Mxolisi Dolla Sapeta was born in 1967, in New Brighton, Port Elizabeth. He began showing his work in public in 1989, and studied foundation Art through the distance education programme of Intec College and the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University Art School. After graduating, he taught Art for six years in the Division of Art and Design at Port Elizabeth College, following which, he pursued a career as a freelance artist. Through his work and later collaborated with other artists, he initiated platforms that attempt to redefine the role, status and working conditions of working artist in the black townships. These included round table discussions and visual representations. Dolla has also participated in numerous group exhibitions around the world as a painter and poet, and run eleven solo exhibitions in South Africa. He recently completed an MA in Creative Writing through Rhodes University.
Tom Penfold is currently a Visiting Lecturer at the University of Birmingham. His research centres on contemporary South African literature, with a specific focus on poetry and performance culture. He is the author of Black Consciousness and South Africa’s National Literature (Palgrave 2017) and numerous other journal articles. Tom is one of AiW’s current Reviews Editors.