Terhys Persad's "Where Art Thou" Fights Against Exploitative Reporting
I had the chance to chat with Terhys Persad, producer of Where Art Thou: a web series that explores the art scene in South Africa.
Terhys describes the first season as “looking for dope shit that doesn’t repeat the well worn narratives of Mandela, safaris, and wine.” As a queer woman of color, Terhys recognizes the lack of representation of marginalized people in arts and film. She believes in engaging artists and crew who identify as women, gender non-conforming people, LGBTQ, people of color, and low income.
Terhys and I chatted about adjusting to a new culture, the ways in which South African culture is misrepresented or exploited, the queer scene, and of course the fashion!
The show lives online and each season has six episodes, released once a month on vimeo and youtube.
What is your goal for the project?
I want to feature people who aren’t normally focused on in the contemporary art world. That includes queer people, Black people, POC. Oftentimes the fashion of those people is on point!
Many travel shows go to non western countries and promote a very singular image that I think is a holdover from colonial days, and I didn’t want to do that. I think that when westerners go to film other places they don’t necessarily treat people there with respect or patronize local businesses, or use local talent. So one thing that’s really important to me is that I have local queer, Black, brown bodies, gender nonconforming, and women’s bodies, behind the camera as well.
What types of fashion can we look forward to in your series?
South Africa is a melting pot in the truest sense of the word — it is one of the most international cities I have ever visited. There are people from all over the continent of Africa, the Middle East, Europe, South America, there are Americans there — it’s really just a hodgepodge. There’s a large population East Asian people and South Asians, it’s got the highest population of Indian people outside of India.
Because of how the Apartheid sectioned people off, it’s kind of like going to a country with 12 separate nationalities. And then since the apartheid fell, there’s been more mixing. There’s still a lot of segregation and still a lot of problems that are holdovers from Apartheid, but I think people have made major strides as far as interacting with one another on a meaningful level. That means that you’ll see people wearing elements of traditional Zulu or Xhosa dress (those are the biggest Black African populations in South Africa). I’ll see people wearing traditional Indian clothes; Muslims in their traditional clothes. They have a day called Heritage Day, and that happened a couple of weeks after I’d arrived. I had no idea what was going on and I saw people in Saris, Zulu head dresses with business casual, right alongside people wearing western suits and ties. It was so cool. South Africa also has a huge culture of people making their own clothes using custom tailors. You just bring cloth and they will whip up whatever custom designs you give them.
Is there a lot of cultural exchange among different cultures and their fashion?
I didn’t see a lot of it, but I did see it. For example, if you were going to a wedding and it was a traditional Zulu wedding, sometimes the guests would wear traditional Zulu clothing. Or if it was a ceremony that was celebrating somebody’s graduation or some other big events, sometimes the attendees would be wearing traditional clothing of that person’s culture, regardless of whether it was theirs.
People are very proud of their heritage but they are also collectively proud to be South African. It’s not a hyper nationalistic pride. I like it because they are really purposeful about acknowledging all the bad things that happened, and acknowledging that they were working through them to get to some place better, which is a perspective that I don’t often see in the states, for example.
One side effect of Apartheid was that people’s cultures were really solidified over the years because they were so forcefully isolated from each other. So they maintained their languages, they maintained their customs. Some parts of the country are obviously really westernized now, in the cities especially. But South African style still has its own personality and its own character. Just sitting in the University district in Johannesburg and watching people pass by is fun because people look so fly. The hairstyles are my favorite part because you see every manner of braid that you can imagine just beautifully done, beautiful colors.
One of the artists who creates a photo series called The Honey that I feature in the second episode captures what takes place in a beauty parlor through really dope photographs. Hair is a really big part of the cultural landscape in South Africa, especially for Black women. The hair and fashion in that episode is really cool.
Can you tell us more about your reporting techniques and what advice you have for people interested in doing ethical reporting?
My family is from the Caribbean, and I came over to the US as a really small child. I’d always hear people’s ideas of Caribbean life and it was always so confusing to me because it didn’t match what I knew of Caribbean life, and when I would tell people they would be like, "Oh no you’re wrong. Everyone is from Jamaica and everyone drinks rum on the beach, and goes to the Caribbean to smoke weed."
On top of that, I grew up in Orlando, and Orlando is thought of as Disneyville — that’s the image it has across the world. But it’s really not like that. You can live your whole life in Orlando and never have any interaction with Disney if you wanted to.
So when I approached going to South Africa I really wanted to keep in mind that the things I had heard, read, or seen in regular travel shows probably weren’t representative of the full spectrum of life in South Africa. Or they probably only took a very shallow view without really analyzing their own role in the story or analyzing the types of narratives they wanted to portray.
I read a lot of articles, or stories, consumed a lot of art that was curated and written by people from South Africa. When I got there I asked a lot of questions and I always prefaced it with “I grew up in the States and I’m going to try very hard not to let that bias show through, but if I do, please let me know.” You have to be put in uncomfortable positions to learn.
What is a big challenge you’ve had so far?
A lot of artists will focus on their bodies in their work. Most people that I interviewed were women, or people of color, or gender nonconforming people. Their bodies are often contentious spaces in normative conversations.
Oftentimes a very skewed or dramatised version, or in the case of women, especially Black women, highly sexualized versions of their bodies are propagated, and that’s what art collectors are buying in the West, and putting up in their museums, as opposed to more abstract pieces.
I spoke with a Joburg-based American art historian and activist Ashley Whitfield and she was like, “Well, you should really think about this because it is one way and one context within this country, and the minute that that piece is sold, or that project is exported, it gets stripped of its context. The people who view it there are not going to read it with the same nuance and respect. Is that what you want to promote?”
I had to sit and really think about what kind of art I was featuring. Because of that, I tried to steer clear of showing any kind of naked bodies, because I didn’t want reinforce National Geographic style Western ideas about South Africans and Africans as a whole.
How have you fought against exploitative reporting of South African culture in your work?
The first episode focuses on South African traditional healing. I watched a bunch of videos about traditional healing on Youtube; they were made by either Americans or British people, and they all heavily focused on the ritualistic aspects of it without showing the contemporary side. So it was all traditional dress, traditional chanting, traditional dancing, or traditional drums, which is a very real part of that world, but when presented on its own and especially for western audiences, I think reinforces the singular narrative that westerners have about people from Africa. There was no conversation about how these people are also bankers or publicists, or in the case of the person I interviewed, artists.
The tone of those programs was very much “look how civilized we are, and look how they are.” That was something that I didn’t want to replicate. Rather, I focused on Buhlebezwe Siwani, who in 2017 is an international artist selling work all over the world and also maintains this very traditional practice.
What’s the queer scene like in South Africa?
There’s definitely cis gay boy clubs, and there are drag clubs. There are Pride parades, but the scene is still very white man dominated. You still see queers across the spectrum — I saw brown and Black queers when I went out to Pride. In Cape Town especially there are queer nights, and queer dance parties you can go to. I think it’s very similar to how I experienced the scene in Somerville (Massachusetts) and other cities in The States, where there’s definitely the gay scene and then there's the queer scene that’s very commingled with social justice, activism, and art. One queer Cape Town artist who I met and immediately crushed on is a rapper named Dope St. Jude.
But there are still really disturbing things that happen. People from low income communities face the brunt of it. There is a lot of violence enacted on poor queer women.
When I left, there was this activist named Noluvo Swelindawo who was masculine presenting and who was being harassed by these guys in her neighborhood. They kept harassing her, and eventually they kidnapped her and killed her. I think one thing that is telling is is their media coverage, which takes a general tone of outrage. But it’s tragic that these things are still occurring, and I don’t think the police are really a resource that people can go to when they feel threatened.
What do you hope that people take away from your project?
I want people who don’t necessarily see themselves in art spaces, or who don’t see themselves as travelers, to be able to visualize themselves in those areas. I want the show to encourage people to travel outside their neighborhood or take a look at their local art scene. Contemporary art is often just a reflection of daily life. It is really interesting when you’re able to engage in that way as opposed to, “look at this weird metal sculpture that means nothing to me.”