Anthony Bila aka The Expressionist believes that we need to understand that we’re not all the same. This doesn’t mean that diversity shouldn’t be embraced though. “There is power and strength in embracing our differences,” he says. As a South African blogger, videographer, artist and photographer from Johannesburg, he realises that collaboration often results in a far more interesting product. His “subversive creative collective comprised of a trio of unlikeminded creators”, The Others, shows that this rings very true. Their project NOIR! NOIR! NOIR! introduces the viewer to a dark and sombre, black and white world that couldn’t be more colourful. “Even in a world that is black and white, there are multiple shades of grey. Things aren’t cut and dry, they aren’t black and white as it were…”
I read that your series NOIR! NOIR! NOIR! is inspired by the visual style of Film Noir with roots in German Expressionism. These are movements that could both be described as ‘dark and moody’ and sprung from a desire to counteract realism. What led you to appropriate these particular styles?
Well, I’ve always been drawn to darker, more sombre themes — art periods, films, books and the like. It’s inexplicable to myself; it’s just my nature the same way as something magnetic attracts metal. There’s also the notion that colour takes away from really understanding an image, really delving into it and seeing it bare… seeing its soul is fascinating to me. I’ve always wanted to counteract realism in my work but I have honestly always been afraid to. This has changed of late. In the same way I’m impelled to create, I now want to create the worlds in my imagination — the obscure, the dark, the ethereal. I think that’s far more interesting than just capturing the world as it is. We all live in this world, we all see it for what it is. It’s far more engaging to see the world through one’s own mind’s eye and showing your ‘vision’ to the world than to love or to hate.
The series also appears to be playing with the notion of colour itself – especially black and white. The words ‘People of Colour’, blobs of paint, or black dots and white stripes. These patterns are juxtaposed with photos of an interracial couple – the woman in colonial gear and the man in a modern suit – posing to an urban backdrop. Is there a deeper meaning to the series? Is there a secret to look out for?
I’m glad you picked up on the symbolism of the work. Being born in a racially segregated country like South Africa meant that I grew up seeing a world categorically divided by systemic racism and prejudice. I think race forms an important aspect of who we are, where we come from. By no means do I believe we can exist in a colourless world, but that doesn’t mean we have to be at loggerheads if we can find a way to co-exist in equality.
Even in a world that is black and white, there are multiple shades of grey. Things aren’t cut and dry, they aren’t black and white as it were. That’s the reason the outfits are so contrasting but still bear some similarity. An old world and this new one, in which we’d like to exist in a colourless state, but we never can really. These are the broad themes I wanted to play with when using an interracial couple as the anchor. I guess the secret — if any — is that we are different, but there is power and strength in embracing our differences because it’s those very things that draw us to one another — we compensate for one another.
Some of your photography series, such as NOIR! NOIR! NOIR! and BLACK HISTORY MARCH VOL. I, make use of a historic element. This creates a very different effect to your ‘less set up’ street style photography such as The Township Diaries. Street photography may be thought of by many as a more ‘natural account’ of the past, while staged images can be created to achieve a more ‘deliberate response’. Can you imagine your images having historic value in the future? What would you like people to think if, say, your photographs were unarchived in a 100 years time?
I can most certainly fathom my images having historical value in the future. I think it all works in a cyclical way, I look at the work of artists/photographers like Vivian Maier and to me — whether your images are ‘staged’ or more of a natural account — it’s about capturing a mood, an emotion. I want people who look at my images 100 years from now to feel like time travellers. Whenever I photograph anything, I want it to mean different things to different people, depending on your background, your influences and your point of view. So — if anything — I want people to feel, to be enamoured and transported to that exact moment in their mind’s eye; to really be immersed in it and be lost inside that moment. The emotions should range to some extent from person to person because we all interpret the world so differently.
My focus though, is always to give my images an account in an African context. African history has not been preserved and documented as well as European and American histories, if anything it’s been suppressed. You only have to Google image search to see how the default for most imagery is Caucasian. So I’d like more diversity and hopefully myself and others like myself can fill the internet and the world with as much cultural diversity as possible — from all walks of life and cultures spanning the entire globe. If the people looking back 100 years from now see these images, I want them to understand the world as I saw it, in all its variety.
Can photography improve the future through influencing the way we see the past? How important is history to you?
History is extremely important to me and how I see the present and the future. Because if we don’t know where we come from as well as the context thereof, how can we learn from it and make a far more prosperous future for ourselves and those that will come after us? I think photography can influence people to act, to think and to feel. Having been exposed to a lot of imagery myself, I know it’s changed the way I see the world. I now know a lot more in context, but I also realise how much more I don’t know. It’s no coincidence that they say a picture is worth a thousand words. There are certain things only an image could communicate because words would fail to. You just have to look at the Sam Nzima’s photograph of Hector Pietersen’s lifeless body being carried by Mbuyisa Makhubo to see how much impact that image had on the world, then and now.
You’re known for being good at capturing the essence of ‘African style’. What does ‘African style’ mean in South Africa specifically? How can we keep up with the rest of the world without being copycats?
I think it’s inevitable that we all copy from one another to some degree. The key, I feel, is to not become cheap imitations but rather to be inspired by what we see all around us. The world is connected more and more with the advent of the internet linking us to all kinds of information from across the globe. I think it’s particularly important for Africa, and South Africa more specifically, to embrace its 11 official languages and cultures, and explore and celebrate those.
The world is full of copycats and imitations, and it always will be. What we as Africans have the opportunity of doing is being the ones that are being imitated. Our ideas are new, dynamic and incredible. We just need to believe it and act on those ideas, and the world will, or rather already is following suit! If you look at a lot of local style in South Africa, the indigenous styles that exist here are becoming more prolific and people are embracing their heritage. I think that will set us apart from the world. It sets us on the continent, in search of new inspiration and ideas.
You’ve said in a previous interview that you are an internet addict. What role would you say does the internet play in South African style, ideology and identity?
I’m addicted to learning and the internet is probably the best and largest university, library and general repository of information to ever exist outside of the capacity of the human brain. The internet plays a crucial role in connecting South Africa to the world and the world back to South Africa. This mantra is constantly present in my mind. Because of the internet, we’re able to showcase ourselves, our skills and talents without gatekeepers shutting us out. The internet has democratised the ability to do amazing things and then show and tell.
And, the youth has identified more with the internet as its new culture. You can find like-minded people from all countries and walks of life who appreciate the world in the same way as you do. Subcultures are connected via the internet, which is quite incredible because a lot of the time you may not even speak the same language but you feel and connect to the same or similar art, music and philosophies. It’s broken down barriers and borders.
There seems to be a growing global interest in – excuse the generalisation – ‘the African aesthetic’. You’ve done work for international publications such as The Wallstreet Journal or New York Magazine. Do you think the heading towards a ‘global village’ is a positive development? How could it influence South African popular culture?
I think it’s both good, bad and ugly. We need to be mindful that while we’re all amalgamating and appropriating each other’s cultures, none become cannibalised and disappear. When you see it from the perspective of multinational corporations, globalisation is a dangerous thing. If these corporations could have it their own way, we’d all dress the same, eat the same food and use the same services — giving them a global monopoly with astronomical profits. We must be careful not to let this happen, as much as it’s important to embrace one another’s cultures. It’s important to preserve them all and be influenced by a number of these cultures.
Tell us a bit about your latest project NOTHING WAS THE SAME. What was the motivation behind it and how does it relate to some of your previous work such as NOIR! NOIR! NOIR! or BLACK HISTORY MARCH VOL. I?
My deepest desire is for all my projects to have everything and nothing in common. There is always an underlying theme that has to do with bringing Africa to the world and the world to Africa in my work, that’s the golden thread. But in terms of visuals, it’s important that each project looks, and feels distinctly different. That keeps me sane as a creator, and it challenges me to do things differently and grow.
With NOTHING WAS THE SAME, I collaborated with a young fashion designer who gave me carte blanche to interpret his clothes through my mind’s vision. I decided to show how things have changed and how nothing has been the same since the beginning of post-apartheid South Africa. We have a white female in a taxi rank, a place the majority of white South Africans fear. And not only is she there, but she is standing on these vehicles almost triumphantly and fearless. Throughout the series we see a couple traverse back alleys and places that would invoke fear in the hearts of South Africans who left the inner city in the ’90s. This is contrasted to the futuristic garments that aren’t from our time.
What other projects can we expect from you or your photography collective The Others?
I am currently working on both collective projects with The Others. We are a creative collective comprised of three unlike-minded creators: myself Anthony Bila, Stacey van der Walt and Chisanga Mubanga. I created it in the belief that collaboration yields far more interesting results than exploring or expressing a concept one-dimensionally. We are working on a follow up to NOIR! NOIR! NOIR! and our second series THE CITY: Bathed in Gray.
With regards to my individual work, I’m publishing a follow up to BLACK HISTORY MARCH VOL. I to be released in November; I’ve collaborated with some exciting South African talent for it. I also have a series called THE BLK SRS, which will launch next year; it’ll be a project that encompasses my photography, videography, paintings, writing, and music.