I have a story to tell – it’s a story of change,” says Muntu Vilakazi. His current solo exhibition, entitled The Politics of Bling: An Eastrand Culture Quest, brings South Africa’s socio-economic changes – for the good, and for the worse – into sharp focus.
Using an unobtrusive camera and shooting from the hip, Vilakazi’s images were taken between 2009 and 2013, and depict drag-racing events in three of Johannesburg’s Eastrand townships, namely Vosloorus, Katlehong, and Kwa-Thema. In his photographic series, Vilakazi presents the viewer with fast cars pulling ‘donuts’ on dusty streets, girls in very short skirts, gogos, designer suits and sunglasses, and fold-up tables decked with cognac.
According to Vilakazi, these drag-racing events often used to take place on non-descript public roads, but people quickly realised that money could be made. These days, there’s a fee to view the racing, and they have turned into a huge community affair.
“The gatherings are open to everybody, young and old. There are guys wearing Versace and PEP. Is one there to look at the other?”
Vilakazi’s question is thought-provoking as his images largely speak of showing off: in Red dress, we see two young women; one wearing a bright red, revealing dress with accompanying red stockings and high heels, the other in tight yellow pedal-pushers. They seem to be sharing a peck on the cheek; and they seem to be saying, ‘Look at me.’ Opposite them, a man wearing a tailored suit and leather shoes casually surveys the crowd, his hands in his pockets. In another image, we see a couple who wouldn’t look out of place at the J&B Met.
Vilakazi agrees that showing off is an important aspect that his images depict – not only when it comes to how loud an engine can be revved, but also with materialism. “It’s not a competition but it is a competition … Young people, they have money … the cheapest bottle of whisky at these events is J&B. The first time I saw Johnny Walker Double Black was at Hurricanes in Kathlehong [a drag-racing event that happens every Sunday].”
For me, an image that is the epitome of this exhibitionist consumerism is this: a glass of Hennessy being poured over a motorbike exhaust; the alcohol instantly vaporised into tiny, gold droplets. It’s quite literally burning money. I tell him this wastefulness makes me feel uncomfortable.
“Why should it be an issue for black people to drink Hennessy in the townships, but it’s OK when it’s done in Illovo or Sandton?” he asks. I respond by saying I hate blatant materialism and showing off in general, whether it’s igniting cognac in Katlehong or seeing a balding white guy driving an Aston Martin in Melrose Arch. I don’t like seeing a Rolex on Julius Malema’s wrist or pictures of Donald Trump in his private jet. Take race out of the equation and excess is excess.
“I can’t conclude and say it’s wasteful; it’s for society to look and reflect and draw its own conclusions. I’m sure there are people who would find it wasteful – I wouldn’t do it, personally.” I ask him why he wouldn’t do it. He laughs, shifts in his seat a little. “Money doesn’t come easy, for me – I work very hard. I used to have a credit card and it gave me sleepless nights.”
I ask him what the appeal of these drag-racing events are, as they seem to draw in gogos, kids, high rollers and the unemployed. “It’s accessibility,” he responds. “People watch because it’s exciting, it’s family-orientated. What else can you do in Kwa-Thema for fun? There are no parks or recreational facilities, which has driven people to establish new ways of having fun.”
According to Vilakazi, many benefit from the drag racing: recyclers pick up bottles and young boys wash cars for money. Pulling ‘donuts’ appears to have sustained the community for over five years; the whole street signs up for it. “It shows how we’ve moved on as a country,” he adds.
The crux of this exhibition is whether The Politics of Bling depicts accessibility, equal opportunities, and, what Vilakazi terms, “a celebration of democracy”, or whether the drag racing is simply an orgy of wastefulness and attention seeking. Vilakazi emphasises the viewer needs to make up their own minds; that he’s not “pushing a certain view”.
“I’m just a messenger who happened to find himself in the right spot. It’s a story of the surface; it’s not in-depth … it’s a story of my generation; a story that tries to capture life as it happens.”
The life he has captured in this series is a veritable township bling; an eclectic mix of people who, previously hindered by oppression, are now able to flaunt (or celebrate, depending on which side of the fence one sits). Some want to be seen, some want to gaze, and others do both. His images are electric and alive: we can almost see the BMW engines bursting into ignition, run our fingers over the polished hot metal grills, hear the children squealing as stuntmen lunge out of speeding, spinning cars … and smell the rubber – and Hennessy – burning.
The Politics of Bling: An Eastrand Culture Quest was exhibited at Goethe on Main, Maboneng in 2013.