Image by Mlungisi Mlungwana|
By Lillian Tshabalala |
They say every child is born carrying their gift inside a fist, and as their life unfolds so does their purpose! They say there are many callings in this world and art is one of them. They say you could be called to do more than one thing, and no matter how complicated it may seem it would be your responsibility to figure it all out and piece all the puzzles of your journey together. Some people spend their entire lives trying to fit in; and some merely understand that sticking out like a sore thumb is where the power of their destiny lies! In the words of Nina Simone “But I’m just a soul who’s intentions are good, oh lord please don’t let me be misunderstood”. Performer, Healer, Traditionalist, Ibokwe!
Lillian Tshabalala: Who is Albert Silindokuhle Ibokwe?
AI: Shoo that’s a hard question! Recently I said that Albert is a divergent. He doesn’t follow a certain type of system or ideology that is foreign or bestowed on to him! Albert is a young black Actor, Singer, Performance Artist and Dancer. Born bread and buttered in Soweto!
LT: What kind of child were you growing up?
AI: I used to be a slow learner for some weird reason. I am one of four children raised by a single mother, my dad passed on in 1995 and I have a twin sister. I was a chubby child so I experienced a lot of bullying and I was a loner and still am actually! I also experienced a lot of name calling while growing up because I am gay.
LT: How and when did you find out you were gay?
AI: I think the world makes you realize that you are gay. When you grow up as a kid you don’t really notice these things because you think that you’re just like any other child until the name calling starts. I didn’t know I was gay ; I honestly thought that I was just like any other kid even though I’ve always been attracted to boys.
LT: When did you figure out that you had a love for the arts?
AI: I realized that in High school. That whole era was a great transition for me because that’s when my slow learning also disappeared. I remember watching what I now consider my all time favorite movie “Fame”. I would sing along to the theme song and it kind of became the theme song for my life. I always imagined what it would be like to go to an Arts institution after High school; until I actually got to the Arts school and got the bummer of my entire existence. The beauty and passion I saw on Fame was none existent!
LT: Which institution did you go to and what was your experience like?
AI: I went to Wits. My first year was cool, that’s the beginning stages for an Artist to find them self and figure out what kind of creative they are. After that in the next three years a rebel sort of came out of me. I just realized how oppressive our educational system is, I felt like my artistry was oppressed and bashed down at a time where I was still trying to figure out what my voice was. In second year I decided that I would not do any of my practical’s in English; I had three writing lecturers and one of them “Craig Higginson” embraced my telling him that I would be handing in scripts that were written in Xhosa and Zulu because that was the best way I could express myself creatively. When I submitted my work he found people who could translate the pieces for him to understand and mark. That’s when I thought to myself “this is education!” But unfortunately he was the only one who understood that…. I was misunderstood, I wasn’t liked, I didn’t like a lot of people and a lot of fighting had to happen for my art! I wasn’t comfortable with the theory that was fed to us, it limited us from having our own opinion.
LT: Did you graduate?
AI: I danced on stage like a queen on my graduation day! So yes I did.
LT: Would you say that most of your work can be classified as Performance Art?
AI: That is not correct nor is it incorrect; I also sometimes don’t know how to describe my work but what I can say is that I am a vessel , I do what I am told by my ancient guides. I get to play around with all my gifts, acting, singing and dancing because that’s the way of life for us Africans. Storytelling has been in our culture for many years and I believe that I am just a storyteller. Performance Art was bestowed on to me and I think it had a lot to do with not knowing how to categorize my work because of its “mish mash”. I work with a lot of images and movement and I do accept it when people call it “Performance Art” because it is alternative entertainment but I believe that it is more than that because what I usually say to people is I don’t “perform” or “create work” I give an offering! My work has also been called ritualistic performance and ritual art which I also accept.
LT: I want to talk about your traditional healer side, you keep mentioning that you are a vessel and rather than perform you consider your art as “giving an offering”. How does you being a traditional healer integrate with your art?
AI: Being an Inyanga means that you are a healer; and that’s my sole purpose in life weather I’m healing endumbeni or on stage!
LT: Your life has been quite a journey; you grew up as a chubby kid who found out he was gay then later transitioned into a traditional healer. How have people around you responded to all this?
AI: I’ve always been a loner and I think I see and interpret things very differently from how others do. The hatred of the world has been passed down from generation to generation; I question where a young child would find the confidence to call the next person “isjuzana”(a faggot) and it’s quite obvious that they got it from their parents. Being alone for most of my life I got to understand who the self is, the self has certain values and will not let certain things destruct it. If I don’t destruct myself then nothing can. I am selfish about myself, my happiness and my career. I’ve had to overcome a lot of bullying while growing up but self love got me through. One of my favorite quotes goes “They can all laugh because I’m different, but I laugh because they are the same”.
LT: Why do you call yourself Ibokwe?
AI: Ibokwe! A lot of people usually reference Thandiswa Mazwai’s album because many know that I am a fan of hers, but that’s not where it comes from. When my twin sister was on her journey to becoming a traditional healer before me, we went to see a woman who could see into the metaphysical side. While we sat there she told us she was seeing my sister clothed in her traditional healer attire and there was a goat next to her that would not move away and she didn’t quite understand why. She looked up to my sister and asked her if she had a twin and my sister pointed to me and told her I was her twin. When it all came together we found out that my sister would be the first one to undergo the process and I would later have to also do the same. The goat standing next to her was me; I was a sacrifice to the ancestors “Ibokwe”. I thought the name was very fitting because I believe I am a sacrifice to this world and in African tradition a goat is used for many purposes during traditional ceremonies like cleansing and making things right with those who have passed on.
LT: How has your work been received overseas compared to how it’s received here at home?
AI: Well for lack of a better word I guess I could say that when I am overseas; I am the sh*t! I feel loved and treasured and I am taken highly and It’s not to say I am not loved or treasured in my own country but I’ve been rejected in many spaces to put up my work here. It hurts me because I create this work for Africans, because it’s about our way of life. Someone once told me that I am way ahead of my time and I think I can see that too, only a few people and spaces accommodate the kind of Artist that I am and I am grateful to them for that.
LT: Do you feel like you constantly have to prove your worth to your own people?
AI: Yes… very much so, but it’s not something I sit on. I see it this way; sometimes people are not ready to receive the kind of work I do. I know I’m different and I believe that there is a scope for someone like me in South African art. I just have to fight much harder and it is something I’m willing to do.
LT: What was the first show that saw you travel overseas as a solo performer?
AI: “Influences of a closet chant”. I created the work on my fourth year at Wits and it was around the time when we were urged to put a stamp on the kind of artists we wanted to be and put a signature on our works. I looked into myself and started dissecting who I was, I’m gay, I’m a traditional healer , an artist and a dancer who doesn’t have the kind of body people would classify as a dancing body…I’m basically an outcast! So I decided to take all that and talk about it in my show. When the day of the show came I was very frustrated because my piece needed specific things in it i.e. candles around the stage; but they eventually moved my show out of the theatre to outside complaining about theatre ventilation and things like that. I cried a lot and felt like I was being undermined and that my art was being compromised. I did the show and received 98% on it. I decided to continue on with the show months after that so I could raise money to pay my school fees and the show just boomed! On one of the days of my run Gerad Bester pulled me to the side and told me that Robyn Orlin would be seeing my show that day. I was in awe because this was a person we had learnt about in school and she was here to see my work! Long story short; Robin Orlin saw my work and in no time my name was flying around Europe. After a meeting with a European agent and a whole lot of talking and waiting, things hit off! The thought of it still gets me teary!
LT: Why do you mostly do solo shows?
AI: I’ve been flunked on a lot about doing solo shows, but I fear that other people would not be in the same head-space or wave length with me so that’s why I choose to mostly work alone.
LT: Please tell me about your latest work.
AI: The show is titled “Take in Take out” and it premiered in Cape Town earlier this year. It has to do with me basically questioning my ancient guides about why we are here! I also explore many of our African methods of healing like “ugu quma nogu qata” A lot is revealed in the performance! Sometimes I never know how the show is going to end; I go where it takes me.
LT: If there was one record you could set straight with people who have misunderstood you, what would it be?
AI: I’d say if you don’t know just ask! I am not scary and I am not a beast! I don’t look the way I do or create my kind of work to shock people. I am not an attention seeker! I am who I am and I like to look and carry myself in a certain way. Anyone who engages with my work has to be open minded and realize that we are spirit beings. I am not a god; I’m just a person who is trying to co-exist.
PORTRAITS | ALBERT SILINDOKUHLE IBOKWE