While African creatives make their mark in the Western world, more and more Americans are finding new homes on African soil, looking to return to a history that was taken from them, or to create a future they can take pride in. An African reclamation has begun, revealing itself daily through arts and culture, fashion, talk around upcoming elections and bouts of student protests on either side of the Atlantic. The so-called Rainbow Nation and Land of the Free couldn’t be further apart, and yet, closer together. Art-activist Ferrari Sheppard has experienced life on both continents, travelling from country to city to village, immersing himself in the various truths lying just beyond the surface.
Once outspoken, unapologetic and loved for it, Sheppard has taken an introspective stance while living in South Africa, looking once again to his art to mull over the goings-on in the corners of his mind, often coming to conclusions that are not fierce, fun or sexy. Scouring the city of Cape Town for supper, we discuss the ugly side of fighting back, politics and what it means to be a thinking man in this ‘country called Earth.’
So what are we eating tonight?
I’ve been vegetarian for 15 years, by the way. The biggest misconception is that vegetarians are weak, but if you think of all of the animals in the animal kingdom, you’ve got the rhino, you’ve got the gorilla, you’ve got an elephant; these creatures are all vegetarians… and they will stomp your shit out!
True, very true. It’s interesting how much people attribute what you eat or don’t eat to your identity though. I know a lot of folks around me insist that African men especially, must eat meat…
Yeah. Some people may argue though and say that human beings weren’t meant to be vegetarians if you look at our teeth. Ok, I get that. I can still cook meat and things for family and friends but that’s just what I prefer. They all think I’m crazy anyway.
What, for not eating meat?
Well yeah, it’s a family thing too. I mean they look at me and say ‘Well what’s wrong with you? Are you gay?’ And I think to myself, ‘What does that have to do…?’ That’s how my family jumps to conclusions. But no, I just wanted a change. A 15-year change! It’s been about that long.
You must miss them though, since you have been here for what, four weeks, and this is the first time since 2012 when you were down for a conference? What are you doing back?
Well. Let me say I’m here to support a friend and to create work for an upcoming art exhibit. There isn’t a set date. My friend is being held here in South Africa because of travel document issues. I’m also working on building the brand A Country Called Earth. The brand is not just for my friends and fans, but for the world… the idea behind it is to break down barriers between continental Africans and Africans in the diaspora.
I’ve spent a considerable amount of time travelling through Ethiopia, Sudan, Ghana, Morocco, South Africa, Tanzania… and I’m not there as a tourist, you know, like ‘mzungu,’ as my brothers and sisters in Kenya or Tanzania would say. I’m there to meet artists and work with them, break bread, make friends and my goal is, through action, to show them that we can break down a lot of the concepts that are left over from slavery and colonialism. Particularly that Africa is all jungle and there are cheetahs running around and I’m under a tree somewhere… so yeah, that’s what I’m here for.
Sounds exciting… so can you feel the differences, being a man in Chicago, New York, Ethiopia, South Africa? What does it feel like to be a man, particularly a black man, in each of those places?
Yeah, it is… Another misnomer that a lot of our brothers and sisters in America have, just out of not having experienced it, is that Africa is a monolith. When people say ‘Africa is a country’ all the time… I hate that people think that. Africa is not a country. It comes off as condescending, and people who say that are not being facetious, they simply don’t know. And being a man in Africa… there’s a word for ‘nigger’ in every country. That’s an interesting thing because there is also anti-black racism in every country that I’ve visited so far where it hasn’t been beneficial to have darker skin. Even in places where the majority of faces are dark faces.
Let’s just take Zanzibar, Tanzania or even in Dar es Salaam. Zanzibar has a rich history, also a very tragic one, when it comes to colonialism. The Arabs, the French, the British were there, the Portuguese, so you have all of these cultural influences there which make it a really spectacular place to be, especially aesthetically speaking. But it also sets a very unique social climate. It’s 90-something per cent Muslim, and I would say largely black. The official language is Swahili. The government has made efforts to curb outside powers from coming in; they have a law where prospective ex-pat business owners have to partner with a person who is from Zanzibar.
It is impossible to forgive if the offense is still occurring.
But there are tricks around that that people use. All you do is find someone dark enough, pay them a nice bit of cash, ask them to come aboard, take a picture, snap snap, and it’s done. Obviously it’s not that simple, but you get the point. These business owners get a local person to become MINORITY owner and voila! They go about their business. Same with Ethiopia. The Chinese are coming with a really soft hand. Behind the scenes, Europeans and Americans have a bigger stake than the people who are indigenous because they find ways to bend those laws. If you’re there long enough you’ll experience it as a black man. Light skin is the right skin. Or so it’s generally perceived.
Do you feel it much down here, in Cape Town?
Oh for sure. I don’t wanna run my mouth too much but you can definitely feel the grips of colonialism in Cape Town… and it makes me upset. All of this Rainbow Nation stuff that’s kind of been indoctrinated into the youth… they’ve been ‘prepped’, let’s say, for this forgive and forget mentality. Why then, do we have to meditate on forgiveness and forgetting, if what you’re supposed to forgive and forget is not a threat to you today? Think about it. I relate a lot to this because in America there is so much talk of a post-racial society, and what I always say is it is impossible to forgive if the offense is still occurring.
When I’m in America, I’m an African in America. I’m an African.
We sit here in Seapoint and all of the prime real estate is occupied by Europeans. Some may argue that the Europeans here are not Europeans at all. That they are African because they were born here… As Africans, you and I are not afforded the kind of privilege they enjoy. If I move to England, I am an African in the UK. When I’m in America, I’m an African in America. I’m an African. My ancestors were kidnapped and everything that’s transpired until this day, reflects this.
We can move on from the past when exploitation, thievery, injustice and systematic destabilisation come to an end. And it is not the job of the marginalised to expedite that process. It must happen in the hearts and minds of those who benefit the most from it. This paradigm is independent of corrupt African leaders, sectarian and tribal conflict. It should be treated as such.
What do you think that means for our politics, both here and there?
I have an unpopular opinion about politics. Oh well. The United States… every year since 1775 there has been a US military operation. For the most part, the US no longer contributes anything, export-wise, to the world except entertainment and war. It used to at least produce steel. Question: Do you think one of the most powerful countries in the world would allow its future to be determined by a nation of Walmart shoppers? HELL NO! Democracy is an illusion.
The solution to police brutality and systemic injustice in the US might have a long-term solution, but it’s not sexy.
Social engineers are confident that even if people did unplug from their televisions etc., their military force and their grasp on peoples’ minds is sufficient to keep the masses from realizing the actual culprit: capitalism. Democracy and capitalism cannot coexist. Even here, you can always buy your power; no amount of voting will change that. If democracy were true, we’d see the majority (the poor and working) vote away wealth from the minority (the ultra wealthy) every election. A system like that would be unstable. Those who have money are the true rulers, and that’s the inconvenient truth.
Do you feel some of that frustration coming into your work? The jazz festival the other week was apparently the first time you have live painted, but you’ve been painting for some time now.
In a sense, I’ve detached, for my own mental well-being. For a while I was an ‘oppression superstar’. Folks would say ‘what does Ferrari Sheppard have to say on this matter?’ And they’d fly me out to talk somewhere about oppression. Which is an honour, but it starts to become a job… A strange job. The kicker is that much of this commentary takes place on media outlets partially responsible for society’s racist, anti-black, anti-brown, anti-migrant, anti-Muslim perspective. Meanwhile, my brothers and sisters continue being systematically murdered and disproportionately incarcerated. I’ve rediscovered my original role as an artist. The frustration doesn’t seep into my work. Art is a form of therapy for me. The world is bugged out.
So what do we do? How do we get around this bugged-outness?
I can’t pretend I have the answers to world’s problems because I don’t. The solution to police brutality and systemic injustice in the US might have a long-term solution, but it’s not sexy. I helped spark a boycott against Nike last year when it offered police officers a 30 per cent discount on Nike products during the height of the Black Lives Matter protests. This was a slap in the face, seeing how Africans in America practically made the brand… I spoke at Harvard and other US universities about organising targeted boycotts of corporations, to force them into becoming allies. The reported estimate spending power of Africans in America in 2015 was $1.1 trillion. If organised, that is a mighty sword!
Boycotts are dynamite in a society that worships capitalism. Boycotts are so effective it’s downplayed by historians and media alike, and it’s not sexy. It won’t produce ‘oppression superstars’” and iconic photos for the front page of the New York Times… With the popularisation of any movement, there comes a moment of truth, where it either matures or it dies. That’s the point we’re arriving at. Being African is more trendy than it’s been in some time, awesome. We’re revelling in superficial aspects of being black, hair texture, styles, and it feels good. But it’s going to take much more to build power. The process takes stamina, discipline, unity and love.
Photography by Ignatius Mokone