UMSWENKO ILLUSTRATES POWER OF SELF EXPRESSION
On Saturday, 18 November 2020, Cape Town Carnival held the fourth of its triweekly workshops aimed at stimulating and connecting Cape Town Carnival performers, artists and members of the public. The spotlight was on Umswenko, a fashion and music subculture originating in the 1970s among Zulu hostel dwellers, used to celebrate, entertain, and show off a sense of impeccable style, fashion and music and build a higher degree of self-expression and self-confidence.
The Cape Town Carnival, traditionally held every year in March, is a celebration of the creativity and diversity of Cape Town and South Africa. Bringing together more than 50 energetic and talented community performance groups from across the metropole, with 2 000 participants, spectacular floats, giant puppets and extravagant costumes, this unique showcase puts talent, culture and creativity in the spotlight.
Attended by a large number of people representing various communities from across greater Cape Town, the workshop introduced to the historical background of contemporary Umswenko, its fashion and music, and how it builds a strong sense of identity.
“It merged traditional and modern African and European culture which gave off a vibrant, masculine feel of identity and self-confidence, especially in a hostile working environment,” said Khanyisile Mbongwa, curatorial- and socio-critical adviser at Cape Town Carnival.
Accompanied by fun and energetic performances by the Carnival’s lead performers, the audience were treated to musical representations of Umswenko – from the acappella-style choral sounds of Isicathamiya originally sung by migrant Zulu men in the 1930s to Ntembeko Njaba’s street-style rapping and Kwaito and Hip Hop-influenced Riky Rick’s own version of Umswenko.
The fashionable styles of Umswenko were on full display, including Izikhothane, a flashy, branded and cult-style of street fashion, worn for showmanship and dance battles, iJewish – quality clothing that is expensive and stylish and uNayathela ini ngani, fashionable footwear that often included brands like Gerani and Carvela and Drag – a queer form of Umswenko that combines makeup and clothing to exaggerate a specific gender identity.
“Umswenko embodies a deliberate celebratory self-expression and a choice around how we present ourselves. Carnival as a whole is a platform for self-expression, either of your fullest true self or an aspect of who you are. This includes who you choose to associate with and how you share yourself with the world,” says Brad Baard, Creative Director for Cape Town Carnival.
Franco Pascoe, Workshop Coordinator for Cape Town Carnival, and Tylor Spelman, dancer and choreographer, shared their personal renditions of what a Cape Flats-style Joster, Joller, and drag artist would don.
“Joster’s style is a look still happening today amongst men 45 years old and over,” says Pascoe. Pleated pants, panama hats, leather jackets, Pringle t-shirts and Crockett & Jones shoes are typically worn he adds.
“In our communities you see the Nike tracksuits, Nike takkies, alles Nike! And bling too, whether it’s a silver chain, bracelets or rings – this is the swank happening in our neighbourhoods right now, it’s all about the brand, and it’s happening!” Pascoe said.
In groups, participants looked at how they identify themselves as individuals in various settings. They were prompted to consider the many ways they could describe themselves, by profession, family role, gender, sexual orientation, religion, race or even likes and dislikes as means of identification.
A quirky exercise using each participant’s own shoe as a symbol to explore their personal journeys and how they got to this point was undertaken too. Participants looked at the role of personal values, and the behaviours they value amongst friends and family, as a means of expressing their own priorities.
The concept of archetypes was introduced as a way of expressing the many attributes and characteristics of a person, but also used as a mirror to reflect their own worth. From diva and princess to warrior, rescuer and inventor, workshop participants had an opportunity to see themselves through a different lens. They also looked at how they could use physical expressions to strut the catwalk and show off their archetypal self-expression.
“Understanding what archetypes we may embody, allows us to play to our character strengths in different situations,” says Baard. “It also helps us understand and value the journey we’ve been on, and how we can be of greater use to others.”