Over the past decade, I have been doing work with schools and community-based organizations in the Eastern Cape of South Africa. During one of my early trips, I called home to Seattle and was speaking with my then five-year-old son.
He asked, “Papa, what time is it there in South Africa?”
And I said, “It is five in the morning on Friday. What time is it there in Seattle?”
He responded, “It is eight in the evening on Thursday.” He then paused and spoke up. “You know Papa, you are in the future—South Africa must be in the future.”
His response struck me deeply. As I get to know and engage with teachers, artists and activists from township schools and communities in Port Elizabeth, South African, I am coming to understand the word Ubuntu. If the common point of identity in the West is based on Descartes’s cogito ergo sum, “I think, therefore I am,” then Ubuntu translates to “we are, therefore I am.” If we can begin to frame our identity and agency in the context of “we,” then we all have the opportunity to inch toward a more engaging future. The “we” framing is based on an architecture of community-centric storymaking, the building blocks of which are actions, interests, participation and will.
Masizakhe is a South African Xhosa word meaning “building each other.” It is based on a concept of action that seeks to link arts, culture, politics, history and education to build cohesive communities through creating. Masizakhe reclaims public spheres as arenas for the exploration of identity formation and community growth.
Central to Masizakhe is a notion of storytelling in which narratives are forged through the process of forming deep, personal connections; stories are made with people from particular communities, not just about them. When initiating and continuing through the course of a creative project, the driving question is, “Whose interests are being served?” The goal is not merely to take a photo or obtain information but develop a process of reciprocity, in which the story itself becomes a component of building engaged relationships.
Through this approach, we may widen access to creative ideas, cultural expressions, learning opportunities, business strategies, advocacy work and storytelling, whose functional role is to advance people’s knowledge of themselves and the world around them. Through the collaborative process of production, ideas come alive and opportunities arise, engaging causes that generate activity around the passions and interests of particular communities of practice.
Creative expressions and cultural industries, imagined broadly, play a significant role as major catalysts of growth and development in local and global economies. Through aligning interests, creating collaboratively and cultivating the will to imagine an age grounded in the context of “we,” societies can continue to move away from communities rooted in colonization and towards those of joyful and complimentary practices. Community-centric stories become the tools to strengthen the cultural architecture upon which we may build a more just and dignified future.
Sondella is a Xhosa word that means “bringing it closer.” From this perspective, the first action of creative work is to suspend one’s own story through the act of listening and entering into another’s story. In The Sondella Sessions, my wife Angelica and I filmed hip-hop artists on location at the Hidmo (Seattle) and at Café Café (Port Elizabeth), creating a web-based offering to connect artists on opposite sides of the world. Sondella demonstrates how through the use of digital media and social software artists performing ten thousand miles apart are bringing their interests closer together.
Taking inspiration from the tradition of the fandango celebration of Veracruz, Mexico, the Seattle Fandango Project is dedicated to community building through participatory music and dance, providing local workshops, concerts and public discussions. It is rooted in the concept of convivencia–living and being together. In this way, notions of performer and audience are redefined and refocused along the lines of social ritual and participation in the creation of convivial communities of practice.
A cooperative performance, The Invictus Collaborative plays with the text from the Victorian poem Invictus written by English poet Ernest Henley (1875). The poem served as an inspiration for Nelson Mandela as he developed the will to imagine a more honorable future during his 27 years in jail for fighting apartheid. The Invictus Collaborative serves as a platform for a cyphergy (cypher plus liturgy); it is the willful creation of an environment whereby a standard text is introduced as liturgical call-and-response, and in between each stanza a more free-form flow of words is induced.