Internationally acclaimed poet (first published at the age of 25), activist, actress and now director of Venus Hottentot vs Modernity Lebo Mashile is a force that not even gravity can pull down.
The first thing Lebo did as she walked onto the stage at this year’s Design Indaba was greet audience members as though they were childhood friends. It is with that same sense of familiarity that she and I start our conversation, beginning with a recollection of how her journey as an activist started when she became aware of her ‘Africanness’, while being raised by politically exiled parents in the USA. ‘Being black in America, being African, being in circles where I was with other Africans and having parents who were so actively involved in the South African political landscape, was my lens into finding my identity,’ she says.
Maya Angelou’s prolific autobiographical works – particularly I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings– introduced her to her truest self, a self that loved to read, write, hang out in jazz clubs late at night as a university student and performing at open mic shows.
They say that a 40-year-old writer is a young writer. There is a coming-together in my being and, for the first time, my values resonate with young people. I am so proud of this third book and, as my own worst critic, I feel that it’s my best work yet.
‘I remember watching Spike Lee’s Malcom X movie and The Color Purple and feeling incredibly moved. Moving to SA when I was 16 was so crazy, because SA was going through a transition process too. It’s strange to consider who I was when I was younger as “radical” because, at that time, being conscious was cool, being interested in politics and being “woke” was expressed in many ways.’
As an actress, she has appeared in movies like Hotel Rwanda and, more recently, she’s directed Venus Hottentot vs Modernity, which is based on the life story of Sarah Baartman, and stars vocalist Ann Masina. The film was was shown for the first time at this year’s Design Indaba Festival Nightscape segment. Explaining her fascination with the historical figure, Lebo says, ‘What many people don’t know is that she was one of the most famous performers of her time. She was seeking fame when she decided to leave her home and go to Cape Town and then Europe. She influenced fashion and culture in so many ways – think of corsets and Victorian fashion.’
Lebo took on the film project in order to dispel the idea that Sarah had no agency; that she was forced to leave and was sold into slavery. ‘Sarah was an artist, but as humans, we can take the most beautiful thing and reduce it to a freak show if we want to.’ Behind the narrative that followed Sarah’s fame, she, like many women today, fell under the societal trap of patriarchy, Lebo notes. Behind the fame-seeking narrative is also the narrative of Sarah’s positionality as a sexualised woman of colour, exoticised by white men and reduced to being an ‘object’ of exploration.
With her third anthology of poems on its way and the excitement of being alive in the ‘age of the unknown’, Lebo is excited about the future. ‘They say that a 40-year-old writer is a young writer. There is a coming-together in my being and, for the first time, my values resonate with young people. I am so proud of this third book and, as my own worst critic, I feel that it’s my best work yet.’