The Sartists celebrate, curate and preserve contemporary black culture

This Joburg-based creative collective is making waves with their work, which the plan to archive for the benefit of future generations

25 April 2021 - 00:00 By Paula Andropoulos
adidas Originals Supershell campaign by The Sartists.
adidas Originals Supershell campaign by The Sartists.
Image: Stussy Our Tribe

The Sartists collective is hard to pin down. Comprising a four-man coalition of Joburg-based creatives — Andile Buka, Wanda Lephoto, Xzavier Zulu and Kabelo Kungwane — the multidisciplinary group was founded in 2014, predominantly out of a need for each of the members to start archiving their portfolios.

Buka and Lephoto were already fairly well-established names on the South African creative scene: Buka is a photographer and Lephoto is a fashion designer.

Zulu and Kungwane, powerhouses in their own right, wield most of their influence behind the scenes, operating as the group's art and creative directors — but, in the words of the Sartists themselves, their roles are fluid "and easily interchangeable: everyone does everything in the collective, from styling to makeup; we've all had to learn a bit of everything".

In e-mails with the members of the collective, we chatted to the Sartists about the group's genesis, and the importance of celebrating, curating and preserving black histories.

How did the collective come about?

Xzavier Zulu (XZ): The apartheid system [facilitated the] erasure of black family photo albums and works by our ancestors: it destroyed not only us but also the things in our homes that represented who we are. As a result, there are little to no documents or works that show certain time periods within the black community.

Sartists was formed as a reaction, a starting point that aimed to create an archive of work, not only of imagery but of written journals, essays, and various other art forms that would outlive us and be a reference point for people in the future.

Andile Buka (AB): What we do is to research and explore global references and brands in fashion and street style. We re-sample and translate them into an aesthetic and a story that is relatable to the black experience and to SA's youth.

In the beginning, groups like The Sartists showcased their fashion and style online during the days of blogs, and they had dedicated websites where they wrote about the events they attended and some of their fashion influences.

Wanda Lephoto (WL): Kabelo and I met in high school — this was in the late 2000s — and we formed the collective together in 2012. In the years 2013/2014, we would see the work of Andile Buka pop up on Tumblr, and we eventually met him working in Braamfontein in a photography store selling cameras. We formed a friendship and then a working relationship. Around the same time, we met Xzavier Zulu online: he had a great page of images that represented pockets of black culture in an amazing manner, all of everyone's identity in one place, working together.

Is collaborating with other South African artists, creatives, and tastemakers important to your work generally?

XZ: Collaboration with other South African artists, creatives, and tastemakers in our shared and individual journeys hasn't been prominent, and I believe that to be because we'd come together as a collective from an initial collaboration and have since sought any possible insights, skill sharing, etcetera. from each other — as a priority. That being said, collaboration amongst us all is necessary for progress, but it's not something to be forced upon anyone; it will happen [organically] with the people who share [our values].

Can you elaborate on your solo professions/vocations?

XZ: Simply put, I'm the EIM (entertainment and influencer marketing) specialist for Adidas Originals SA — as my 9-5 — and an art director and upcycler as my 5-9. In between everything else, I try to remain in peace and be as kind to people as possible — as cheesy as that sounds. We could all use some kindness.

WL: I am the founder and creative director of the fashion business and brand Wanda Lephoto. I am also a freelance consultant and academic history researcher and artist specialising in the interest related to black bodies, and how black bodies have been represented in the past in relation to how those representations are or will be constantly shifting and changing, either currently and/or in the future.

AB: I work as portrait and documentary photographer. If I'm not shooting commercial and editorial work, I'm working on my ongoing personal projects.

Test Image of Levi’s Collection by The Sartists.
Test Image of Levi’s Collection by The Sartists.
Image: Supplied

Kabelo Kungwane (KK): I am the founder and creative director of Kasi Flavour10, a platform for the young/adult football fan. It is a platform that is inspired by South African football culture, design and art. I consult on football creative projects and work to remind people why we love football as a country.

What kinds of stories are you trying to give expression to?

The Sartists has been around for close to 10 years now. The stories we are trying to tell are constantly changing as culture, identity and representation of ourselves and others is constantly changing. Cultural fusion is at the core of our identity and expressions. We are interested in the blending of two worlds to create new propositions for identity and representation.

What are some of your career highlights, and what are your aims for the collective?

XZ: There have been many highlights in our time, many of them not just being the work but the friendships we have built with people. We have to start with mentioning the friendships that came with Art Comes First, the Brooklyn Circus and Street Etiquette: our friends, our mentors and our peers, they informed a lot of how we still do things today.

Truthfully, from among the exhibitions, travelling and shared industry and individual "firsts", I'd place us still being friends, brothers and forms of creative support for each other above all else, as there aren't many South African creative collectives anymore — especially not from our era.

Highlights including shooting Stussy Our Tribe editorial, shooting Heron Preston's capsule. Exhibiting at MoMA and Tropenmuseum; being a part of a documentary titled Black Dandy by Canal TV, where we were interviewed alongside Oliver Rousteig of Balmain, Dapper Dan of Gucci, and the HBA team. Our friendship and brotherhood with Daily Paper and Bone Soda.

The biggest highlight is inspiring [the next] generation, a generation we hope will take as we have taken and give back to the world work that is more meaningful than all the personal gains you can imagine.

AB: Collectively we've been focusing on individual projects and work commitments. My burning dream and desire is to create more personal projects collectively and publish the work we have done in the past.

How has the Covid-19 pandemic affected your industry/practice?

XZ: Truthfully, for all that the pandemic has revealed about ourselves, communities, government and shared industries, it has also been the single greatest moment to reflect on all those very same topics.

Stussy "Our Tribe" Editorial by The Sartists shot by Hanro Havenga.
Stussy "Our Tribe" Editorial by The Sartists shot by Hanro Havenga.
Image: Supplied

As a denim upcycler, all that I've produced throughout the years has been centered around thrift culture and aspects of sustainability — it's always been "slow" and a labour of love.

As that has been the case for years, the sudden halt allowed for even more space and time to source denim, sample, and work closer with CMTs (Cut, Make, Trim businesses) on how they look to move forward.

The pandemic has seen a lot of CMTs either temporarily close or shut down completely, thus bringing garment production to a halt; and many were only allowed to remain open solely to produce face covers — especially at the height of the pandemic.

In addition to that, as the import of items was only allowed for essentials, this had an impact on the thrifting industry as thrifting piles had closed, thus not only crippling the industry as a whole but making it impossible to source denim.

AB: The past year feels like a distant dream of some sort. It's been really challenging to try to keep a positive outlook on work and personal life. Work has been inconsistent and has left many art practitioners in destitute situations, including our collective. With the current state of the National Arts Council, in the past few weeks we have seen many artists staging a sit-in at the [NAC] head office and demanding answers from the state with regards to artist relief funds that were promised.

This tells us that we have been in crisis as a country when it comes to taking care of artists. We either look into our close circles for financial aid or to private institutions, mostly based outside SA.

What advice would you offer ambitious young South Africans in your field?

XZ: Have a purpose, a purpose that is understood by yourself — wholeheartedly, above anyone else's idea of you, your work or otherwise, and look to reaffirm your purpose with each project.

Start with what you have, wherever you are, and that is all you need. The resources and support may or may not come eventually over time, but who you are and how you make it work is unique to you and that is the most important thing you can offer to yourself and to the world: who you are.

What advice would you offer young South African men about masculinity and the changing world around them?

XZ: Be your authentic self, as life has proven to be too short for anyone or anything else.