“Me and My Board” was a discussion session hosted by the 2016 Open Book Festival in Cape Town on Saturday, 10 September 2016. The panel included: Capetonian big-wave surfer and SUP adventurer Chris Bertis, with his autobiographical account of his 2010 Mavericks Big Wave Invitational win in Stoked! (Zebra Press, 2015), and Andy Martin, University of Cambridge French literature and philosophy academic and surfer with his Stealing the Wave (Bloomsbury, 2008), subtitled “the epic struggle between Ken Bradshaw and Mark Foo”, about their big wave surfing rivalry in the 1980s and 1990s. I was asked to chair the session.
The session was captured by surfer, SUP’er and writer Melissa Volker for Wavescape.co.za as “Talk About Waves“, noting who else came to listen: “It was as much a weird blend of academia and aloha on stage as it was in the audience. There was a mix of readers who surf (or surfers who read?) and literati, those bookworms and mind surfers who never have (and never will) get on a surfboard.” Read the full article, with photographs and the podcast of the session (it runs for about 1 hour).
Among her reflections, Melissa captured the contradiction of speaking about a big-wave brotherhood that emerged during the conversation – it “does not refer to gender, but rather to the connection with people in the ocean” (Bertish) and “strikes a patriarchal note” (Martin). These views are poles apart, the former an example of a hegemonic surfing masculinity at work and the latter a pro-feminist reading of surfing’s male domination. This raised the question of naming women surfers as girls from the a member of the audience, and my reply that in surfing culture the representation of the “surfer girl” has a history of subordinating women surfers to the male surfing imaginary. However, while that cultural history is acknowledged, some recent third-wave feminist sports scholars have seen girl surfers as advocates of stealth feminism empowering women as athletes within the sport of surfing. It was here that the “Me and My Board” session connected with the broader currents within contemporary surfing culture and its changing gender order – pointing to the continued need to interrogate why we create myths out of big wave surfing and how those myths reinforce the masculine within surfing and society.
The Beyond the Beach Exhibition opened opposite from the waves at Muizenberg’s Surfer’s Corner at the Casa Labia Gallery on Sunday, 21 September and ran to 21 October 2014. Curated by Paul Weinberg, the exhibition features several photographers whose work re-imagined the beach and shoreline of False Bay as space for ways of seeing the fluidity of identities, emotions, spaces and aesthetics associated, evoked or juxtaposed to the “beach” as place and concept. I was invited to participate in the exhibition and create an art installation that critically explored South African surfing histories (see note below for more details).
A note on the “Fragments of Surfing Pasts” art installation
Surfing pasts becomes somewhat knowable through traces, found fragments providing a view of what happens beyond the beach in the waves. This art installation was a reflexive review of my place within my studies of South African surfing history. Part summation of my doctoral dissertation in History (the exhibition run during the final month of my writing up of my dissertation), part visual representation of some of the key sources and themes informing that historical study, this installation was a becoming for me as a surfer and historian, a space for me to speak as a cultural practitioner to my interpretations of the beach and surfing’s historical place therein. The selections from the magazines on display come from independent South African surfing magazines no longer in print, South African Surfer (1965-68), Offshore (1987-89), and Liquid Girls (2005-6), or in the case of Amaza (2012 – ), currently in print but not widely available. All found a publishing home in Cape Town; South African Surfer moved from Durban for its last issue. The earlier magazines folded due to market pressures, Amaza is published by Waves for Change, a local non-profit organisation that uses surfing for leadership training and social development for at-risk youth from Masiphumelele and Khayelitsha townships in Cape Town. Each magazine reflects turning points in South African surfing history and points to the shaping of the diversity of surfing identities in the present. South African Surfer provides a record of the Sixties surf boom in the longboard era, Offshore reported on non-racial surfing under apartheid, Liquid Girls made girl and women surfers visible in a market over-determined as youthful males, and Amaza brings to the fore the lives of black surfers and emergence of township surfing. Framing the surf magazines, the broken surfboard speaks of the how the shortboard is no longer the only way of finding pleasure when riding waves. It was provided by Share the Stoke Foundation South Africa, which repairs and re-deploys surfboards into local surfing development programmes. This surfboard was beyond repair and was last used at the Surfshack Surf Outreach Project in Muizenberg. The wooden Alaia Needle surfboard, shaped by Muizenberg based WAWA Wooden Surfboards, guides the chronology of the installation, from the Sixties to the present. It also references surfing’s precolonial Hawaiian past, that surfing has traveled the globe in the modern era, and gestures to the future of surfboard shaping in seeking alternative and environmentally-friendly materials to surfboards made out of petrochemical based epoxy, polystyrene, polyester and polyurethane products. The UCT documentary film, Berg Boys (2013), brings Muizenberg into focus as a space for passing on surfing styles and know-how from a surf coach to a young grom in keeping the surfing stoke alive. The film brings to the fore the role of surf tourism in providing employment to black surfers and provides a view of how surfing keeps youth off the streets and in the waves.
My installation shared a room with Sandy Worm’s portraits of some of Muizenberg’s black surfers, titled: Black People Don’t Surf. The details of this photographic project, and the others that were on display at the Beyond the Beach Exhibition are detailed in the catalogue archived on the Casa Labia Gallery website.
In August 2013, Meg Samuelson and I collaborated on an interdisciplinary project that considered the contemporary politics, shifting poetics and invoked pasts in the film Otelo Burning (2011), an isiZulu language film that uses surfing to pose questions about personal and political freedom during the demise of apartheid (1988-1990).
An outcome of the project was the publication of several essays and an interview with Sara Blecher (producer, director) and Sihle Xaba (actor, surfer) in the Contemporary Conversations section of the Journal of African Cultural Studies, Volume 26, Number 3, September 2014.
Contemporary Conversations: Otelo Burning
Meg Samuelson and Glen Thompson, “Introduction.” (Free Access to the article, which includes audio-visual supplementary material relating to the film and its reception).
Meg Samuelson, “Re-telling freedom in Otelo Burning: the beach, surf noir, and Bildung at the Lamontville pool.” (Free Access to the article).
Glen Thompson, “Otelo Burning and Zulu surfing histories.” (Open Access to the article).
Bhekizizwe Peterson, “Otelo Burning (dir. Sara Blecher, 2011).”
Litheko Modisane, “Otelo Burning: On the turbulence of freedom.”
Meg Samuelson and Glen Thompson, “Interview with Sara Blecher and Sihle Xaba: the making and meanings of Otelo Burning.”