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"Fragments of surfing pasts" art nstallation, Casa Labia

“Fragments of Surfing Pasts” art installation, Casa Labia Gallery, Muizenberg, 21 September 2014. Photo: Cobus Joubert

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).

Exhibition summary

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Paul Weinberg talks to the exhibition themes at the Walkabout on 12 October 2014

Paul Weinberg talks to the exhibition themes at the Walkabout on 12 October 2014. Photo: Casa Labia

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Exhibitors on display: HUMA hosted panel discussion on the Beyond the Beach Exhibition, Muizenberg and the raising questions about the beach as a space opening the possibility of inclusivity and belonging in post-apartheid South Africa. Held in at the Casa Labia ballroom, 12 October 2014. (L to R: Rodger Bosch, Sean Wilson, Paul Weinberg, Robert Hamblin, Jenny Altschuler and Glen Thompson. Not pictured, Sandy Worm, who is based in Germany). Photo: Casa Labia.

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.

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Reading surfing histories during the exhibition Walkabout. Photo: Paul Weinberg

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.

Sandy Worm's portraits

Black surfers at Muizenberg: some of Sandy Worm’s portraits. Photo: Paul Weinberg

 

In August 2013, cjac20.v026.i03.coverMeg 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.”

David Johnson, “Beyond tragedy: Otelo Burning and the limits of post-apartheid nationalism.”

Meg Samuelson and Glen Thompson, “Interview with Sara Blecher and Sihle Xaba: the making and meanings of Otelo Burning.”

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I presented a research in progress paper entitled “Transforming Surfer Boys: A Cultural History of Zulu Surfers in South Africa, 1965 to 2013” in the panel on Conflict and Leisure at the Historical Association of South Africa (HASA) Biennial Conference in Durban on Friday, 27 June 2014. This working paper on black surfing histories in South African forms part of my doctoral study on gender and politics in the history of South African surfing culture.

Surf film: Zulu Surf Riders (2008)

Surf film: Zulu Surf Riders (2008)

Summary of the paper

A cultural history of black surfing disrupts the whiteness, but not the masculine ethos, of surfing in South Africa. For Durban, two films have foregrounded Zulu surfers, the feature film Otelo Burning (2011) and documentary film Kushaya Igagasi (2013), translated as “Hitting the Waves”. In seeking to contextualise these contemporary formations of youthful black, male surfing subjectivities, this paper sets out a genealogy of Zulu surfers in surfing magazines, surf industry advertising and films featuring surfing (surf films, documentaries and feature films) from 1965 to the present. These sources provide an archive for a postcolonial reading of established (mediated, commercialised and organised) surfing culture’s appropriation of Zuluness during years of beach apartheid to affirm white surfing’s cultural distinction and difference in terms of race, class and gender. In the post-apartheid era, a discourse of surfing development and national sports transformation re-shaped views of Zulu surfers from that of athletic tokenism to social inclusion in the waves. Nevertheless, race trouble (the presistance of racial inequality in the everyday despite a discourse of tolerance) and contested masculinities at the beach have remained a persistence of the past. From the early 1990s, the voices of Zulu surfers in KwaZulu Natal can also be found in the surfing archive. A changing cultural politics has made possible an agency for Zulu surfers to accommodate, subvert or re-appropriate established surfing’s representations of “the surfer”. While this self-fashioning may be driven by a desire for social mobility, they have emerged, especially in the 2000s, out of clubs or social development programmes, inclusion within surf teams, brand sponsorship and media attention. The Africanisation of South African surfing culture, expressed at times as township surfing culture, is addressed by exploring the local and global processes of surfing lifestyle consumption among Zulu surfers in Mzansi (the South).

I presented a research in progress paper entitled “From Femlins to Saltwater Girls: Sport, Lifestyle and Femininities in South African Surfing Culture, c.1965 to the present” at the Stellenbosch History Department Seminar Series on Wednesday, 24 April 2013. This paper was then presented on Saturday, 29 June 2013 at the 2013 Southern African Historical Society Conference held in Gaborone, Botswana. This working paper forms part of my doctoral study on gender and politics in the history of South African surfing culture.

A further iteration of this paper was presented at the Institute for Humanities in Africa (HUMA) at the University of Cape on Thursday, 28 August 2014. This work in progress paper was titled: From Femlins to Saltwater Girls: Surfer Girls and Lifestyle Sport Consumption in South African surfing magazines, 1965 – present.

Summary of the paper

Liquid Girls Surfing magazine, cover of March 2006 issue.

Liquid Girls Surfing Magazine, cover of March 2006 issue.

This paper seeks to make visible the histories of women’s surfing in South Africa as a counterpoint to the persistent discourse that the sport of surfing is a male activity. It attempts a pro-feminist, new cultural history reading of the surfing archive taking into consideration both textual and visual sources to recover the representations, voices, experiences and agency of girls and women who surfed or continue to surf in Cape Town, Durban or elsewhere along the South African coastline from the mid-1960s to the present. This paper seeks to document how South African surfing femininities negotiated complicity within the gender order or, through a surfing identity, challenged the gendered nature of power in society and within surfing culture itself. It explores both the local and global iterations of surfing femininities as shaped by or shaping cultural, social and commercial processes. In particular, the role of surf magazine advertising is examined for how it maintained a youthful, sexy, athletic yet objectified heterosexual image of the “surfer girl” over several decades. In locating this study within the study of hegemonic femininities in southern Africa this paper explores the complexities of gender relations in the social construction of femininities: how these femininities were themselves historically contingent, fluid and contested by girls and women who surfed, constructed in relation to men in the surf and on the beach, located in relation to a discourse of a femininised ocean, and socially differentiated based on the culture of beach leisure and access to leisure time, sporting prowess, the nature of sportisation through organised sport, and the consumptive ethic of a beauty culture associated with the emergence and consolidation of surfwear as mainstream fashion. In short, in reflecting on the role of gender and lifestyle in South African surfing history, the conditions for the emergence in South Africa in the 1990s of the global phenomenon of the “Surfer Girl”, with its Californian and Australian roots, is considered within the context of the democractisation of South African society. Yet, this history also illustrates some of the limits of social and cultural change at the beach as women’s surfing in South Africa has largely remained a white sporting activity, despite the promise of change in the prominent roles of black girl surfers in the Hollywood DVD Blue Crush 2 (2011), set in KwaZulu-Natal and the eastern coastline, and the locally produced Amaza (2013) television series filmed in Muizenberg, Cape Town.

I presenting a paper on how black surfers have been represented in South Africa’s surfing print magazines since 1990 at the Work/Force: South African Masculinities in the Media Conference  held at Stellenbosch University on 13th & 14th September 2012.

Summary of the paper
The idea of the “surfer boy” in the South African surfing imaginary is no longer primarily white, male and youthful although Zigzag (since 1976) and thebombsurf (since 2008) surf magazines continue to maintain that white, heterosexual hegemony within their textual and visual representations supported by surf industry advertising expenditure. Nor is surfing nostalgically looking back to the halcyon days of the Californian inspired Sixties and Seventies. Rather, through grassroots initiatives, surfing development programmes linked to organised surfing, and pressure from the national sport ministry, that same surf media and several surf movies are constructing the idea of surfing in Mzansi (the South) at established and emergent surfing centres along the South African coastline, such as at Durban, Mzumbe, Port St Johns Jeffreys Bay and Muizenberg, where black male surfers and white girl surfers are visible. In many ways it is the new possibility of these postcolonial surfing sites that have provided the greatest challenge to the historically white and male South African surfing imaginary and opens up possibilities for new male identities and gender relations on the post-apartheid beach and, through sporting and recreational practices, in the surf. This does not mean that the surf media is not without producing social tensions in what is said and not said (and what is seen and unseen) about race and gender. The former surfaces as race trouble in negotiating new identities that attempt to masked social fractures within surf culture. The latter shows fissures in the production of a white South African surfing masculinity historically used to supporting its dominance in society through a sporting practice. In these ways, the South African surf media provides a useful lens to critically explore competing masculinities within a marginal aquatic sporting tradition that point to social transformations on the beach in the years after apartheid.

For more information on the conference: Work/Force: South African Masculinities in the Media Conference.

This paper is part of my ongoing work for my doctoral studies focusing on gender and politics in the history of South African surfing culture.

It’s a sad state of affairs when the one’s thoughts has continued through many months not to document a word. Does that lessen the fact that I have been studying surfing’s history at all as participant and observer? I hope not but I do feel that “the writing interregum” as a period within a research process is now shifting from contemplation to thesis writing output.

Coming later in life to this doctoral study with my own sense of nostalgia for a youth surfing past, I’ve pondered why – and been asked the same question by others on numerous occasions – this historical project on gender and politics in South African surfing culture.  A short answer would be: an interrogation of my past as a surfer and an attempt to understand, over time, the agency of other surfers in periods structured by the experience of apartheid and interwoven by the gender order to frame social relations and identities.

If I look at my published writings to date on surfing, only the latest of these on how the international sports boycott against apartheid shaped competition surfing in South Africa begins to take a broader time period into account. My other pieces have been more focused on key founding moment in South African surfing’s sports history – the inaugural South Africa National Surfriding Championships in 1966 and the emergence of Shaun Tomson as an exemplar male surf icon in the late 1970s. Both pieces analysed how a hegemonic masculinity around competitive surfing was constructed and maintained. The writing on gender and surfing however goes far beyond its masculinist pretenses, and as I work through material from the 1950s through to the 1990s I am finding evidence for shifting masculine and feminine identites over time, and even with periods.

Here the 1960s have become a fascination for me and I am currently working on conference paper, for the forthcoming Southern African Historical Society Conference in Durban, to think through how global surfing can provide a lens to look at how local black and white surfers could turn to California and Hawai’i for new configurations of social identity under apartheid. This brings the theme of gender and politics together in a manner that I have only hinted at in past papers.

Pondering this theme has also been much of the reason (beside other distractions, including spending time in the water surfing for leisure or sport) why the interregnum has dragged on for some months. Looking at the surf studies forecast, there’s a swell of writing to come …

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