Beathur Mgoza Baker is one of South Africa’s leading young women in the media, being both a seasoned journalist and director/filmmaker. She spent her 20s migrating through television (“as everyone does,” she says), producing documentaries, narrative film, experimental film and longer form film. With her wealth of insights and experience, she is also one of the PPC Imaginarium Awards’ thought leaders. Mgoza Baker sat down with us to discuss her views on other creative disciplines, and what she hopes to see from the Awards.
Where did you find inspiration across all the different channels you’ve explored through the years?
I grew up in Soweto as the product of two people who contravened the immorality act. I had a very interesting childhood! But I was fortunate in that I was exposed to pertinent ideas and questions, both politically and otherwise. My family is Pan Africanist, so I am too and I regard myself as an ‘Afro Futurist’. I feel that’s the only direction to go in terms of narrative and conceptual film work and that we should be reimagining Africa on our own terms. That’s what I love to do. So, my questions growing up, as well as my interest and my passion for Africa are very much combined in the work that I do. Whether it’s an aesthetic or a garment or somebody’s life story, I constantly find inspiration in the people and the places I go to. I also feel that the audience is really important to my work. So whatever I film, inspiration is always thinking of the audience’s experience. They are the ultimate deciding factor, so I really believe they should have experiences and not just information coming at them.
Let’s dive deeper into each of the other Imaginarium Awards categories and discuss the things you like and what you see happening in that space. To start off, how do you view sculpture?
One of the clients that I work with has a gallery and art lifestyle magazine in Nigeria called Omenca. I was recently writing a long article for them about the Nirox Sculpture Park in Joburg. I went there for research saw a lot of work that I loved. What really blew me away was a concrete sculpture by Daya Heller around creation and femininity. On the one side it’s this beautiful naked woman with a pregnant belly holding a bird. When you walk around it though, her other side is completely gutted with raw iron exposed. It was such a vulnerable experience to stand beside this life-size figure and think about South Africa and the way we represent some of the things that our women experience; a lot of which is really traumatic. As a viewer, I was very touched by the work and shocked that she could represent my feelings of vulnerability using form and sculpture so vividly. The use of concrete was interesting in itself, because it wasn’t smooth. I realised that it emphasised how exposed we are.
Then there’s Jeremy Rose who created the Mandela Cell from concrete, also at Nirox. I went inside and thought it was incredible to see how he was able to take you inside Mandela’s experience by recreating the cell. I took a photo of it from a distance and was overwhelmed by a feeling of isolation. What sculpture does is that it takes us back to a time when we were engaging with our own mortality by creating our own likeness. The more abstract the sculpture, the more we search for ourselves in it. Or the more it represents the human form, the more we identify it with ourselves.
What about architecture?
I think there’s an exciting challenge with architecture in South Africa today. In the last 20 years, I don’t think we’ve seen what we should be seeing in terms of experimentation and design. But we also have this challenge of creating homes, and this is a challenge I feel we should be interpreting more imaginatively. I don’t know if our architects are doing things that people like David Adjaye are doing. David travelled around Africa and looked at what exists, how was it functional, how was it creative and what materials were used. So I’d like to see more of a process like that. I’m also working on a project with Clara da Cruz Almeida, who designed the Soweto Theatre. I feel that, like her, we need to be examining our cultural references using materials like concrete and being much more creative in representing that. Reinterpreting our experience of culture through materials and the places we live and work in. What’s challenging with concrete is that its durability means you have to to say something profound with what you create. It’s quite daunting, because not even marriage lasts that long! We need to think which kind of structures need to last. What do we want to see lasting in this story of South Africa when we create structures? Personally, I think we should engage with our communities. They carry the story of their culture and the architects can find inspiration in that.
Lastly, let’s talk about fashion and jewellery in a concrete space.
That’s an interesting challenge actually. I’m glad in a way that I haven’t seen much of it because I’m looking forward to seeing how people respond and what kind of entries come in for the Imaginarium Awards… to see how entrants interpret that relationship. I would say with fashion, like architecture, we haven’t gone to where we can go yet and that’s a great challenge. I’m really interested in designers who make things to be worn. People like Maria McCloy, who is working with jewellers in Lesotho. I like what she does because I feel that she is interpreting global trends well and raising the bar for African entrepreneurs and designers. She also looks at materials for inspiration. What do we have that is indigenous to us as Africans in South Africa? Then she really explores shapes that are topical and interesting in art and fashion at the moment.
On a slightly different topic, a recent study by renowned psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi found that creative people often possess a number of paradoxes. Do you agree that there should be tension or contradictions within creativity?
I believe that paradox is very important, in that conflict is very critical to storytelling. If you don’t have tension in your narrative, then there is nothing to resolve. I think as creative people, we need to be challenged by ourselves but also by what we represent. The climate we are working in, where funding is very limited and where the best man will win, forces you to grow in ways you wouldn’t have if you were not challenged.
What do you think the PPC Imaginarium Awards can offer young designers and artists?
I have worked in the Architecture & Film Festival and I’ve worked with students from numerous institutions. I think the PPC Imaginarium Awards will create a good platform for young people to become exposed, which is great because I’ve seen many emerging artists get a career boost from winning competitions like this. For me, this competition is a way of finding a new expression, a new identity, forging a new way of understanding an African identity through the eyes of the new voices.
Lastly, do you have any tips for a potential entrant who is a bit uncertain about how to approach this competition?
There’s a lot of uncertainty when we encounter something for the first time. Every story, every topic, every relationship, every idea needs to be ‘concretised’. And I love that word. As creatives, our job is bringing things from the realm of the imagination into material. I would say to any young person who is going to enter that it’s good to be nervous. It’s good to wonder whether your expression will stand out in comparison to anyone else’s, because it keeps us on point. At the same time though, don’t discard an idea until you have concretised it and shared it with someone. It’s a process. It’s a privilege to see someone entering this creative space and seeing the light in them. I think it’s really important not to lose that light and determination. Because ultimately it’s a very spiritual thing that we do, concretising.