The Sartists – a Johannesburg-based creative collective – was formed to challenge parochial ideas about blackness in modern society, taking a considered, autodidactic and documentary approach to style and identity. Sartist co-founder MR WANDA LEPHOTO did the talking and his partner MR KABELO KUNGWANE documented their wide-ranging discussion in Johannesburg. Feature image By MR NAM NTANTALA.
Formed by the photographer Mr Andile Buka, then fashion student Mr Wanda Lephoto and then journalism student Mr Kabelo Kungwane, their aim is to recreate and communicate authentic narratives through fashion and photography. The collective has received acclaim from Scott Schuman’s The Sartorialist, The Brooklyn Circus, Another Africa, GQ and most recently, the New York Times. Below, they share their influences, thoughts on brand collaborations, the serendipity of the thrifting experience and the time they were mistaken for thugs at Mercedes Benz Fashion Week.
How they met
“We (Mr Lephoto and Mr Kungwane) met at Highlands North Boys’ High (in Johannesburg). We just clicked and appreciated our similar styles. We started sharing information about inspirations and where to get clothes, thrifting and doing research about different eras of fashion, styles and fabrics. We started the movement by documenting our personal style, but we officially formed and called ourselves the Sartists in 2012. We met Andile in 2013, having been fans of his work as a photographer – his style was different from others. We shared the same love for documenting urban life in post-apartheid South Africa and telling authentic African stories. We have been working together ever since.”
“We get inspiration from everywhere could be books, clothing items (or) exhibitions. Most of the time we get it from people. Johannesburg is so diverse and we love walking around the city seeing people from different places and backgrounds, talking to them and hearing their stories inspires us.”
“The Sports Series started out as an idea about the untold stories of urban black sports culture and black identity. The project highlights South African athletes, people who went through difficult circumstances, the remnants of colonialism and apartheid, when sports was seen as a novelty for black people, a “white man’s” activity. The series is divided into four: Tennis, Football, Boxing and Cricket. The first two series of the work were recently shown at the Lagos Photo Festival in Nigeria.”
The struggle for the perfect shot
“Shooting the tennis series was a struggle, we walked (a long distance) to the Yeoville tennis court in cream white suits and Manthe and her sister Tebogo Ribane were dressed in lace dresses, carrying vintage wooden rackets. People from Yeoville were staring at us and hollering, like we were going to a wedding. It was funny. When we got to the Yeoville tennis courts, at first they didn’t allow us to shoot because we didn’t ask for permission. Luckily the manager told us the courts would be renovated the next day and we could shoot. When we got there, people stared at us, Andile was having problems with his film camera and had to run the streets in suits to get the right film. We literally had 45 minutes to shoot the series. People always see the final product every time; I wish we could document the struggles we go through.”
“We were commissioned by Adidas South Africa to curate the Supershell Superstars by Pharell Williams for a campaign. We localised the concept by referencing South African township culture, customising garments and commissioning our favourite mural artist – Mr Marc Sign and Isaac Zavale – who did the barbershop aesthetic artworks. Globally, the Superstar sneaker was made popular by superstars like Run DMC. We borrowed from that and looked to Kwaito stars such as Trompies and Alaska to create lookbooks that were inspired by their style and their album covers.”
The thrifting chronicles
“I recall one winter morning three years ago while thrifting for a well-crafted suit, I met an old man called Grandpa Mahlomula – a retired tailor. The charismatic old man looked elegant in a grey 40’s Harris Tweed 3-piece suit with a matching 8-panel newsboy cap and Flosheim wingtip brogues. We were both digging and searching for suits to wear in winter, he looked at me (Mr Lephoto) and said: “Young man what you are doing is amazing, boys your age look down on these clothes because they are second hand. They don’t understand the quality of clothing you find on these piles”. The stories he was telling me were inspiring: the disco scene in the 70s in Soweto and how they used to dress up in wide big collar golfers/shirts, bell-bottom pants, Cazal shades and they had afros that was their preferred look to go on bioscopes with their girlfriends. Since then we’ve been friends he takes me as his grandson and I take him as Madala, my grandfather.
Americana work wear was a style we picked up from thrifting, learning more about the different types of denim from raw to selvedge denim. We started learning about the history of denim and the different styles and sub-cultures that emerged from denim: Punk, Skinheads, Biker and industrial workwear. I remember finding a pair of a Levi’s Strauss “Blue Tab” denim; I was used to the red and orange tabs. I was so excited and I called Wanda to tell him I found these amazing jeans, they were so strong and the fit was amazing.”
“Thugging” at Mercedes Benz Fashion Week (MBFW)
It is true that people judge you by the way you dressed I remember the last time we went to Mercedes Benz Fashion Week (MBFW) at the Sandton Convention Centre in March 2014. We were invited by a few designers to attend their shows and we were dressed in 90’s soccer jerseys – Bafana Bafana (1996) and Kaizer Chiefs (1991) – baggy carpenter pants, Converse All Star sneakers and bucket hats. When we got to the reception, the guard didn’t want to let us in, celebrities and people were uncomfortable, they held their handbags tight when they saw us, people thought we were some gangsters from the township gate crashing the event. The guard was surprised when he finally saw our names on guest lists for the shows. For us we were pushing a look, borrowed from the glorious years of South African football: our national team winning the Afcon Cup and Kaizer Chiefs dominating the NSL league. We were inspired by the way supporters dressed when they went to watch matches. Kaizer Motaung Jnr approached us, he was touched to see his family soccer jersey being worn for fashion week, he offered a price and we declined. Fashion weeks in SA are mainly about the glitz and glamour – which celeb’s dress was hot, which bling bling was better that the other, we wanted to show there are different styles apart from the expensive glitz and glamour, we got inspired by authentic South African styles. That night was the worst after the show we went to find cabs by Michael Angelo Hotel. We requested a cab to Alexandra (Township, north of Johannesburg), cab drivers didn’t want to take us there because they also thought we were gangsters.