"Venerated Villain (Kenosi)", 2011

If there is a constant to chaos it is dualism; where two Manichean halves clash. The vying of the irrational against the rational makes Africa the perfect breeding ground for chaos, where conflict, war, violence, and poverty in the wake of decolonization, global capitalism, and the resurgence of pre-colonial tribalism simultaneously condemn and validate oppression. It is from this ‘tragic-state-of-affairs’ that corrupt and totalitarian powers contest for ownership over a multifaceted and layered geography. Within this paradigm small pockets across Africa are attempting to find recourse towards identifying themselves, in many ways reversing the voyeuristic gaze of the West, becoming voyeurs of the West and vanguards of their own culture, in the process finding rootedness; a story of difference, and the indifference that prevails to destroy it.

Frank Marshall is a photographer who dissects the question of representation in Africa by focusing on a special outcropping of Heavy Metal subculture in Botswana. He does so from a formal photographic stance and as a sub-political statement, constructing an image of the Renegade as a pretense to the avant-garde. Heavy Metal is a divergent subculture, and its quasi-nihilist tenets seem to have developed into an uprising in Sub-Saharan Africa, provoking those myths and stereotypes that sustain the borders of supposed social order, dummy-revolutions, and apparent power struggles; all under the guise of victimhood in the shadow of the post-colony. What the so-called ‘Batswana’ Heavy Metal community is nurturing in Botswana is merely one of many encouraging microcosms of change sprouting all across Africa. The diverse manner in which this change is happening exhibits how the continent is calibrating itself to the demands of the Present and the obligations of the Past. With the Batswana, Marshall has taken it upon himself to document this process unfolding, one individual Motswana at a time (‘Motswana’ being the singular to the plural ‘Batswana’).

Bound by the Moon, 2011

Marshall tentatively situates himself as a mediator chronicling the assimilation of Heavy Metal by a group of Batswana rebels creating an emergent rootedness in a geography where tradition, politics, and tribalism create sensitive grounds for expression. These Renegades are almost thespian in their unconscious re-reading of post-colonial hauteur. This ‘performative’ aspect is a dominant theme in Marshall’s photographs; where the Machiavellian world of Heavy Metal meets the Manichean world of Colonialism, uniquely displayed in each individual Motswana portrait.

Such sub-cultural insurgences supply alternative lifestyles that veer from long-debated post-colonial concerns that either views subculture as a luxury of the First World or the corruption of the Third World. But such insurrections are anomalies attempting to deal with the challenges of Modernity, and the Batswana community does so through pure idiosyncratic rage in keeping with the idiom of Heavy Metal.

"Death", 2011

Increasingly, these subversive apolitical, non-traditional caucuses establish themselves unobstructed by the moral and political predicaments created by post-liberation, often corrupt leaderships in underdeveloped democracies. Although many subcultures exist in seemingly developed African states such as South Africa, this particular fraternity in Botswana is provoking a unique polarity-shift between the West and its perceived Other, allowing for a greater sense of belonging and fellowship amongst the Batswana Heavy Metal community, geared towards a confrontation with the persuasions and dysfunctions of Globalization and Capitalism. The Batswana take advantage of the spectacle cherished in Heavy Metal lore, parodying the larger Spectacle created by the ‘powers-that-be’, turning the notion of ‘Otherness’ on its head. The Batswana become voyeurs of the old oppressor; the West becomes the fetish, a novelty in light of the outsider status of Heavy Metal in Botswana.

Marshall’s portraits of the Batswana pose important anthropological questions about the nature of cultural effigy, specifically relating to pop culture, consumerism, and the topology of post-decolonial machinations. The stigma surrounding Marshall’s Renegades in their own local community also reveals a greater cultural chimera: they are the oppressed, steeped in the tactics of the oppressor, conveying this fact through skulls, scars, and chains that ironically put them on the fringe of their own society. Despite this, the Renegades keep with Heavy Metal’s primary archetype, envisaging a ‘new’ kind of African male: damaged yet intimidating, at the end of it all, with nothing to lose, subverting the system with his anger and indignation. 

"Morgue Boss (Rock Phex)", 2011
In terms of demographics, Heavy Metal has historically been associated with those of Caucasian, male, patriarchal, Christian (by proxy anti-), and Eurocentric persuasions. The dissimilarity is obvious, but the one key similarity here is that ‘Metalheads’ stem from the lower working class, giving insight into the socio-economic strata of each Motswana, whom relates to the blue-collar working-class roots of Metal, its origins in Rock and Roll during the 1950s, and its connotations to the Hell’s Angels, all working against the system to find an original identity. This influence can be traced even further back to the machismo of the Wild West era. Africa being the ‘new’ Wild West, the Renegades parade themselves in leather boots, pants and jackets, jeans, studs, and homemade belts made from bullet shells; a material articulation of rebellion to say the least.

In this way, the Batswana have annexed unclaimed cultural territory, seizing a sense of authenticity and ownership, in turn upending the order of ‘Otherness’ by ‘colonizing’ a Western subculture. In this context, visibility equals worth, where music is a material currency, and performance is an unmasking agent revealing the West as a perpetrator of inauthenticity. To ‘colonize’, based on the humanist pedestal of Greco-Roman ethics, leading into Christian moralism, Eurocentric narcissism, ending in Modernist utopianism is negated by the primal, pagan, pre-Hellenistic tribalism, tolerating the Batswana to embrace a ‘cult of Dionysius’ as it were; representing the marginal folklore of Heavy Metal regardless of ethnicity, simply because it speaks the language of tragedy. 

"Dead Demon Rider I", 2011

Tragedy is an intrinsic art form based on human suffering, offering pleasure to its spectators. While most cultures have developed forms that provoke this paradoxical response, tragedy refers mainly to the Ancient Greek dramatic traditions that play a pivotal role in the determinism of Western civilization, and by proxy Colonialism. Marshall accentuates this sense of tragedy by acquiring theatrical elements through Spectacle, temporality, and iconicity, illustrating the evolutionary strides in the post-colonial mindset from rebels, to revolutionaries, to Renegades. In this way, Marshall actively mythologizes the Batswana, teetering on the fringe of fantasy and reality, bearing witness to the manner in which Heavy Metal is adopted and adapted in Botswana.

The historical significance of Marshall’s portraits is further emphasized by formal considerations of tone, color, and one-point perspective, using ambient picture planes, differentiated focusing and a distorted depth of field. His formal engagement with the street, and the African urban environment in particular, turns his portraits of Motswana individuals into ‘visions’, achieving a vivid painterly effect outside the confines of the artist’s studio. In this light, it seems ironic that Marshall’s cult-like visions can only be accessed through the tragic social rites of the gallery, occultist in its purist form. Marshall’s photographs are vocal about depicting a community marginalized by society, blurring the boundaries between liberty and fraternity. Marshall’s Renegade’s have found a semblance of an answer by co-opting Heavy Metal, finding a substitute for the lack of answers produced by the Post-colonial enquiry, permitting them to embrace anything that popular culture finds unacceptable, proving the manner in which Africa is calibrating itself to an increasingly homogenized world. 

"Loyal to None", 2011

Text Copyright © Shane de Lange 2011. 
Image Copyright © Frank Marshall 2011.

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