Sandi Wells | AfricanColours.com
Nanda Soobben is a man with a remarkable journey. With a successful career spanning three decades, he is probably best known for being South Africa’s only “Black” cartoonist during the apartheid years.
Nanda’s accomplishment, both internationally and nationally, is impressive – certainly, there are too many to mention here but readers can find a wealth of information on the internet. What makes Nanda Soobben different is that he is so well informed, very clear-headed about his opinions and is a wonderfully skilled artist; all the elements needed for great cartooning.
I first met Nanda in 1993 when he had already made an indelible mark on South African history. At the time, he had recently returned from Brazil where he painted a 10 metre mural as a tribute to the Rio-92 World Earth Submit. It was Nanda who introduced me to the Brazilian Society of Arts and I went on to organise several art cultural exchanges between our two countries.
Two decades later, despite his notoriety and celebrity, Nanda Soobben remains humble and modest. He lives with his wife, Deseni and their two teenage children in Durban, Kwazulu Natal, South Africa.
Our conversation quickly became an uninhibited exchange of opinions – the very essence of democracy …
SW: On Facebook you recently posted: "My kids are having an amazing holiday in the US... When I was their age, I spent my holidays playing soccer on the street and drawing on the walls with charcoal! I could only DREAM!"
I think that your dream came true. How did your journey into the art world start?
NS: I wanted to study fine art but it was pointed out by ‘all and sundry’ that it wouldn’t put ‘bread on the table’. I looked at graphic design as an option. Technikon Natal or Natal Technical College, as it was called then, was the best in the country when it came to graphic design but it was a ‘no-go area’ for me as I was ‘NON-WHITE’.M.L. Sultan was in its infancy as a tertiary college. It was a trade high school during the day (similar to a FET college) and in the evening, it became a tertiary college. I enrolled at M.L. Sultan where I studied Graphic Design which was called Commercial Art then.
It wasn’t the best option at that time but Apartheid education was never going to be the best option anyway. We made the most of what we had … sparse resources but with dedicated teachers, hard work and talent.
SW: I remember that. When I had my art shops, the M L Sultan people were my favourite customers. I knew that something special was going on there – great creative spirit.
NS: Yes, M.L Sultan eventually became one of the best institutions in the country on par with Natal Technikon. Thanks to a community that unselfishly dug deep into their pockets to make that happen. The plaques on the walls at MLS bear testimony to that!
Dr. Nanda Soobben
SW: And after MLS, you went on to study at the Parson School of Design in New York and The San Francisco Art Institute. You seem to have a fondness for Americans. Do you think that your stay there marked a turning point in your life?
NS: When it comes to Americans, you get the “Good, the Bad and the Ugly”. In fact, the “Good” people I met in America are some of the most beautiful human beings I have ever met in my whole life. George Bush just misrepresented them!
If you have talent in America you can go to the top and it doesn’t matter what race you are; in spite of racism in some of the places. The black entertainers and sportsmen are proof of that.
So, it was a revelation for me when I went to America and they said: “Hey, you are good!” But, didn’t I know that? Yes, it was the inferiority complex that we carried around that actually made us think that we were inferior. After all, the cane knife was given to us to cut the cane, not carve a niche!
SW: The topic of your forefathers brings to mind your magnificent series of watercolours called “Cato Manor – People Were Living There”. A lot of people don’t realise that you are indeed a superb watercolourist – actually, you are a master of all the mediums. Why have we not seen a Soobben solo exhibition here in Kwazulu Natal?
NS: Yes, that was a sell-out watercolour exhibition in New York. The watercolours you are talking about told the story of forced removals and the Group Areas Act and how this impacted on the people of this once non-racial part of Durban.
I have not had a decent solo exhibition in my own city - even in the “New South Africa!” I had a joint cartoon exhibition with other cartoonists here in Durban once. Last year, I had a solo exhibition of my cartoons at the Grahamstown Festival … thanks to festival director, Ismail Mahomed. But, that’s Grahamstown … not my home town, Durban!
SW: That is ludicrous! What about the KZNSA?
NS: When Brenton Maart became director of the KZNSA Gallery, one of the first things he did was invite me to exhibit at the gallery. He felt that the gallery wasn’t really reflective of this city or something to that effect! He pulled out his diary and gave me a date which was for a year later. He also gave me a date for my students to do a joint exhibition with the DUT Fine Art graduates.
The student exhibition did take place. For me, I planned a watercolour and a cartoon exhibition with a book launch to go with it. A few months before the date, I called Brenton but he didn’t answer my call. I met him at the gallery and he, embarrassingly, said he knew nothing about an exhibition and he could, maybe, give me a small space just for a book launch!
SW: I am absolutely flabbergasted! I had always thought that Brenton was pretty pro-active? It sounds like someone was nervous of social satire?
NS: I don’t blame Brenton. I think his intentions were good when he offered me the space in the first place. I think he was just turned down by the board.
Maybe you could ask him about it?
SW: I would very much like to do exactly that!
SW: Nanda, you received so many awards, including an honorary doctorate in 2010 from the Durban University of Technology. Can you describe this experience? Were any awards, in particular, special to you?
NS: Not in my wildest dream did I expect to be called a doctor! I was and still am deeply touched … I have won many awards and all of them were special.
The doctorate was so emotional for me. I took a while to speak because I was choking. This award took me the full circle - I wasn’t allowed to study there and there I was receiving a doctorate!
SW: Nanda, I have followed your work. Your pictures tell ‘a thousand words’. In the apartheid period, you told your audience what was going on behind the scenes and today, you telling us about ‘history repeating itself’…. making the same mistakes! That is the role of a good political cartoonist but sadly, today there seems to be fewer of you around. In fact, there are many more columnists doing a better and far wittier job.
It seems to me that since the decline of the newspaper, political cartoons have become less controversial. After all, isn't controversy the life force behind the political cartoon? Too many are playing it safe as the ‘politically correct'. What is particularly upsetting for me, as an artist. is the lack of attention to the fundamentals of art and design ... and don’t get me started on inaccurate caricature!
So, what is this about? Has the ‘internet canvas’ age produced lifeless and unimaginative cartoonists? What is the future for political cartooning?
NS: Anyone with access to the internet can do a cartoon, but then you have to draw your own conclusions. There are good cartoons and there are bad cartoons. The internet does afford people space; something that I found hard to come about when there was no internet.
For me, doing a cartoon is about getting my opinions across. It’s not about the money. That’s because I own CFAD (a multi-media art school). www.cfad.co.za. I also have a cult following which grew over 25 years and I would like them to still enjoy my work. That’s another reason why I still keep at it.
I worked for the Daily News for about five years, until they couldn’t afford to pay me. Recently, I gave it some thought and I decided to offer them my services for free. I felt the paper was not doing well and was the only mainstream newspaper in the country that didn’t carry a cartoon. I have a following amongst the community I come from who are the biggest readers of this newspaper.
I made my gracious offer to the editor and it’s about four months now and I believe that he is still “thinking about it”!? What is there to think about? Is he one of those ‘dinosaurs in a grey suite’ who took great pleasure in preventing people of colour from showcasing their talents? Hope not!
SW: It is a very sad day when our very own Daily News turns down what could be a daily dose of humour, insight and outstanding artwork! I am appalled that your generous offer was not snapped up. I think that I will be cancelling my subscription.
Clearly, there is a problem and after four months, I reckon they have ‘Dunn’ thinking! Is it a right-winged conspiracy? I doubt that very much. Is it the ‘corporate grey suit’ mentality… well, that’s possible as stifling talent is what many of them do best. Come to think about it; four months to make a decision here in Durban isn’t that long. There are so many ‘meetings about the next meeting’ and everyone seems to go in circles! Or is it little grey men or women sitting on the fence playing the safe game? Perhaps. Your cartoons are often confrontational and this challenges comfortable ideas and lifestyles. They know that they can’t edit you!
Actually, I think that you answered my question. The future of political cartooning looks pretty gloomy because it seems that some editors want editorial cartoons to be objective, like news stories. They want illustrators not cartoonists. It’s a shame because creative talent cannot be harnessed in such a ‘grey’ environment!
SW: So, Nanda, do you ever apologise for your cartoons? I have read that death threats are standard issue for cartoonists who work in the political realm. I suppose that if you were afraid, you wouldn’t publicise your opinions.
NS: I owed no apologies for my cartoons! I said what I wanted to say if I believed it was the truth. The only time you have to be afraid is when you are not telling the truth. As a cartoonist, I don’t lie. I just exaggerate the truth.
SW: I see that you are still being called a “Black Cartoonist”. What are your thoughts on that?
NS: During the “Time of The Writer” conference held at UKZN, one of the guest writers said “Indians don’t want to be Black anymore” and as an afterthought, he said “some Blacks also don’t want to be Black!”
I was known as a “Black cartoonist” and I was very proud to be “Black”. But, I also don’t want to be “Black” anymore. I want to be “NON-RACIAL”… isn’t that, what we fought so hard for!?
SW: I couldn’t agree more! Give it up guys! Let’s judge on merit alone.
SW: Since you have come full circle, what do you say now about “Art can’t put food on the table”?
NS: That is something people who are naïve and ill-informed tell you. I tell aspiring artists: “DON’T BELIEVE THEM!” Anything that you see today - whether it’s a little nut and bolt, a cell phone or an F1 racing car; remember there was an ARTIST behind it!
For example, take Gordon Murray’s achievement.
SW: What is Gordon Murray’s claim to fame?
NS: He is from Durban and studied at the old Natal Technical College which became Technikon Natal and is now a part of DUT after the merger. Gordon Murray designed the McLaren F1 racing car that won the grandprix – Ayrton Senna, the famous Brazilian F1 Champion won his first grand prix in a McLaren.
It was a great honour to have received a doctorate with him and the previous year, we both won the Silver Tusk Award.
SW: And so, in a ‘nutshell’?
NS: Nothing can be made without a DESIGN! If you see what Gordon Murray has achieved and where he comes from, then the WORLD IS YOUR OYSTER!
SW: And Dr. Nanda Soobben bears witness to that!
---------------------------------------------------------------------------------Realising how busy the softly spoken gentleman is, our conversation ended. I had so much more to ask Nanda - like his cartoons that were presented to Nelson Mandela on his 77th birthday and the more recent caricature of Barack Obama which is now housed in Washington’s Smithsonian Museum.
For me, Nanda Soobben has not changed one bit.
He continues to ‘pull no punches’ and keeps a vigilant eye on the democracy and those threatening it. And to the ‘powers’ in DURBAN, I say SHAME ON YOU!
You should be acting like guardians of the public trust. Great cartoonists are not polite but in truth, highlight what the rest of us may be thinking.
Bring back our evening dose of a “Soobben-inspired” grin!
Honour the work of this phenomenal human-being and give us a solo exhibition of his works to relish! Nanda Soobben has made a huge contribution towards the preservation and promotion of South African heritage and culture and he is ours.
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