Lately, we’ve been hearing a lot about “Black Dandies” and the presence of new academic identities in US institutions. But anyone hear about Zulu Metrosexuals, and the ways in which the Zulu—men in particular—have similarly used dress to expand definitions of “Zuluness,” playfully unsettling colonial constructions and modern pressures alike? At the recent Distance and Desire symposium at NYU (that’s a link to my previous post on the symposium), my interest was piqued by one of the speakers, Hlonipha Mokoena describing the manner in which Zulu identity was formulated—via the aid of 19th century colonial-era photography, as well as imagined depictions of Shaka and his warriors.

Mokoena, who teaches anthropology at Columbia University, points out that despite the plethora of romantic pictures of Shaka, intended to preserve and recreate the romantic primitive, the only thing we know about him to be true is a fragment of his costume: the crane feather that topped his head, adding to his legendary height. The rest is pure conjecture and fantasy. His unknowability meant that he became a “cipher,” Mokoena stated, whose finery blinded Europeans, who couldn’t see past the finesse of Shaka’s costume to note anything about his character, political strategy, or psychology. In turn, twentieth century historians, too, have been guided by these received notions of Shaka, who ignore the fact that Shaka himself was engaged in the process of self-invention—in the same way powerful, self-fashioning, subject-sacrificing rulers do, like Elizabeth I, her father, Henry VIII in England, or Emperor Asoka, in the vast swathe of land around Orissa in north eastern India.

But never mind Shaka—how does the image of the Zulu, in general, enter the consciousness of the global imaginary? Photography works on the premise of presences and even greater absences, while often denying those absences. What’s missing in the production of photographs with Zulu subjects? The manufacturing hand of the photographer in constructing these embodiments of Zuluness, as performed and posed by European image-makers who are themselves informed by their European settler/tourist audiences’ expectations of Africa in general and Zuluness in particular. These images maintain the African as a static entity, aiding useful colonial notions of black Africa as a place that contacted no one, borrowed nothing, shared ideas with no others: such notions helped encourage separations that later developed into apartheid.

No doubt, the Zulu captured Europeans’ attention: the archive contains a plethora of photographs and postcards—sent by visiting Europeans to their friends. In addition to the chiefs and warriors, there were Zulu “belles,” brides, and mothers carrying the requisite babies on slings (photographed in profile, in order to highlight, for the European audience, this particular method of keeping a child close to the body). There are no names or differences in identity permitted: the people pictured are framed by the photographer’s or postcard maker’s captions, typified by being placed in categories, branded before that became a thing to do on purpose.

Whatever we picture of when we think “Zulu” is conjured up by the same machinery of calculating colonial crazy that constructed their colonised subjects as representatives of the anteriority of capitalist modernity. Remember Oprah Winfrey’s claims about being Zulu? She should realise that for every card-carrying romantic warrior-type invented by missionaries’, explorers’, and settlers’ narratives—from North America (Apaches and the Sioux) to South Asia (Sikhs in the north west, and the Coorgs in the south) to Africa (Maasai, Nuba, and of course, the Zulu)—there’s an accompanying fear of the over-sexualised destructive native who wasn’t too well-endowed in the intellectual arena—and thus, had to be contained because of his proclivity towards marauding and raping. (Hilariously, the British, French et al. didn’t see their own marauding, raping generals and armies in the same light; and judging by the rhetoric surrounding the Global War on Terror and the Muslim Other, still don’t.)

Mokoena says that historically, the Zulu came into being under Shaka (there had been no other “king” of the Zulu before him); it is necessary to begin theorising about being Zulu as an encounter with “pictorial fantasies,” endless documentaries (often inaccurate and racist) and “historical” re-enactments on film and television mini-series. What it means to be Zulu in the twenty-first century is a kaleidoscope of refractions and reflections, informed by performances of performances.

She herself has a commanding sartorial presence—right down to the Modernist-inspired brooches, earrings and impeccably tailored suits. No wonder Mokoena is beginning a research project on the meaning and symbolism of clothing in nineteenth-century colonial Natal:

The availability and desirability of clothing is often associated with the arrival of missionaries who depicted clothing as the antithesis and an antidote to the ‘adornment’ associated with indigenous cultures. My research focuses on how nineteenth-century Africans made sartorial choices that blurred this line between clothing and adornment and how these choices were captured in paintings and photographs.

Post-Shaka, King Cetshwayo kaMpande (Shaka’ nephew, and the first African King to travel to England to meet Queen Victoria, on his own terms), Mokoena points out, was “well aware that clothing bestows advantage”: during his trip to England, his stately figure was covered not in beads and skin, but in a fine woollen great coat. The English didn’t have to take him on tours of the woollen districts in order to get him to comprehend the “value of clothing,” as, apparently, there is a record of them trying to do. One notices that Cetshwayo was topped not only by his proud stature, but his headring, which he maintained: heavy is the head that wears the crown, remembers the contemporary viewer of his visage. And like any modern self-fashioner (and’s style advisors), he knew exactly what ‘ethnic’ detail he should maintain, without looking out-dated, ‘too-much’ or, god forbid, weak and out of place. Instead, he signals his difference, and différance: his right—and royal ability to—to defer and to differ.

Not everyone appreciated the power of self-fashioning. In The Rebel, Albert Camus contended,

The dandy creates his own unity by aesthetic means. But it is an 
aesthetic of negation…Profligate, like all people without a rule of life, he 
is only coherent as an actor. But an actor implies a public; the dandy 
can only play a part by setting himself up in opposition. He can only be
 sure of his own existence by finding it in the expression of others’ 
faces…The dandy, 
therefore, is always compelled to astonish…Perpetually incomplete, always on the 
fringe of things, he compels others to create him, while denying their 
values. He plays at life because he is unable to live it.

Is that true for the self-aware as Cetshwayo? Or his fellow Zulu, bricoleurs who adopted and adapted, as any people do upon contact, creating pleasing assemblages like any London dandy of the same time period? I doubt that the archival images of young men playing with style are really doing it to “astonish” the European; rather, they seem to be doing it for each other. We forget to note that looking at each other was more important than the presence of the colonial gaze. We also fail to see the dandy in them, because we are trained to look for the native, that Zulu in our imaginary. We erase the presence of self-fashioning already evident in these photographs, overlooking the ways in which Zulu men and women have charted the sartorial traditions that captured their imaginations. These conversations with difference made uneasy entries into their daily repertoire.

Thus was born what Mokoena calls the “Zulu metrosexual,” long before young men in New York put on ironic brainy spectacles and sported tight re-constructed versions of their grandfathers’ stovepipes to display their slim legs, and their ability to be plugged into powerful circuits of consumption (here, consuming clothing and style communicates access, rather than food consumption—which, in the West, is too abundant to serve as a display-vehicle of power). Mokoena is a generous enough scholar to trace the provenance of the term “Zulu metrosexual”: while at a conference in Durban, she heard students from the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal using it as a translation of the Zulu descriptor igeza lensizwa (“beautiful young man”). In particular, Simphiwe Ngwane’s Honours thesis, “From igeza lensizwa to a black flâneur: South African black masculinity in transition” (University of KwaZulu-Natal, 2012) explored the idea.*

Where can the American and European spot this Zulu metrosexual? He’s unrecognizable if you’re looking for feathers and plastic beads. He’s busy contending for space with the monolithic hand of Zuluness as constructed by Zuma et al., who’s made things difficult for Zuluness quite a bit, going whole hog with prolific, irresponsible sexual choices (not that erstwhile National Party leaders from the apartheid era didn’t have many a bizarre retinue of sexual skeletons in their collective closet).

Don’t be mistaken: clothing and style are not the only cynosure of the Zulu Metrosexual’s ambitions; it is simply a reflection of the ability of the modern subject to be playful, aware, and mobile. These are things that often make the European (and American) worry—if the ‘natives’ don’t remain fixed, they become dangerously ‘slippery’; and the ‘Westerner’ wouldn’t have the corner on modern subjectivity cornered. But if you are man enough, what you’ll see are young people making self-directed, self-conscious choices about adornment, traversing through time periods and locations, mapping visual and intellectual routes. These fine young men don’t look too weighted down by the weight of the archive, or the proliferation in contemporary media of restrictive versions of what they should be. Instead, they look like they are having a whole lot of fun reaching for something: imagined, aesthetic geographies, displayed on the shifting gallery of the body.

* Also see: Mxolisi Mchunu’s chapter, “A Modern Coming of Age: Zulu Manhood, Domestic Work and the ‘Kitchen Suit’” (p. 573-582) in Zulu Identities: Being Zulu, Past and Present, edited by Benedict Carton, John Laband, and Jabulani Sithole. Mokoena’s book on the Zulu and kholwa intellectual Magema M. Fuze (the author of Abantu Abamnyama Lapa Bavela Ngakona (1922) / The Black People and Whence They Came (1979)) is titled Magema Fuze: The Making of a Kholwa Intellectual. (University of KwaZulu-Natal Press: Pietermaritzburg, 2011).