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Zozibini and decolonial aesthetics

15 Dec 2019 at 12:07hrs | Views
THE saying that "beauty is in the eyes of the beholder" is an old English saying that has its roots in Ancient Greece.

The roots of the saying are deeply philosophical as were its Greek genealogy. Before the social scientists came with their idea of social constructions the philosophers knew it that things ugly and things beautiful are merely a figment of the imagination of the one that is looking.

Beauty is, otherwise, a perception that truly belongs to the perceiver and can as well be imaginary than real.

This saying is also closely related to other aphorisms such as: "one man's meat is another man's poison" and such other sayings as "your freedom fighter and hero is another person's terrorist and bandit." For centuries now the saying about beauty as the property of the beholder has circulated not only as wisdom but also as a natural truth, one truth that can be held as common sense and cannot be questioned. In our world, however, the truth is that beauty is in the eyes of the powerful. Powerless people are told what is beautiful and what is not. The forces and the people who rule the world, politically and economically, have the power and the privilege to impose their culture, which includes sense of beauty, on those people that they rule. In that way, beauty can be given and imposed on other people by others. For that reason, beauty is a contested phenomenon that is also highly political.

Indeed, beauty is an object and also a subject of philosophical reflection. There is a whole subject in philosophy called Aesthetics, that concerns considerations of the beautiful against the not so beautiful. My short article, today, delves into the subject of beauty concerning the recently crowned Miss Universe 2019, one Zozibini Tunzi, a South African lady from the province of the Eastern Cape. For Zulu speakers the name of the winning model is powerfully ironic because "Zozibini" refers to "ezibini" which would be dirt. Further ironic is that "Tunzi" as in "thunzi" depics something dark, shadowy and really not beautiful if not downright evil. In isiXhosa, her mother tongue, Zozibini refers to her being the second girl to be born, like "zazimbili" in regular Zulu. Beyond her name, in her lived condition, the lady in question embodies meaningful ironies and stubborn defiances of hegemonic norms. Her defiance of hegemonic and colonial norms of beauty is the subject of my present reflection.

People like Me

In her acceptance speech, that is her remarks after she was crowned as theoretically the most beautiful woman in the universe Zozibini said "people like me" and "people with my kind of hair have not been considered beautiful." What she simply meant is that in the present world order black skinned women with kinky hair are not considered beautiful but ugly, unappealing and unwanted. Yet she fought all the way to the finals with her dark skin and kinky short hair. That is defiance, by any measure.

Zozibini was born on the 18th of September 1993. She was born in the era of the weave, the wig and what are called extensions in reference to sheds of plastic that, in pursuit of beauty, some black women have to add to their natural hair. If it is not plastic it would be original hair that is cut and sold in India, Brazil and other places and then exported to Africa. She contested the Miss Universe title in the United States of America in 2019, in the era of the Brazilian trend of expensive long hair that is fashionably added to one's head to enhance looks. Extensions, wigs and weaves are artefacts of self-decoration that black women are forced or persuaded into by Western and Eurocentric fashion trends. To look beautiful is to look white in that cultural regime of aesthetics. That is why skin lightening creams and ointments frequently accompany the wigs and the weaves that the black sisters are pressured to adorn as fashion and trend. Zozibini resisted all that. She was all dark skin, kinky hair and beads as she fought it off with other sisters.

When she won the crown of Miss South Africa 2019 she was as celebrated in Mzansi as she became the butt of many jokes. She is a man, she looks rural, she is broke, were some of the exclamations from a part of the population that holds it that she must have long hair, a light skin and white feminine sensibility in order to make the mark. Zozibini ignored all those tonnes of social pressure and remained Zozibini Tunzi, snakey slender, black and kinky short hair. She is beautiful beyond repair. But her kind of beauty, black beauty, has long been criminalised and discredited in the Euro-American cultural regime that rules the world. Defiance is her very identity, it seems. Asked what her favourite food is she picked up "umngqushu" as her delicacy of choice. Umngqushu is a mixture of half-ground maize seed and black eyed beans. Most of our slay queens or hot chicks would be ashamed to mention that dish in public. But Zozibini did, on a world platform.

What has Decoloniality to do with it?

I know there are some of you cool readers that believe I should have left the subject of Zozibini and beauty to fashion writers and other competent interlocutors. What has decoloniality to do with the finer things of looks, shapes and sizes, is an easy question to ask. Decoloniality as a province of thought, some may think, has nothing to do in the arena of models, pageants and beauty queens. Well, to start with, I am totally bewitched by Zozibini's body and mind. Her looks are in the public domain, the less said the better. It is her mind that needs publicity. She is a competent graduate of Public Relations from the Cape Peninsula University of Technology; so her presentation and representation bodily and mentally are not accidental. This is a sister that knows what she is doing and is doing it. Asked what her message to young girls is she said "leadership, women have always been labelled, they are powerful beings and must be seen taking up space in the world." She said that.  "I want other young black girls to see themselves in my face," was her demand. She is a philosopher, not of beauty, but liberation, in that regard. Like Mohammed Ali who added philosophy to boxing, and delivered some of the most philosophical quotable quotes of the century, Zozibini is not just a pretty face but is also a dealer in weighty philosophical matters concerning the liberation of women.

She is a fish that truly swims against the tide and does so very well. As I write, many black and dark girls will now walk the world with a little more freedom and confidence in a world of beauty ruled by Queen Zozibini. Only elders like our own Pathisa Nyathi, Cont Mhlanga and few others can witness that Zozibini's hairstyle, that patch of hair atop a largely shaven head has its roots in isicholo, a dignified and powerful haircut of proud women. She also carries, proudly, umqhekezo, that stubborn line that runs along the head and has its own deep stories and histories. Zozibini is, otherwise, a living epistemology of the South. I smoked my pipe long and hard when I heard her make a strong voice against the problem of gender-based violence not only in South Africa but worldwide. If she was a regular model and a random slay queen, I would dismiss her words as politically correct gibberish from another pretty face. But understanding her defiance and deliberate banditry against the things of Empire, I believe her to be speaking not only in truth and earnest but in veracity. Personally I am sold and bought, even to the lowest bidder when it comes to thinking women, in a world where feminine thinking is criminalised. We live in a throw away world where women are reduced to flowers that decorate the beds of men; so when a woman thinks and expresses her thought, pure decolonial banditry is in the offing. It is exactly for that good reason that I think Zozibini is a decolonial role model in an era where it is easier and at times more profitable to be a neo-liberal and colonial wrong model.

One of the confessions that Zozibini made was on her book-worming ways. Our world tells girls and women to be pretty. To decorate themselves for the optic nutrition of the male eye must be their preoccupation. Not so many fathers and husbands say; Read Girl! A reading and a thinking woman is a riotous monstrosity that the typical patriarch fears and hates. A particularly riotous female colleague of mine recently confided in me that when, in the malls and other social locations, she is asked by men what she does for a living she claims such occupations that do not have anything with her actual profession of a researcher in a leading university. That would take her out of the market, scare the hell out of men, she said. There is an intimate economy and market in society where thinking women are black-listed products. The typical patriarch prefers a cooking and not a reading girl. In advancing reading as part of an assortment of qualities of beauty Zozibini is doing something. Something dissident and defiant, and decolonial. She has, not in so many words and ways, weaponised her black beauty in the struggle for women liberation in a racist and patriarchal world order where being black and female is constructed as inferior, and to be in the lowest of the food chain, if one is not in the menu itself.

Zozibini: A Planetary Soldier

To use the metaphor of a soldier and a warrior to describe Zozibini as I am doing is an atypical habit. I was going to be a typical writer if I described her as a flower, a fruit or other delicious and delightful things, not a soldier. Women are expelled, in our world, from the league of warriors and heroes, they are only brought in as tokens and place holders, and only to demonstrate the generosity of men that appoint and promote them.

Using the platform of Miss Universe, a universal platform, Zozibini contributed her beautiful but punchy blows to the struggle against racism and patriarchy at a world scale. Notably, one of the four planks of the Colonial Matrix of Power is the "control of gender and sexuality." Under that matrix women exist in the world order as property to be owned and controlled.  So, for Zozibini to defy prescribed global norms of beauty is to fight the hegemonic culture of the world system and to challenge prescriptions of Empire. That village of the Eastern Cape where she was born is only her birth place. The arena of her struggle is global and planetary. South African is only her nativity. She has made a durable and stubborn statement for black people and women at a world scale.

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 Cetshwayo Zindabazezwe Mabhena writes from Sunnyside, Pretoria: decoloniality2019@gmail.com

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