The National Arts Festival (NAF) has kicked off its 2021 instalment with a hybrid virtual experience that can be accessed online anytime, anywhere in South Africa. One of the documentaries included in the NAF this year is Sbusiso Manqa’s I Think I’m Depressed – Creative’s Conversation, a documented discussion that was released on 8 July 2021. Sbusiso Manqa is a South African author and filmmaker who has written extensively on issues of mental health among creatives in the South African creative economy.
In this discussion Manqa sits down with Tsoana Nhlapho and Mojalefa Muhukung, both seasoned creative practitioners, to discuss the state of mind of artists in the current creative economy of South Africa. From the outset of this discussion, all three panelists seem to agree that artists are struggling through unprecedented levels of depression due to the pandemic. Artists are battling with financial lack, scarcity of work opportunities, and most importantly, mental illness.
Referring to apartheid, Manqa questions whether contemporary South African artists are mentally ‘weaker’ than the artists who created hopeful art despite the adversities of that time. Nhlapho and Muhukung’s response is that contemporary artists are fighting more insidious sociopolitical issues that include isolation, a stagnant market, and substance abuse – issues that induce depression.
Turning to the artists themselves, challenges regarding time-management, authenticity, and familial responsibility are prevalent. Rap artist, Masedi Mokothu says his main challenge as an artist is not having enough time between making art and making money. The rapper expresses the dilemma in making creative decisions to produce work that will generate money faster and admits to making songs that will sell, instead of songs about his lived experience; leading to anxiety as the work his audience enjoys is not authentic to his internal state.
When it comes to the context of women artists, mental matters get even more complicated. Editor of The061 Magazine, Reitumetse Shebe, shares that being a mother and having a creative career is mentally strenuous because it is a balancing act between familial responsibility and making art, and the creative work must often take a backseat. Furthermore, women artists must consider issues of safety and securing equal pay. All these factors make the career of a woman artist more taxing, emotionally and mentally.
Manqa finally asks whether there are specific trends in this creative economy that artists can follow to survive as creative entrepreneurs. Beyond following trends, the panellists conclude that artists must decide whether they want to treat their art as a business or as a cathartic experience, and not expect the two to intertwine. Artists must assume the agency to decide on the direction of their careers and this taking of responsibility could possibly be the lifeline for their mental health.
Ultimately, Manqa’s discursive and documentative project is crucial to arts discourse in SA. The conversation he stages firmly establishes that artists practicing in our creative economy face many challenges that directly influence their mental health and creative process. As more artists admit to living with depression and many other forms of mental instability, conversations such as Manqa’s I Think I’m Depressed – Creative’s Conversations need to occur more frequently and the NAF stage is a promising start. More people need to understand the struggles artists in SA are facing as they try to establish their careers in a complex post-apartheid and post-Covid-19 creative context, and much work still needs to be done to create the supportive structures that artists need to live and create as mentally sound individuals.