Peter Machen speaks to Peter Engblom.
Mpunzi Shezi watched the abelungu build the first square house ever seen in
Zululand. Like the others, he wanted to see what happened inside the house,
but was told he had to dress up nicely. So Mpunzi and his friends took off
their skins and put on white man's clothes. Inside the building - which
historians later determined to be a church - Mpunzi found that they told
sub-standard stories about about ancestors - stories about violent
ancestors nailing people to crosses. They used to pass a plate around at
the end to collect money. Mpunzi recorded it in his diary and thought to
himself, "If these people can come all this way and tell such shit stories
and still get money, surely I too can do that."
So Mpunzi took a giraffe leg bone and went to Japan to tell stories about
the Zulu cattle industry. He also took a gargantuan pearl oyster and told
them about the Zulu black pearl industry. And that is how he ended up in
Japan. He took ubuntu to the Buddhists, brought Zen back to the Zulus,
studied Tantric sex with the geishas and taught his dog to meditate.
Until recently, few people had ever heard of this elusive Zulu legend
- that is until Peter Engblom, a photographer and museum designer by trade,
stumbled upon a collection of exquisite, delicately recoloured photographs
that provided ample proof of the exploits of this intrepid cultural
Further contemplation, however, reveals that things are not as they seem
and there is a possibility that Engblom might have invented these tales.
Perhaps this learned discoverer is actually a con artist; perhaps he is a
Photoshop master. So just what is Engblom trying to pull?
"I do what I call stand-up anthropology," says Engblom. "This is about the
whole idea of belief - the moment you believe something, you stop thinking
about it. When you stop thinking about it, it's got you. Politicians have
used that trick forever, religions have used it forever. If you believe
that Father Christmas will make your life better, you're ready to believe
Zulu Sushi as well.
"And that's the bottom line - to set up a whole lot of points that lead you
along, with documentary evidence of something taking place that never took
place, but that you want to believe took place because it's such a nice,
An idea which, by this point, is almost true. When he started the Zulu
Sushi project, Engblom didn't have that much evidence. But three years
later, there is so much evidence to support his theories that to suggest
the non-existence of Mpunzi Shezi seems a little absurd.
PM: You're using this Zulu iconography. But in the rest of the world, it
has got a very different meaning to the people who actually live here in
KwaZulu-Natal. And in my head, there's the image of Shaka and then there is
also kind of Zen Buddhism in the culture.
PE: It is there. The similarities are frightening. The Shinto religion is
almost identical to the original Zulu religion which doesn't have a name.
There are spirits everywhere, same as in Shinto. There are places with
power, same as in Shinto. Zulus have their own Feng Shui. How do they do
it? They don't go around with a dousing stick. No - they herd cattle.
Cattle can read energy absolutely perfectly. A cow will give birth to its
calf in the place with the least geopathic stress, which is the very place
where you would build your kraal when you leave your father. Which is
exactly the same principle as a Chinese master would use to choose the
spot. So although they're very, very different philosophies, they become
PE: As with each thing. When you look at post-colonial theory, you
deconstruct each thing. What is Zulu beadwork? Traders arrived in ox wagons
with glass beads that were manufactured in a factory in Czechoslovakia. In
those same wagons were patterned fabrics made in Manchester. These glass
beads were arranged in the patterns of the fabric. So all this crap about
the meaning of beads is total hogwash. These are glass beads from
Czechoslovakia arranged in the patterns the people of Manchester designed.
And the Japanese - sushi's not their invention. It's Korean. They used to
pickle fish in the same method as Sauerkraut. The Japanese didn't have a
word to say thankyou, being arrogant like they are, so they took the
Portuguese one. They say arragato which comes from obrigado. So all of
these are constructions that eventually become part of folklore. And then a
politician jumps in and tries to market it as history. It's all a big huge
PM: Don't you think that if you go further to England and Korea that those
things don't belong to them either, that all culture is fluid and
PE: If you look at anywhere seriously, you'll find there's a hell of a lot
of cultural exchange. A friend of mine took a fabric that was made in
Holland - an orange check - and did an exhibition in the Dutch East India
Headquarters called Universal Pattern. And it's about the number of places
on Earth that swear that this fabric is their national fabric. The Arabs
have it on their heads, and so and so has it here, and this tribe does this
with it. And it's just one thing that went out in bales from a factory. And
everyone swears it's part of their religion and it's a cultural icon. And
it's all nonsense. Religion and politics both have to make quite a lot of
money and they both have to bullshit a lot.
PM: And that's their grand culture.
PE: That's what they sell. So I'm quite surprised the way this whole thing
has gone because very few people realise what it's about. And I don't tell
many people what lies behind it. Because of its pure seductiveness, it
looks like eye candy, so I say it's meaningless.
Artists are so full of trying to do meaning, so meaning and issue actually
become boring. And so I deny there's any issue in this art. People are so
stupid that if you did have one, they'd miss it. So by not having one they
find whatever they want in it anyway. Which is far preferable to actually
thinking that people are going to get some sort of point.
PM: Have you had any flak about the exhibition which, on the most obvious
of levels, is quite inflammatory?
PE: I'm so sick of no controversy. No one has slated it, except Business
Day. I gave a speech in Jo'burg about Mpunzi Shezi and had all the side
products: the telepathic tea; traditional Zulu idea powder; tantric
underwear; pink pills for pale people. And a woman said it was such a pity
that a person like Peter Engblom had to discover this important man and
trivialise him completely.
I find dogma the most disgusting thing on earth. If you can sell people
themselves, by any trick possible, you're achieving something. And Zulu
Sushi tricks people into thinking. And even if I achieve that, I've done
more than you can normally do because most people walk around in a
hypnotised stupor most of the time.
Paracelsis writes about it in the 1400s. Once upon a time, a long time ago
your parents fucked each other. Into that blob of protoplasm jumped a
spirit - nobody knows where the factory is that makes spirits and they're
all different. Zulus get English spirits. All sorts of people get weird
spirits. Now each person's job on Earth is to discover the spirit they were
given. And if you don't, your spirit goes out to lunch in a different
restaurant and then you get possessed by all sorts of other spirits.
People can go to church as much as they like but they are not necessarily
possessed by their own spirit. Only once you are possessed by your own
spirit, you can have dialogue with this thing called god. If you're
possessed by the spirit of a car, clothes, perfume and all these things,
more of them own building blocks of your brain, and less is left for you to
The sangoma talks about how a person's spirit has gone away from them. A
shaman tries to catch that spirit and put it back, whereas the psychologist
says they're having a nervous breakdown. But, nevertheless, it is a lack of
looking after yourself. And then follows depression. And then you take
drugs. But that's not going to help. The only thing that will help is a
fucking enema because you're full of shit.