The title of Lerato Shadi’s show, ‘Noka Ya Bokamoso,’ which opened at National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, translates from Setswana to ‘a river of tomorrow.’ In the Albany gallery you encounter Shadi performing Mosako Wa Nako. She sits silently crocheting a ball of red wool into a scroll which unfurls with indecipherable writing. Shadi’s isolation from the rest of the artworks on the exhibition draws you closer, emphasising the rhythmic movement of her hands. The performance suggests issues of labour, time and erasure of black women’s histories. The simple gesture of crocheting can be also read as a form of preserving the culture of her ancestry and articulates both her struggles and hopes. In a conversation with Shadi she states that, ‘this exhibition is a way of honouring her grandmother in thinking about her history that is overlooked and erased.’
On the side walls of the gallery, drawings form three concentric circular shapes with text erased until it is impossible to read what is written. These performative drawings titled Makhubu, becomes a site where the audience is subtly complicit as to what we k refuse to acknowledge of our public memory as citizens in a country grappling with its identity. In Makhubu, Shadi makes textual reference to works of literary writers such as Audrey Lorde and Pumla Gqola to tell stories of forms of labour, resistance and the violence perpetuated on black female bodies through writing them into history. The three textual drawing can be read as a silent scream and a protest through the gesture of writing and erasing.
In a grey painted booth is a double-channel HD video titled Moremogolo Go Betlwa Wa Taola Wa Motho Wa Ipetla, a Setswana idiom which literally means, ‘as a person only you can make yourself who you are.’ According to the curator, Joan Legalamitlwa the video was shot at Shadi’s place of birth in the village of Lotlhakane in Mahikeng, North West Province. In the video Shadi fills her mouth with soil to a point where she chokes. This gesture speaks loudly about claims to land ownership and historical violence which is systematically pervasive. It also suggests a lack of vocabulary to articulate land issues in South Africa. In one of the scenes she wraps her tongue with a red wool until it is completely covered then she gulps it into her mouth chewing, then spits it out into a jar.
Shadi’s use of language and profound Setswana idioms in her art is a way of telling stories and foregrounding oral history of her ancestry as she comes from lineage of great matriarchs. This was evident at the end of a public conversation held at Alumni gallery when her aunt stood up and chanted praises of the Bafokeng lineage she is born of.
What does it mean to situate a black female body in a South African landscape? This question is posed thinking of how artist’s such as Bernie Searle and Traci Rose have dealt with issues of displacement, migration, identity and race using the black body as tool to write themselves into history. Lerato Shadi exhibition ‘Noka Ya Bokamoso’ also contributes to understanding the blind spots of history is told. Importantly it interrogates how far are we willing to memorialize and rewrite that which is erased out of the historical archive.