Aptly titled Throne, Lungiswa Gqunta’s contribution to the group exhibition ‘Greatest Hits: 2014’ at the AVA in Cape Town (curated by Matthew Blackman) was an unmistakable attention-grabber. An absurdly large chair, charred and burnt, that stretched from the floor to near the ceiling, it unabashedly stood out. No excuses, no apologies, just pure self-assured confidence. Yet, it was also surprisingly intimate and somewhat comforting: a brazen vessel unto a personal nostalgia for home and a deft balance of internal emotion and external conviction. Such are the fine distinctions in Gqunta’s work. A few months later, I saw Throne again; this time it was in Gqunta’s studio. Amidst the detritus and residue of intense thinking and experimentation on her behalf, we began our now almost two year dialogue around her work in earnest. What follows is a return to this initial conversation and our most recent one in connection with her exhibition ‘Qokobe’ at WHATIFTHEWORLD in Cape Town.
In Gqunta’s studio, on that cold autumn morning, our first port of call was her 2014 exhibition ‘Home of Residue,’ in which Throne was included. The exhibition consisted of objects one would find in a home. There was a gramophone, a mirror, a door frame and a bench; all of which had been similarly burnt like Throne. Joining the wood and metal fabrication of Throne was Time Traveller, a door frame made from Oregon pine and found wood, and The Birds and the Bees, a sculpture of Gqunta’s childhood mirror made with wood, glass and calamine lotion. Together, these works sought to explore the rebirth of memories from home as a way to deal with displacement. A candid exhibition, ‘Home of Residue’ divulged a lot about Gqunta: specifically her intention that, ‘destructive things be viewed as calming’ and her interest in how an act of destruction may suggest renewal. In response, we talked through art as a way to make sense of our daily, lived realities: “all I have been wanting and searching for is my own space and that’s where the burnt works came from — out of pure frustration, trying to determine a certain space that is mine, that I don’t have to negotiate.” We also dealt with how she represents memory; the difference between catharsis and destruction – paying particular attention to her belief that burning is ‘more meditative than destructive,’ and the way in which she uses certain objects to convey a sense of nostalgia for home. Through all these topics, what Gqunta made evidently clear was that for her art and life are indissociable.
Fast-forward two years and I was reminded of this point when Gqunta told me over a cup of coffee: “I can’t separate this [art] from my life. This is my life. One is dependent on the other. They are one big thing…everything is tied together.” This topic came up because she was explaining that although ‘Qokobe’ translates from isiXhosa to ‘empty shell,’ she prefers her colloquial understanding of it as an empty matchbox for personal reasons. She grew up in a matchbox house in New Brighton, Port Elizabeth, a direct result of apartheid spatial politics. She finds burning her work cathartic and meditative – a way to as she says, ‘calm my anxieties,’ and arguably, this symbol of the matchbox speaks to her ability to ignite new modes of thinking in others through her work. It made sense then as the title for her first solo gallery exhibition at WHATIFTHEWORLD in Cape Town.
‘Qokobe,’ a sparse, concise and nuanced presentation that ran through September, derived its direction from Gqunta’s personal and conceptual interpretation of the ‘empty matchbox.’ Situated on the second floor of the gallery, the exhibition brought together five works – one video (Wait for It), three sculptures (Untitled, Divider and Hata!) and an embossing. Collectively they reflected her physical and emotional connections to her home; her interests in spatial politics and apartheid town planning, and the mobilisation of various modes of resistance. But, most importantly, ‘Qokobe’ provided a much needed opportunity for Gqunta to experiment with some of her ideas outside of art school and away from iQhiya, the collective which she is a part of.
In connection with the exhibition, Gqunta chatted about the overt and subtle gestures of resistance in her work: “Revolutionary movements take different forms with each time and with each generation, it’s the people that change really but the fight remains the same.” We also dealt with her interest in the impact of the dop-system and the petrol bomb; how she felt her work had matured since ‘Home of Residue’, and the ways in which we as creative practitioners can make our own space(s). Yet, we never ended up straying far from the art/life relationship mediated through the home and how it is evident in ‘Qokobe.’
Firstly, this relationship is present in the play on the meaning of the exhibition title. Secondly, we can see it in the works themselves: Divider — a curtain-esque sculpture resembling an umbilical cord, made from plaited bedsheets laden with Black Label, Hansa and Milk Stout beer bottles — alludes to the personal impact of alcohol through an understated comfort of home. While, Hata!, a found object sculpture of a childhood game Gqunta used to play — which consists of a wooden board sat atop milk crates with an engraved map of New Brighton doused in petrol— confronts spatial politics and acts of displacement through a subtle homely nostalgia for a more innocent time. And even Thuli Gamedze’s astute introductory text linked the other issues Gqunta deals with (gender binaries and violence, modes of resistance and institutional critique for instance) back into the artist’s connections to home in a muted way. These are examples which slowly reveal her insistence that, “my point of departure is always my home. Within the work I always move between these three references — my actual house, New Brighton and Port Elizabeth.” Recognising this constant negotiation between the private and the public, you get the sense that working in this way was no easy task for her. It requires a certain dexterity or acumen — something that she has had to develop over time.
As might be expected, part of this acumen seems to come from what she has had to learn to deal with socially: “I am constantly surrounded by so many people. I am always having to negotiate the private as it is always on the verge of the public at all times. My private and my public space is just one and the same, with little moments of privacy here and there.” To her credit, her command over the personal and public is what allows her work to draw the viewer in thoroughly whilst still maintaining the integrity of her private space. There is always just enough intimacy to a point where Gqunta makes herself vulnerable, but never enough to where she loses control.
Take the bedsheets in Divider for example: as viewers we know enough to know that they come from people she really cares about, yet we don’t know enough to know who these people are. “Certain sheets I can associate with certain people. I’m weary about who I get my materials from because in a way they are agreeing with what I do. They are protesting with me,” Gqunta said moving through the space on a walkthrough with Ruth Prowse undergraduates. Yet, working in this personal way is also a curse: it makes exhibiting the work even more nerve-wracking, as there is just more on the line for her. “I am definitely nervous if people will engage with the work enough to take in all the layers and narratives or how they feel about these things or how I have chosen to present them. I worry about all of it.” However, she reminded me that she is always cognisant of the fact that “you can’t control everything.”
On the opening night of ‘Qokobe’ — the culmination of our chat — I was taking in a diptych stained with petrol, embossed with matches and bearing a title with a quote from Winnie Madikizela Mandela that read: ‘Together, hand in hand, with our necklaces we shall liberate this country’, when a familiar shriek of laughter broke my attention. A bag of nerves not even twenty four hours earlier and now not a worry in the world; Gqunta reveled in the culmination of this chapter in her quest to, ‘find a space of my own.’ The second floor of WHATIFTHEWORLD felt distinctly like her space. She had stayed, ‘true to how [she had] envisioned this whole exhibition,’ and had indeed made that empty matchbox her own.