We seem to be living in an age of unapologetic expression where the voices belonging to the previously disenfranchised, or voiceless can be heard. Simphiwe Buthelezi’s first solo artistic offering ‘Lala La’ (‘Come rest here’ in Zulu), curated by Chumisa Ndakisa, at the Bag Factory Studios, is another of those voices for the voiceless.
As winner of the 2018 Blessing Ngobeni Art Prize, Buthelezi has spent three months in residency at the Bag Factory Art Studios creating this body of thatched mat installation work. While the pieces on show can be interpreted to provide the viewer with a sense of ease, as this exhibition title suggests, they also speak of female oppression within the confines of Zulu tradition. The areas of solitude within this exhibition, allow us to contemplate the overlooked art form of woven grass mat-making, as well as the marginalization of this traditionally feminine practice.
By recontextualizing and repositioning her creations from that of the rural setting to that of an urban context, Buthelezi is able to introduce fresh meaning into a classical traditional mode. Here Buthelezi’s works are transformed conceptually and formalistically from the environment which has been conditioned to expect silence of these objects, to placing them within a context where whisperings of its creation, its creator and other complexities begin to be unveiled. These are whisperings which transcend the traditionalist meanings of the words ‘Lala la’: words of comfort and solace usually said by a woman to her lover, a mother to her child, or even by a child to her father. Instead, here Buthelezi re-presents the forms of her woven mats and recontextualizes and complexifies the the traditionally feminine materials.
Her piece The Reading, an installation of soil, acrylic and resin on straw mat, in part serves as a cocoon and in another speaks of destruction, denaturing and re-appropriation of this particular straw mat. The reading in the title references divination within an African spirituality context. Straw mats are used by traditional healers when giving readings and guidance. Buthelezi’s manipulation of her medium seems to speak though to a discomfort that comes with seeking out.
Buthelezi’s exploration into understanding gender roles within the confines of a traditional and cultural dynamics is focused much more keenly in her work Khangeza (meaning the ‘option of picking up’), in this case a reference to scooping soil from a shovel into a grave at a burial. This work is of earth, powdered oxide and varnish on canvas. It interrogates masculine identity through the eyes of her father who was grappling with the cultural pressures of being a Zulu man whilst simultaneously having to deal with his own terminal illness. Presented as a soil-like covered rectangular surface with dug-out sections which suggest the presence of a collecting hand. Lying beneath the surface are traces of gold which once again draw on Buthelezi’s quest to create pockets of understanding, discovery and a seeking out of comfort zones within this exhibition.
Emphuleni (‘By the river’), is another work which makes reference to African spiritual practice. Here she constructs the thatched mats into a wave-like formation; creating a river for herself along with beach sand to form an image which calls to mind the spiritual practice of making pilgrimage to a natural water source. This symbolic river embodies a space of prayer and healing for the artist. The work also makes reference to the events surrounding the Clifton Beach saga, while speaking to a grander scale of reclaiming of blackness in our society.
Amidst the works that speak to healing and understanding there are works on show such as her piece, Yasha Yangqoqa Inhlziyo Yam (‘My heart is burning into unrecognizable destruction’), a work which sees Buthelezi’s straw mats in their most tortured incarnation. The work shows the moments when everything seems to fall apart beyond repair or recognition, and one is in need of solace and rescuing. It suggests looking to those who had come before such as one’s elders or ancestors as the possible holders of power or providing rescue. This work simultaneously suggest through its disintegration that our generation might be beyond repair.
Whether via the use of a sound piece, video installation, or the merging of western and traditional materials, Buthelezi’s manipulation of her materials in the created comfort zones of her installation not only convey a space which opens itself up to healing but one which is undoubtedly feminist in its makeup and construction. This is evident in the paring and crafting of her material where beading, hair chandeliers and gilded frames are incorporated to help aid in the telling of a narrative that is far from new, but one which is spoken aloud with an artistic voice that speaks on behalf of those in the past..