Zeitz MOCAA, Cape Town
01.08 – 20.10.2019
Nobukho Nqaba’s latest offering, ‘Izicwangciso Zezethu’ is the artist’s unravelling of the continuous rebirth and recalibration imposed on those who live in the various informal settlements when they catch fire in and around Cape Town. Stepping into the exhibition’s first room you’re wrapped up in a bubble of colour, texture and sound underfoot. Specifically that of the material which underlines the narrative permeating Nobukho Nqaba’s space, as it covers the room entirely. The title, ‘Izicwangciso Zezethu’ uses the presence of this plastic to encapsulate as succinctly as possible its symbols of impermanence, resilience and wariness.
The entire room moves with you as you cross it, a pattern of small sounds alerting you of your own presence. A sense of self-awareness lives here that emphasises Nqaba’s descriptions behind the exhibition’s title, meaning “we make plans”. This sense of alertness is maintained in metaphor by another continuous presence in the narrative: fire.
Fire is a known enemy in Nqaba’s life, and it dictated her upbringing in many ways, as it did with her family and her neighbours as well. In her childhood, she speaks of a routine that was established in the case of a fire; a collection of valuables carried in the bags to a community hall, where families were draped in grey blankets and kept accounted for. Then, these families would move and begin again, and again. And again.
This nomadic and stressful life is held together by these bags, and instead of the bags becoming the face of the duress and chaos of living between one place and the next, they’ve become what Nqaba refers to as “home”. They have become the link between spaces and memories and people. Not only did Nobukho wrap the walls in the plastic of these bags, but the furniture as well, and longing lingers under the act of that. A want to keep every connection, to disprove the sense of utter briefness that follows the smoke.
Having chosen photography at Michaelis, Nqaba immerses her natural talent with additional audio and a new element of photomontage to fully portray her sentiments. Her world is nuanced with subtlety and simplicity, and her keen eye plays with balance and form effortlessly. Nokwandisa asks what is wrapped in those blankets? Why do they float? Why is there no fear in her eyes? Where are her clothes? Her family? The vastness that lies behind the subject is presented as a stark whiteness that does not go unnoticed.
Ndilinde, or “wait for me”, carries an omen orbiting the image of an unassuming chair covered with a coat. Playing here again with the notion of time, Nqaba challenges the previous notion of chaos and hurry, with waiting. The waiting here imposes the notion of waiting on all other moments she touches on, and this in turn adds to the tremors of wariness and fear that grow more frequent throughout the telling of this story. Nqaba’s work speaks directly to what it means to be prepared as well as present in and amongst disaster, as well as the expectations placed on members of these communities to be so adaptable, so functional and so resourceful.
Whatever lies under this vicious cycle is growing a life of its own, and that can manifest in any number of ways, not all of which will be as poised and patient as Nqaba’s exhibition. Ayikho Enye Indlela formulates the struggle and frustration lying just beneath the surface of ‘Izicwangciso Zezethu’ in its title alone, meaning “there is no other way”. The image shows a subject downcast and barefoot, walking next to a grey blanket shaped vaguely enough to welcome the kind of doubt that is familiar in the aftermath of trauma.
The first thought is if there was a body beneath the rippling shape. “There is no other way” as a notion embraces just enough resentment to never allow the audience to feel a good feeling despite these subjects, by Nqaba’s description of how these events occur, having survived the ordeal. It’s a reminder that another ordeal is always imminent. It’s that specific groove in the rhythm of the cycle that changes everything; the endlessness, the very design of it all.
Nqaba emphasises one last material, in a separate room called the Dusthouse. Here, you can see down to the floor through gaps and spaces between the stairwell you’re quartered off in. The installation is accompanied by an audio stream of speaking, motion and commotion that elaborates on their symbolism. You can also see up and around you, where blue overalls are hung in masses, allowing the anthropomorphic guise of the grey blankets to be carried out here, too. As the blankets embodied the known and unknown people in Nqaba’s periphery, so do the overalls personify the working class in her eyes. “When I see blue overalls I mostly see hope, but that hope is limited because they don’t earn that much,” she said to Zeitz. The limitation placed on hope lives in the repetitiveness of having to recalibrate one’s life just to keep living it, and I think Nobukho Nqaba has outdone herself in deconstructing that.
The exhibition offers a new portrayal of the conversations of classism, subjugation and family life in South Africa. It offers art to those who resonate with these experiences, and calls to them in their mother tongue.