Mawande Ka Zenzile’s solo exhibition, Udludlilali, showing at Stevenson in Cape Town, is a curiously curated show with an assemblage of paintings on canvas and tent fabric, a bundle of firewood warmly wrapped with a blue blanket seated comfortably on a rusty single steel bed, a sound installation, and a sculptural piece. The show wracks not only our narrow conceptions about art(istry), but the actual physical structure of the gallery.
There are brilliant continuities between Ka Zenzile’s Udludlilali and poet and healer Sisonkepapu’s epic poem Inyikima, which lend themselves to intertextual reading. Both draw heavily from Xhosa mythology. Both, by extension, explore what Sisonkepapu refers to as “worlds beyond the demarcations of Western empiricism and rational thought.” Mining the richness of amaXhosa’s cosmology, one is a thrilling tale of Inyikima, a giant snake that moves underground – “a movement between dimensions of being” – and the other, Udludlilali, a mythical phenomenon familiar within amaXhosa’s collective imagination for its ability to bring terror and reverence all at once.
To fully comprehend the complexity of Udludlilali and its dynamic meaning-making one has to negate, which is to say step outside of, Reason. By engaging the work through the prism of Reason “one locates themselves outside of the text”, argues Sisonkepapu, “thereby failing to participate in the dialogue and music.” This striking critical dialogue between these bodies of work, at a textual and visual/imaginary level, is worth examining.
Inyikima signals a rapture, a movement towards the end of the world as we know it, a creature beyond reproach, it meanders underneath our feet brewing havoc, and Udludlilali, ‘inyoka’, ‘uMamlambo’ prone to destructive mischievous tendencies, invites us, according to Ka Zenzile, to think of the “visible and nonvisible territorial tensions sometimes caused by non-conventional artistic practices in a cultural and conventional art space”, much like Inyikima does.
One would argue, fittingly, that Inyikima ‘idludlilali’ and Udludlilali (the exhibition) carries the energy of Inyikima as it drags us, kicking and screaming, into a world we are expected to misunderstand, to butcher its meaning. The narrative of Udludlilali is etched symmetrically and hieroglyphically on abstract and minimalist paintings (a mixture of crushed goat faeces with paint smeared on canvas giving the work a rough texture) that resemble topographical maps sans-contour lines, where cold dark reddish purples and greens are deployed to complete the feeling of the experience. As you walk into the exhibition, struggling to deal with the uncomfortable aggregate spread across the floor of the first section, the first piece confronts you with a message on how art seeks to obtain “harmony”, even if the whole project, ironically, robs you of all sense of harmony.
The sound installation, hidden in the right-hand corner of Stevenson Gallery, operates as a sensorial disruption: an abyss of all the groans, cries, wails, din of the otherworld, hauntingly and spectrally hidden behind a broken-rock wall with a hole that allows the screams and contorted voices of ‘uMamlambo’ to escape. Like Sisonkepapu’s Inyikima, Udludlilani ‘negotiates the concept of death’ through a spiritual invocation of ooMamlambo. Are they dead? Are they dying? Or nonliving? This numinous motif is extended to the second section of the exhibition where (with goat faeces’ droppings splattered all over the floor) prophets and deities’ names are immortalised in an ensemble of text driven pieces.
The spatial and thematic tensions explored by, in, as, Udludlilali, seek to probe the ways in which the Black social life continues to be discarded outside the purview of normativity in the public imagination; and often non-Western aesthetic innovation is hardly afforded the status of artistic genius, which is nothing other than human achievement. The highest point of the project is the bold aesthetic leaps which alert us to the various ways of knowing, of sensing, and worlding the world. The project, portending to point or chart alternative modes of cognizing and remembering that are beyond basic comprehension, limits its ‘text’ to English. This is not necessarily a bad choice (because, as Sisonkepapu argues regarding the tension between isiXhosa and English, “where one language reaches its limits, the other is there to thrust it towards and beyond the threshold”) but one wonders what sort of weight the work would’ve carried had it attempted to textually augment its themes, say, in isiXhosa.