Much of this year has felt like qarrtsiluni. Qarrtsiluni is one of those words for which there is no perfect translation. The word stems from the indigenous people of the Arctic regions, known as the Inuit. The story goes that the Inuit engaged in a yearly ritual as a process to discover new songs and to honour each other. Men (for it is always men in these stories) visit a special house where no lamps are lit. The men sit together in silence, anticipating inspiration to emerge from their collective energies and consciousness. As the night unfolds, darkness encloses and deep in the darkness new truths are revealed. Qarrtsiluni is often exquisitely described as sitting together in the darkness waiting for something to happen. It describes that remarkable peculiar moment before something wonderful happens. As we navigate the global pandemic, I have found comfort in the ideas of darkness, silence and waiting.
Qarrtsiluni is a useful term to think through Lindokuhle Sobekwa’s photographic practice. Born and raised in Johannesburg, Sobekwa uses documentary-style photography to speak to personal histories and wider societal injustices. His photography is sharp and frank yet somehow manages to hold tenderness. His haunting series, I Carry Her Photo With Me, an elegy to his sister Ziyanda, earned him a place in the Magnum Foundation Photography and Social Justice program in 2017. A difficult body of work to engage, I Carry Her Photo With Me, embodies absences and silences. In particular, a beautiful image with skirts and dresses hanging on a washing line – yellow, pink, red and blue – has stayed with me. It is striking, visceral and affecting.
In October of this year, the Wellcome Photography Prize announced a special project, The Covid-19 Anxiety Project. Five photographers were commissioned to explore the mental health repercussions of isolation due to Covid-19 – each of them aiming to answer the question; how are you, your family, and your friends coping with anxiety related to Covid-19? Sobekwa, whose birthday coincided with the national lockdown, is one of five photographers featured in the project. He presents five images shot between his family home in Thokoza as well as his girlfriend’s home, where he was living during the national lockdown. Sobekwa’s black and white images are earnest and overflowing, encapsulating feelings of connection and relating. My favourite image is a photograph of Sobekwa and his mother sharing a frame, taken on one of his physically distanced visits to his home. Sobekwa’s mother sits on the bed, reading her bible, a ritual she found solace in during this difficult time. Completely engrossed in the task, her body is relaxed. She seems comfortable in this quiet and private moment. Visible through an oval mirror leaning on a bedroom drawer, is Sobekwa. He is wearing a mask, camera in hand. We are looking at Sobekwa looking at his mother – gazes tangled in a weird intimate moment between mother and son, emphasising the importance of closeness.
Another image is of his girlfriend and girlfriend’s sisters playing shadows during power cuts. Here, we’re in the realm of multiple darknesses: the greater Covid-19 crisis and Eskom’s load shedding – we’re still sitting together, we’re still in the dark and we’re still waiting for something to happen!
In this image, two sets of hands gesture, their shadows create figures which are reflected on the wall. The possibility of a shadow is dependent on the existence of a ray of light. This is hopeful, but of course, a shadow can also speak to an ominous, often oppressive sadness and gloom. Sobekwa does not overtly point us to mental health issues in any of the images, but we know the context under which they were created and we are guided by them towards a sincere mood. Added to the risk of contracting the virus, many people have experienced a heightened state of fear, worry and stress during this period. Speaking about his experiences of lockdown, Sobekwa notes; ‘This has caused much anxiety, with each family member constantly having to worry about the other, hoping and praying that they don’t get infected by the virus.’
The South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) conducted an online survey on Covid-19 and mental health, in April of this year. Within the report, SADAG’s operations director Cassey Chambers explains that the lockdown ‘has affected many South Africans, and has had a serious impact on people living with mental health issues, often making their symptoms more heightened.’ Some of the foremost challenges affecting people during this crisis include: anxiety, financial stress, depression, poor family relations, thoughts of suicide and substance abuse.
The effects of the pandemic have been devastating and may continue to be so for a long time. As a traumatic crisis, the pandemic has left us disoriented and fatigued. Sometimes all we have strength for is to sit together in the dark and wait for something to happen. The image of people sitting together in a room waiting for something to happen might seem self-indulgent but it is not. Silence and darkness are not just romantic ideas but can be linked to powerful moments of resistance, refusal and fighting for one’s life – from silent sit-ins as a form of protest to the symbolic significance of black clothing in creating a powerful image such as with the Black Doek movement, the Black Sash movement as well as protesters in Hong Kong.
Read through these powerful modes of silence and darkness, Sobekwa’s images offer us a way to closely consider the powerful language of photography and its potential to help us confront emotions of fear, worry and anxiety.