03.12 - 06.02.2021
Towards the end of 2020, controversial stories about South African and Zimbabwean celebrities using black magic (muti) to acquire wealth and to achieve success trended on social media and made headlines in the mainstream media too. Even though people struggled to make sense of the sudden ‘from-rags-to-riches’ lifestyle transformations, many dismissed the stories as myths and hogwash with no scientific basis whatsoever. Christians, Muslims, and atheists in the two countries did not even want to entertain anything to do with the dark side of African traditions as usual. Skeptics dismissed them as lazy fictional inventions of poor people without a solid grasp of the multiple modern and innovative ways of hustling for survival. Although such is the nature and attitude of the contemporary culture towards shared African traditions and lifestyles, it is undeniable that most Africans have dual religious identities. They openly practice their adopted religion for the more significant part of the year and yet still partake in rituals meant to appease the ancestors, mostly performed when people retreat to their rural homesteads during the festive break at the end of the year.
When I took a closer look at Pardon Mapondera’s colourful abstract transformational tapestries featured in the ‘REFLECT. REIMAGINE. RESET.’ group exhibition currently running at the THK Gallery in Cape Town, I was quickly drawn to the rich and diverse range of found materials the artist uses in the free form sculptures. They include beads, dishtowels, plastic bottles, straws, and thread. These materials would lead an observer to think of the ecological crisis caused by our mismanagement of the non-biodegradable waste generated from what humans consume every day and be concerned about the future. That they are universal objects also allows us the freedom to interpret the work however we like. However, the expressive poetic Shona titles on some of the artworks highlight the need for one to imagine beyond the physical attributes of the work and consider the artist’s conceptual labour and process. They are not just mere labels useful in identifying the work. They make vital social commentary.
While the artworks’ form, shapes, and texture are appealing, these aesthetics converge with the work’s troubling social position. The artist ruminates on the profoundly unsettling dark matters of African spirituality, a subject we often see addressed in live performance art. In an interview with him, Mapondera stated that the work engages hygiene matters, both in the physical and spiritual realms. With the latter, he is concerned about issues of black magic explored by desperate elders in some African societies in their quest to protect their families from spiritual harm or accumulate wealth to help sustain the families for generations. The increasing hardships in a fiercely competitive global economic system lead to desperate measures. “Not all that is inherited alongside intergenerational wealth is good,” asserts the artist. Some families inherit bad omens and tools of the dark world that haunt them for long, require them to perform regular sacrificial rituals, and are challenging to cleanse. As such, Choda Ropa is a depiction of an inherited evil sustained by blood spilling and Tozvitura Kunani Zvamati Makunamata is a cry by troubled youngsters needing spiritual cleansing to help rid the burdens bestowed upon them.
Although Mapondera is audacious enough to initiate this difficult conversation, he is continuously worried about who will pay attention to an emerging voice on a subject of such depth. He can only do so through art as he “trusts visual expression more than words and often exercises it through the choice of materials.”1Lifang Zhang. The Zimbabwean youth Pardon Mapondera: creativity as a way of self-transformation and social intervention. https://www.poststudioart.org/fang The artist has been working with plastic, highlighting the material’s transformation when subjected to heat to reflect his own life transformation.
I found the use of dish towels in Tsamba YeMoyo and Tozvitura Kunani Zvamati Makunamata fascinating and pertinent to the theme of hygiene. They are old materials sourced from homes, bars, and carwashes in South Africa and Zimbabwe. According to the artist, these dishtowels are rich archives with records of what transpired in homesteads or their sourced environment. As Mapondera articulates, “In most black homesteads, dishtowels start in the kitchen and transform to become mops in the toilets. Comparing two dish towels from two different families can tell you a lot about physical hygiene, as well as class. Even the dish towels I collected from Zimbabwe are different from those I collected in South Africa, with the former being worn-out more. Likewise, the old dish towels from the townships tend to be different from those coming out of the suburbs.”