The Bag Factory
21.11 - 15.12.2020
In an account of his personal and national history of Zimbabwe, ‘Worlds are Made and Unmade; I Hear the Music of Spheres’ by Zimbabwean artist Neville Starling demonstrates transcendence from the mundane, and the residue of history in the everyday.
The work mainly comprised the ongoing Within the Belly of an Echo installation which is a series of kinetic, sound-based sculptures made from wood, wire, tree branches, a lamppost, a birdcage festooned with flattened aluminium bottle tops, a broom sweeping in time to the motor and piano keys on a wooden rack. It also contains the photography series There is waiting which shows nothing but creates the anticipation of something coming and the video work Fair, Monstrously Fair adding to the experience that cannot be fully captured in print.
Despite the mundane list of materials – for example, piano keys which Starling got from someone who no longer had any use for them – they have extremely subtle nature and demand for in-person viewing. The work becomes fully present only when you are standing in the physical space, experiencing it over a period of time. The transformation of a simple piece of wood into an aesthetic object represents the world of the imagination, illusion becoming space, and in concert with sound and movement bridges the material and the immaterial, the visible and invisible.
Starling sets the stage of this experiential intervention in Bulawayo, the place of his birth and the source of most of his work. He begins by referring to Yvonne Vera’s novel Butterfly Burning to take us to 1940s Bulawayo. Bulawayo and by extension Zimbabwe is a place where death shapes social life. The city of Bulawayo derives its name from the Ndebele word ‘bulala’ which translates to the ‘one to be killed’ a throwback to the Khumalo lineages to Zululand and the bloody history that that history entailed. The city and the province in which it sits continued this bloody history after Zimbabwe’s independence with the Entumbane Massacres. Starling focuses on the cultural and political implications of the colonisation disaster, exposing the cultural significance of death in the politics of the living. In perhaps his most profound observation, Starling suggests that you look at history to see your present and the future.
The qualities of stripped down objects and feelings of timelessness permeated the multisensory event. Overwhelming and nearly transcendental, the Within the belly of an echo happening does not reside in the physical, the objects only serve the function of creating the experience. One of the objects’ bicycle chain kept getting out of sync, therefore needing to be ‘repaired’. This was part of the process according to Starling. He draws the audience out of the intimate space to the outside where uncontrolled life goes on.
Neville Starting is still struggling with a very personal struggle. How to untangle the mess that is the history of Southern Africa and the continent? How do you address these pitfalls when your own family was complicit in these horrors that have shaped our history? Should you address them from the generality of history and specific personalities or perhaps tell your own individual story? What new histories does Starling give birth to that subvert, enrich and pre-empt formal closure? I felt that the references to The Waltz and Maya Angelou’s I know why the Caged bird sings, interest is being negotiated and fought over ‘a recuperation of lost or occluded histories. The trauma and liberation brought on by excavating these past histories. At the heart of Within the Belly of an Echo are psychoanalytic issues relating to apologizing, the process of forgetting, seeking an identity within attempted cultural hegemony, the past and the future together. The experience is a reflection of an emotional space, an internal geography, where the collective trauma crescendos in the fluid condition of time and Southern Africa’s historical entanglement of revolution and music but also the relationship between sound and trauma.
I believe I was experiencing vicarious trauma, through this retelling of Zimbabwe’s colonial history, and the links between this history and our present. In this setting I was also forced to look at my own position in the scheme of trans-generational trauma. While I believe this is important to understand, I began to feel my identity has been shaped only by this trauma and nothing else. Perhaps the ‘music of the spheres’ in its transcendental form is what we need to revolutionise and heal. I see Starling’s physical act of creating this work as both shedding and seeking.
As I walked through the exhibition, I tried to gather the conflicting emotions I was feeling and imagine how the landscape has morphed over the centuries. There are tough conversations that have to be had. I don’t have to validate the feelings of inadequacy and trauma that the ‘sins of the fathers’ are visiting upon the children but I can acknowledge that we are all souls that are in pain. With equal measure there are infinite possibilities for a decolonised reality. The past cannot be changed, but we can reorient our presence in time and place.