10.07 - 07.08.2021
The creative spirit in Africa, the creative tradition, is as potent as it has always been, if only designers could look within – Saki Mafundikwa | TED2013
Pyda Nyariri’s colourful clay tablets and the indecipherable inscriptions on them remind me of ancient Sumerian and Akkadian clay tablets and the birth of the cuneiform writing system in Mesopotamia. At least, that is what resonates with me as a student of ancient studies and art history. I was not too far off the mark, the artist tells me; for her ‘Artist Room’ at SMAC Gallery, she has generated her own alphabet.
Her conception of the work started with an exploration of ancient African writing systems, having read Saki Mafundikwa’s Afrikan Alphabets, a seminal text on the continent’s long history of writing. Since I have not encountered the text, my random internet searches yield Mafundikwa’s presentation at a TED conference in which he highlights multiple examples of ancient African societies’ forms of writing. The examples include Nsibidi by the Ejagham of Nigeria (which he considers the continent’s proto-writing); Ghanaian Sankofa; Adinkra symbols of the Akan in Ghana and Cote d’lvoire; symbols by the Jokwe in Angola; the Ituri men of the Democratic Republic of Congo who make canvas out of tree bark for their women to write on; the invention of the Ethiopic script for Amharic, and many other examples of simple alphabets, secret symbolic languages, intricate writing systems and sophisticated geometric patterns. It is a breathtaking presentation that unearths some of the continent’s rich cultural and artistic heritages overshadowed by the dominance of colonial narratives and knowledge systems.
Nyariri’s work is accompanied by an essay penned by Precious Mhone and sound generated by Monthati Masebe. Both are based on prompts given to them by the artist. Nyariri is an installation artist who works with a fluid collective called Pfimbi Yemashoko – Shona for ‘the place where the secret words are kept.’ ‘I use the Pfimbi Yemashoko collective as a vehicle to tell the mythology of Pidgin. I am interested in collaboration. So, it also becomes a space for that to happen, as well as an experimental space. It is a space for “bending the rules,” to be more imaginative and to allow more for a “suspension of disbelief.” It is indispensable, and it helps activate the narrative,’ says Nyariri. While the artist’s alphabet is derivative of the ancient African forms of writing cited above, her indecipherable text is a transcription of music from different parts of Africa which she would listen to and put into writing. Although Mhone’s narrative is fictional, it renders clarity to the complicated mythical story of the origins of Pidgin. However, Masebe’s sound complicates the work as much as Nyariri’s alphabet itself. “The sound and text translate each other,’ declares the artist.
Going through the narrative written by Mhone, I have in my mind the site of an abandoned or disused mine, a space haunted by ghosts of the past. In the history of Zimbabwe, where the story of Pidgin is set, colonial mines were centres that attracted migrant labourers who spoke different languages from different places and countries. In such spaces, languages like Chilapalapa (Chiraparapa) and Fanakalo (Fanikalo), which are forms of pidgin, were born. It is the generation and evolution of these pidgins as languages of survival which occupy Nyariri’s mind. As such, the concept behind this body of work is Pidgin, the non-gendered mythical character that is always shifting.
I am drawn to the cotton gauze used in the cocoons and how the material manages to hold the clay. The artist cautions me not to read too much into it, as ‘the medium of clay is central to this body of work. Cotton gauze is just a carrier of the medium.’ It also helps give form to a cocoon that is so strong that it lasts for a while, even when something has come out of it. The clay, coming from mother earth, is the most important aspect of the mythology. It comes in different colours: reddish, brownish, and black. The same soil colours dominate the Zimbabwean plateau. The artist also deliberately chose to paint the walls of the gallery the colour of clay or cow-dung smeared walls of rondavels in the countryside of southern African homesteads, where the inhabitants make use of the available local natural materials. Transforming the white cube helps the work sit well in the space.
Zimbabwe has a deep history of ceramic and pottery traditions dating back to pre-colonialism. Unfortunately, their appreciation has remained in the realms of archaeologists, anthropologists and linguists linking the nation’s early societies to ongoing traditions. Not many have considered them an art form on the same level as painting, stone sculpture and found material based art. Although there are a few contemporary ceramic artists in the nation, it is refreshing and encouraging to see Nyariri daring to employ clay as the medium of choice, and looking within the country and across the continent for inspiration. The artist cares about us recognising and knowing that Africa had ancient forms of writing, probably predating those of the Ancient Near East. Her intervention destabilises the narrow Western modernist canon by drawing our attention to marginalised histories and indigenous knowledge systems.