22.09 - 08.10.2021
Bathini Abafazi? (What are the women saying?) is the question posed by curator Mpumi Mayisa. The artists respond in ways that are rich in nuance and complexity, and the works seem to take this inquiry further, challenging the boundaries of subjectivity and selfhood by extending identity across generations. Rather than ask only, ‘What are the women saying?’ these artists also ask ‘What have they said?’ and ‘What was not heard?’
Bathini Abafazi? encourages a matrilineal, intergenerational approach which embodies Stephen Gilchrist’s theory of the ‘everywhen’ – an eternal present. The artists utilise matrilineal and contemporary art modes to have unspoken community stories seen, heard and remembered. Whether it is Ayanda Phasha’s repeated use of the pot scourer in her high-contrast black and white photographs, or Cow Mash’s drawings on faux leather, a throughline seems to be that the artists are making and receiving connections (familial, spiritual) through time.
Tiisetso Molobi’s Seaparo sa Maikutlo, a sculpture modelled on bomme ba seaparo (women of the garb), illustrates this. Influenced by denomination specific church uniforms and their wearers – such as herself, her mother and her grandmother – the artist brings her altar to the exhibition. Molobi applies a plaster cast of her face to a mannequin dressed in a modified black, blue and red uniform, with long bell-sleeves, a hemline that grazes the floor and bible verses appliquéd to the costume. The insertion of Molobi’s visage directly into the work makes the mannequin an impression. She brings herself and her faith forward for questioning and public consumption.
Enamoured by the ‘sound healing’ given off by the hymns, difela, Molobi has pulled out 342 from the hymn book and referenced it in the painting of the same title. Moving her graphic design background to painting, Molobi copies, as (im)perfectly as the hand can, verses from the Sesotho hymn book onto canvas. Using different shades, she paints white words onto a white canvas. The effect is that the words are obscured. This leads me to think of concealment. What is it that may be hidden behind the words, behind the uniforms?
Zenande Mketeni’s works coincide with Molobi. If ‘the word’ is Molobi’s methodology, then it could be said that Mketeni accesses the curators question through ancestral belief and its antecedents. Mketeni explores spiritual learning through an altogether different lens, one where ‘human and non-human ghosts appear.’ To wander into this territory, Mketeni makes black monochromatic collages and integrates white bead works to their surface. The use of black and white, idiosyncratic to umbhaco (Xhosa traditional wear), bring forth reminders of George Pemba’s Xhosa woman smoking pipe and Tony Gum’s Ode to She, works that today reference a long and proud history.
Mketheni’s works alert us that our present position, behind a curtain, is tenuous. On the other side are other worlds. These worlds are revealed by accessing what Mketeni’s practice is centered on: the eternal. The artist pushes ancestral memory to the present and, in doing so, she brings us back to the ‘everywhen,’ where time is embedded and manipulated in spiritual and social life.
Bathini Abafazi? What have they said that we haven’t heard? What does the past utter? Akudzwe Elsie Chiwa has always said that theirs is a process that ‘explores generational and embodied knowledge by way of an intuitive art-making process.’ Chiwa’s sculptural practice aims to rebuild by re-imagining forgotten and erased histories.
Retracing their memories of home (familial, national), Chiwa sculpts Mhondoro Musango (Royal ancestral spirit in the wilderness/forest), a work of delicately draped velvet and satin in red and maroon, finished off with black lace at the edges. The work is a product of the stories of mbuya nehanda, a spiritual medium and leader (eventually imprisoned) of the Chimurenga. Bounding textile to wood, I see Chiwa imagining a place for mbuya nehanda, wandering in the wilderness, to rest.
Lesego Bantsheng is interested in the literary imagination and draws the titles of her sculptures from Bessie Head’s Dikeledi in The Collector of Treasures and Sol Plaatjie’s Mhudi, as well as myths and folklore such as Dimo yaga Tshelane — a myth that raised me, frightened me and taught me never to open the door for strangers. Her palm-sized clay sculptures of distorted faces are washed over with opaque watercolors and hang in a long row. If Head and Plaatjie could be accused of writing out of a desire for permanence, then Bantsheng’s use of clay signals the opposite: an interest in the ephemeral.
The past is not inaccessible to the artists, and their works understand that it operates in a cyclical and circular order. They do not attempt to preserve the past, or even the present; they meditate on eternal becoming. In the end, the answer to Bathini Abafazi? is elusive to me. Rather, I’m struck by how the artists conceptualise, mark, and manipulate the ‘everywhen.’