Remembering is never a quiet act of introspection or retrospection. It is a painful re-membering, a putting together of the dismembered past to make sense of the trauma of the present.
– Homi K Bhabha
Thina Dube’s work is the work of human recall. Engaging with it, one becomes embroiled in remnants of times past and times to come, unconscious moments and intersecting and concurrent histories. “I am looking at memories and people’s relationships with memory,” Thina has said of this latest body of work. A keen observer of his known world, Thina focuses on the subtleties of memory. Most of the time, memory is a fluid, fickle thing. Sometimes, objects carry our memories – regrets, hopes and dreams – fixing moments we wish to have back.
When I think of doilies, I envision a treasure trove of bric-à-brac that details the world of my parents and grandparents. These fussy furnishings, many remnants of colonialism, effectively cocooned the inhabitants from the world outside. The domestic space was the one place where things were within our control. The doilies encouraged visitors to linger—eloquent witnesses of the domesticity that existed in the oft-times overstuffed front rooms.
Keeping everything pristine and starched just so made it possible to forget that more important things were happening outside of the confines of the front room. However, the violent state might be represented by something as innocuous as a doily. After all, in the South African context, doilies are remnants of the settler-colonial incursion. An influence of Victorian fashion, they imposed imperial taste on inhabitants’ sensibilities. Their ongoing prevalence is a telling example of how people continue to live in the shadow of apartheid.
Thina’s art practice has been shaped by the experience of apartheid and what came after its demise. The doily is a tangible way of reminding his viewers of the specific history responsible for the broken world and how objects are used to colonise other worlds. Thina prints the motifs using paper doilies. By their ephemeral nature, the paper doilies show that things do not always remain the same, becoming a metaphor for things lost in the fire of the past.
The doilies are, at once, ephemeral and remnants of apartheid and settler-colonialism. Within this paradox, Thina’s work represents a commentary that delineates nostalgia and history. Of interest are the artworks Repetition is a Key that a Locksmith Cannot Copy, 2019 and Hoping to Get Lost in a Dream, 2019. The monotype silhouettes, with the blind embossing of the paper doily, create the illusion of suspended silhouettes whose stark colouration obscures form and dominates much of the composition. The ambiguity of the identity of figures and somewhat arbitrary designations of form stand in contrast to the expressiveness of the lips and begs the question as to whom the portraits represent, inviting us to meditate upon representation and identity.
He exhorts you to look at yourself materially. The artworks are constructed in episodes that succeed spatially rather than chronologically to reconstruct a landscape both familiar and strange. They remind one of the geographies of separation, once the ethos of apartheid, now imposed by a pandemic and the frenetic pace at which everything moves, not allowing us to pause, reflect and engage.
His is an intense moral searchlight that questions in a subtle way the history of the struggle in South Africa and what it means to be South African in collective memory. This work is not creating a nostalgic memory. Instead, a critical cultural consciousness that is brought to redeem the present.