28.10 - 24.11.2022
When I arrive at Vela Projects, loud music starts, and I’m quickly tucked away somewhere inside the world of Songezo Zantsi’s beautiful paintings.
IINKUMBULO is a collection of fourteen paintings spread neatly across the broad, pillared room of Vela Projects’ Shortmarket-street-facing building. After helping myself to a few laps around the imaginary circuit that keeps me close to the walls, I find myself returning to the paintings right by the entrance. One in particular, Ciskei, is a combination of three figures whose faces are masked by as many flags. The tension among them is emphasised by the central subject of the image: a thin, stretched, almost abstract cow. In the background, there is a diagonal streak of white cutting across a hue of blue which, at first, I only recognise from the Botswana flag. Only later do I realise that Zantsi has in fact replicated the Ciskei flag with which he contrasts the colours and shadows of the livestock and its handlers.
This detail, in revealing my ignorance, fascinates me. What else do I not know? What more is there to be discovered? I am drawn to a point in the text that accompanies the exhibition, where Zantsi and Vela Projects’ Jonathan Goschen discuss the show’s conception. The artist describes a particular struggle with the sanitisation of history, education and the individual journey of ‘remembering’, saying, “It’s a great opportunity for one not to be given [their] path, but to search for it, because I wouldn’t have the same interest if in my history classes I was told about the Bisho Massacre.” When I prompt him to elaborate on this train of thought, Zantsi tells me, “One has to unlearn in order to learn. I think what I meant by this quote is that discovering these sorts of things on my own was empowering. I didn’t wait for someone else to tell me, I went and found out for myself, and I’m proud of that. Regardless of its successes or failures, I think it’s important that all people feel comfortable in educating themselves about history. Part of the process of maturing is realising that not everything that is in the education system is relevant [and] noticing how much has been left out.”
I point out that, in the text, he also speaks of “immersing” himself into scenes of contention, death, police violence, vengeance, celebration, community and mourning in order “to do them justice.” That justice, in the context of his work’s narratives, is also quite complicated. “Justice is truth. When I say, ‘doing them justice’, I think I mean representing figures and representing the situation [they’re in] truthfully. I want to emphasise that ‘truthfully’ doesn’t mean factually. It means really considering and trying to find the character behind the figure, and to find the psychology beneath the situation. It’s amazing how much can be uncovered by using one’s eyes and taking your time. I know that I’m dealing with a very delicate subject matter. It is very important to me that I do so with a lot of humility and consideration.” This care gives off a heightened frequency of both the artist’s visual language, one that tethers the audience to something vital and alive.
For me, there is an emphasis –or now-ness– given to the figures. Beyond political implication, there seems to be a focus on showing who people are, and not just where, or when. This is especially evident to me in the Abafazi series. When even women’s strength is stereotyped to a certain extent, Zantsi’s depictions relinquish pretence, performance and propriety. The world of womanhood that emerges is something tangible, something known, but unable to be reconciled with the superficial story most often told. Across the three works that make up the Abafazi series, the full spectrum unfolds, one where women aren’t just angry, they’re violent. Nothing is reduced to singularity, or a caricature, or a passive emblem. The ‘more’ that I’m often searching for in similar works is pouring out of the canvases here. “I was raised mostly by women,” Zantsi tells me, “With Abafazi, the role of women in our society is shown with absolute honesty. They’re shown as those who can break society as much as they can be broken by it. Highlighting the important role [women play] starts with noticing this absence in the history of women.”
Usapho, beside Abafazi 3, is another moment in the overall presentation that gives me pause. The proximity between the two encourages comparison. Where one is about the celebration of the artist’s first birthday, the other mourns the loss of a child around the same age. Together, they draw up a familiar bitterness of life’s coming and going that underlines even the sweetest memories, and adds traction to the understated urgency that permeates IINKUMBULO. Each work carries presence that is unified by the feelings that emerge between them, summoning something honest. This is an impactful show for an audience willing to be moved into remembering with the keenness and fullness required to honour someone, or someplace, in their entirety.