11.02 - 11.03.2023
Four young women are seated around an outdoor table, playing cards. Engrossed in the task at hand, they are seemingly unaware of the image-maker. Delicate hands shuffle and hold; feet rest on dried grass and faces beam with smiles. The photograph is black and white, but the young women’s faces are incandescent; they radiate joy. This is an idyllic image of warm summer nights and the pleasure of banality that foregrounds Lungiswa Gqunta’s latest exhibition, Sleep in Witness, at WHATIFTHEWORLD in Cape Town.
The photograph, depicting Gqunta’s matriarchy, was taken some fifty years ago in Port Elizabeth. Cracks on its surface, a beret hat donned unironically, worn leather brogues and white stockings patina the image with the texture of time as Gqunta reaches through family archives into the past, bringing back new dreams and new stories. These are material archives entwined with the presence of those who created them, in the manner described by Ariella Azoulay as “archives founded on presence.” Material archives distinguish themselves from institutional, capital A archives, which show no trace of the people who created them nor those who use them; instead, material archives allow a sense of intimacy.
To reach into the archive is a reparative and reparatory endeavour – one that is extremely hopeful. Writer Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick asserted that “hope, often a fracturing, even a traumatic thing to experience, is among the energies by which the reparatively positioned reader tries to organise the fragments and part-objects she encounters or creates.” In this work, we see Gqunta optimistically collecting fragments and suggesting ways of organising ideas, sometimes mobilising something deeply flawed towards something constructive. For instance, Gqunta uses razor wire – a material associated with anti-Black and anti-poor violence – to create new landscapes that evoke shrubs, waves and hills.
Writing on dissonant archives and contested narratives, Azoulay describes the notion of Aufheben – the polysemic German concept implying both preservation and cancellation. In English, we might call this ‘sublation’ — sublation as a process of simultaneous negation and preservation through a process of synthesis. To think of Gqunta’s work is to think of a kind of sublation: she plays around with the essence and semblance of things, reducing some aspects while revealing others. In Ntabamanzi, a sculpture made from wire and silver coins, Gqunta wraps the wire with fabric and, through this process, softens its sharp-edged blades. Despite softening the edges (a kind of negation), she accentuates the material’s potential to inflict harm.
Take, as another example, how she uses clay. Clay – a material significant due to its connection to creation myths and religious legacies as well as to land and dispossession – is pressed to make new ground. In this case, clay preserves its connection to the earth as a direct visual representation of what Gqunta refers to as the historical wound resulting from the cruel legacies of apartheid spatial policies. Across the room, razor wire is assiduously wrapped in fabric of varying shades of blue, nudging at the essence of the aquatic. Undulating glass vessels – which in another life existed as sand, ash and limestone – are spread across the floor.
Overall, Gqunta’s manner of working recalls the relationality between material, form and concept articulated by Theaster Gates as the need “to strip the material back to its most basic form then call forth the potency of ritual, utility and philosophy and end up at new bodies of work and new ways of thinking about other forms.” The work is in conversation with a tradition of Black artists who see abstraction as a critical study of Black knowledge, including Dineo Seshee Bopape through her use of soil and earth as well as Torkwase Dyson for whom geometry and composition are instructive. Both Gqunta and Dyson are thinking about Black bodies, Black knowledge and Black histories through the language of space and geographies – often constructing their own versions of various landscapes to think through these questions.
Gqunta’s way of working brings things in close connection to each other: beauty and violence, the living and ancestors, past and present, dreaming and waking. In the hopes of bearing witness to her foremothers’ relationship to land and water, Gqunta searches the shaky, murky and unstable territories of dreams. Rolling Mountain is a three-minute-long video in which Gqunta rolls from one side of the room to the next while a recitation of her disjointed dreams is overheard in isiXhosa – garbled, fuzzy, mesmersing. The gentle rotations of the artist’s body and voice induce a hallucinatory effect, lulling and decelerating the viewers’ rhythm.
Although the exhibition is successful in its methods of reduction and abstraction, more could be done to tighten the links between the concepts that underscore the work: sleep, dreaming, water and land. At times, these links are opaque, cloudy and elusive – perhaps only aided by the fact that the language of dreams itself is symbolic, suggestive and vague.