Familial Threads

A dialogue between Re-Curators, Amogelang Maledu, Thembakazi Matroshe and Luvuyo Equiano Nyawose.

Amogelang Maledu: What are we trying to say in our show Familial Threads: first as our debut curatorial collective exhibition and in reflecting on the selection of artists featured in our show?

Luvuyo Equiano Nyawose: I think our collective interest as Re-curators is to collectively, protect and preserve Black cultural production and thought. As reflected in our selected artists – artists of our generation – whose work we resonate within this postcolonial and post apartheid South Africa where even as young people born around the euphoria of Black liberation in South Africa, we are still at a quest of re-writing and asserting our collective narrative into the history of art in a less western-dominant perspective. Our collective aims and the selected artists are similarly interested in these contextual political shifts, as is their individual nuanced aesthetic contributions and conceptual merit. They make us rethink art production and reclaim it from the clutches of the canon. 

AM: I was at a public lecture at our alma mater, Centre for Curating the Archive (CCA) where Nontobeko Ntombela was giving a talk around ‘’allegories of refusal” [1] and the discussion around collective art-making practices, group show exhibitions and collaborative curatorial projects briefly cropped and pertinent to that discussion was the negation of the Western platitude of the idea of the ‘’single genius artist’’. I think in some ways we are also interested in subverting that platitude and also especially in thinking around how collaborative artistic making practices is something that isn’t necessarily new in our context and something we feel is intrinsic to the production of the art we are interested in. From the contemporary communal abstract work of AmaNdebele; to the founding of Laboratoire Agit’Art in Dakar in 1973 and even to our close contemporaries, iQhiya. These collective, yet individual artistic making practices are not only limited to subverting and confronting what is wrong with the canonised western approach to art, but are also critical influences that we are currently preoccupied with in our nascent careers as emerging curators and cultural practitioners. Our shared interests began as a response to feeling the need to openly speak about the problems around the art production in an academic environment at the University of Cape Town, without feeling like our concerns are invalid because often sometimes academia can feel so threatening that dissenting Black voices and new narratives can easily be silenced. Re-curators that started as a Whatsapp group initiated by Luvuyo, became somewhat of a support hub where Black intellectual thought, open debates and active peer-review support for our own personal projects could happen in affirming ways. It was a very spontaneous response to having access to each other’s thoughts. Beyond the three of us, it is also a network of fellow friends and industry colleagues we met at the CCA both during our studies last year and even extended that network to some of this year’s CCA students. 

Thembakazi Matroshe: I agree with the fact that the Re-curators does not start nor end with the three of us. It is a network of emerging curators, artists and cultural workers including Anelisa Mangcu, Lonwabo Kilani, Ndeenda Shivute, Lethabolaka Gumede and Phoka Nyokong. 

I think we entered our curatorial studies at a very critical time in the university where committees were being formed to re-curate the art on campus in response to the #Shackville [2] protests in 2016. I believe our collective was inspired by these attempts, although understood in consideration to the confines of the structures and hierarchies of the university. The re-curation of art in relation to our complex and problematic history in South Africa is a longstanding project that needs to be executed even beyond the academy. I have been extremely interested in curating art outside of the white cube. This involves collaborating with emerging artists and curating exhibitions in non-gallery spaces. My approach to being a Re-curator involves challenging what has been deemed as ‘respectable’ in the art world. I aim to blur those dichotomies of high art and elite art spaces, whilst integrating art into the everyday. Much like the way art was and has always been experienced for millenia all over Africa. 

Which reminds me, the artists we have chosen have all explored varying mediums that fall outside of traditional fine art practice. What does it mean in our own (South) African context?

Installation view of Familial Threads. Image: Siphosihle Mkhwanazi.

AM:  I think what makes Familial Threads resonate with me besides the ubiquity and familiarity of the mediums the artists employ – is how my entrance point into art and cultural production has always been necessitated outside academic conventions of art. I only actively engaged conventional canonical art and art-making practices in the beginning of my undergraduate degree despite having had the privilege to attend an art high school. 

TM: We find that our chosen artists are all formally trained fine artists, working outside and remixing traditional western mediums and perhaps mining an archive of overlooked mediums that have typically been categorised as ‘’African’’ art (textiles, beads, masks, ‘leather’ etc). In a way, it reminds me of African Modernity – and specifically the Negritude poets who took aspects of French rhetoric and surrealism to express dissatisfaction with colonialism. (African) modern artists such as Ernest Mancoba’s appropriated mediums that were within the Western fine art and literature canon and created bold new modernist aesthetics that him, and his peers are now renowned for [3]. 

AM: Absolutely. I sense both ingenuity and defiance from contemporary Black artists working in unconventional mediums: a way to re-legitimise work of marginalised artists and artworks that were infantilised to the so-called crafts category simply because of racism and its causal link to white supremacy, which is still relevant in how Black artists and cultural producers are valued even today. In fact, I think one can read Zenande Mketeni’s Umhlekazi Mask Series (2018) as well as Inga Somdyala’s and Xhanti Zwelendaba’s collaborative laser engraving pieces on ikhukho as inside jokes on the Western art canonical obsession with primitivity: from the barren African landscape, to the unknown African tribal mask makers. But, I think therein lies an interesting individualised subversion through contemporary artistic discursive strategies of these commonplace African art tropes. Mketeni, Somdyala and Zwelendaba manage to carve out their own (speculative) identities and inquiries of their expansive dynamic cultures and ancestors through negating and reimagining African visual cultures with its fraught history in mind.

TM:  I am also interested in how some of these artists take objects that could be considered mundane or ordinary, and then using them as a medium to perform their art, place them into the fine art canon of the ‘extraordinary’. How these objects bring an increased awareness of our own material culture(s). The resonance certain objects hold. Certain reminders of past experiences – familial and childhood, there is a lot of nostalgic moments in these artworks.  

LEN: Exactly. The material choice speaks to a collective memory. The materials are familiar, we’ve engaged with them and they form part of our collective memory, and both our remembrance and cultural contemporary. The material converge with the message: for instance in Alka Dass’ adoption of material objects commonly found in an Indian household and often attached to femme identity, functions as her personal transformation and challenge of cultural conventions. Dass has formed a visual language which is a personal reflection of her own history, no matter the subject. Through this, she speaks to ideals, desires, insecurities. This body of work, Where does the pain go when it goes away (2019), is an assemblage of Dass’ childhood and imagination, it rethinks how we relate to material culture. 

Installation view of Familial Threads, with work by Bulumko Mbete, Cow Mash and Inga Somdyala. Image: Siphosihle Mkhwanazi.

AM: My understanding and interest in art has always been self-reflexive and familial, and I suppose that is what drew us to these artists. I feel like each artist’s work has a deeply emblematic resonance with my own life: each artists’ inward turn to their personal influences in their work has undertones I can almost immediately connect with. From Dass’ immediately recognisable use of found objects typical in domestic spaces that could well be in my grandmother’s home and imprinting them with sepia family archives and photographs; to Mbete’s ‘’Aranda blanket’’ that has interesting familial multicultural readings from migration to liminal ceremonial events such as initiation rites and weddings. Meanwhile Mash, Mketeni as well as Somdyala and Zwelendaba’s individual searches and reinventions of how they interpret and reimagine their respective cultures and customs of BaPedi and amaXhosa is a thematic motivation for many of us preoccupied with ideas of what our hybridized identities mean in the present; their future potentialities; and what the possibilities of reconnecting with past cultural and traditional customs can look like.

TM: Speaking of our perpetual liminality between the past, present and future, the subject of Kgaogelo Mashilo’s work is influenced by her artist name ‘Cow Mash’. Her work explores the metaphor of the cow in BaPedi culture, where cows are considered the bridge between the living and the dead. Cows function as a liminal space between the human and the divine. Cows are often used as offerings  to the ancestors during traditional ceremonies. After slaughtering, no part of the cow goes to waste. The skin of the cow is dried and used as a sacred mat or for a drum that is played to invite the spirit of the ancestors [4]. I am giving you this brief background because this becomes particularly interesting in the case of her drawings, as they are rendered on synthetic leather that resembles the dried cow hide that would be used for a mat or a drum. Mashilo’s deliberate use of synthetic leather and wool for her drawings and sculptural works speaks to the constant transformation of culture, and perhaps questions our relationship with excessive consumption. Mashilo explores duality in the most magnetic way. She succeeds in appropriating a material that can be read as culturally familiar, yet unfamiliar through its synthetic nature. 

AM: I understand that we are not necessarily reinventing the wheel by positioning our exhibition as going against expected traditional art mediums from academically trained fine artists because appropriations of different mediums and the elevation of found objects into the mixed media and art status terrain has been done throughout art history and the canon itself, specifically from the 1950s during the movement of Modernism. But I guess we are also having very different socio-cultural and economical contextual conversations if we think around the discourse of art materiality during the modernist era a la Marcel Duchamp ready-mades and the discursive strategies Black artists have been using and are currently decoding and reinterpreting through familial, found materials and objects.

TM: Precisely. Take Bulumko Mbete’s work for instance, it is primarily concerned with both the politics and poetics of art. Mbete draws largely from the writing of Audre Lorde in Sister Outsider Essays and Speeches: Poetry is not a luxury (1984) by making use of familiar materials as a storytelling device. Her choice of medium – blankets, beads, fabric is not new. Nor is their function in our daily lives, however she appropriates these materials to weave new meanings. Similarly to the function of verbal and written language in prose and poetry, which is not new to human expression. It is in the maker’s use and inflection of the words, that allows us to find alternative readings. Mbete’s inspiration from Lorde is evident in her centralising the personal as an intellectual and creative archive. Lorde writes from the particulars of her identity – a black woman, lesbian, poet, activist and Mbete uses culturally specific materials to show the shared experience by different people of these materials. Mbete states that the work is “ ‘For us, by us’ ” as it engages the visualization of the “black” and “brown” South African family trope or narrative.

AM: I am not sure how well I am going to articulate this, but it is quite provocative to take a found object and reinterpret it interpersonally to elevate its meaning through artistic discursive strategies. And its interesting to think about the ideological and creative impetus of what makes art, especially in the context of the market and what constitute ‘’sellable art’’ that will (hopefully) accrue value overtime because we know sometimes it is encouraged that artists think about patrons when creating.

LEN: I have a keen interest in the market, particularly the black contemporary art market.  On a basic level, value is determined by an artist’s career trajectory; the size of the work; the artist’s exhibition history and their sales history. Other factors include the artist’s significance in the context of art history and art market trends. Historically most oppressed identities are either put on a pedestal or severely mistreated, there is no in between. They are either commodified and or objectified. Within the canon, there is a perversion whereby, if the canon cannot use your otherness for its capital gain then it discards you. We cannot continue to pigeonhole black artists in these limiting exclusive streams. Although it can be argued that each of our chosen artists’ practices are rooted in identity and biography, we cannot oversimplify the nuance in their work. When discussing found material reinterpretation, I think of El Antasui’s large scale exquisite bottle top sculptural installations, which have garnered him global attention making him one of the most significant voices of our time. El Anatsui transforms simple discarded bottle tops into intricate assemblages, this has become his signature visual language. Through his work he interrogates various historical and political issues, and breaks away from the traditional form of sculpture.  

Installation view of Familial Threads, with work by Alka Dass. Image: Siphosihle Mkhwanazi.

AM: And speaking of that, because our chosen artists and generally artists practicing at the moment, use unconventional materials or mix mediums. There is an interesting dynamism happening for us cultural practitioners and curators who acquire these works that might have an embedded temporality to them. I know museum conservators are always worried about preservation and whether ‘’Should Contemporary Art Last?’’[5].

TM: The notion of whether contemporary art should last exposes whether art should solely be for the consumption of collectors and patrons. Is it naive to still believe that art should and can exist beyond the interests of collectors and patrons? It also raises the question of time and how we measure and experience time within a context outside non-western canons. In a sense the linear assessment of time denies and is paradoxical to the true value of art.

LEN: Art only exists as the discourse that it generates. The insistence on preservation is closely tied to the old museum structure which largely functioned as a chamber of relics. The contemporary excites me because artists are finding inventive mediums. I do not necessarily think art should last. But also on the topic of consumption the canon has historically responded to what is economically viable. It commodifies and absorbs. 

I’ve been wondering how can we operate within a fair-esque environment as curators and ensure that we are not contributing to a superficial engagement of the works? 

TM: In the age of centering the personal as political, we need to constantly be reflexive in our curatorial practice. As much as we may see ourselves reflected in the work of these artists, we cannot assume the role of being the authority that speaks on behalf of artists. Our collective thrives on exchange among curators, and I believe that should be applied to artists as well. I think artists hold the most integral role in articulating and framing their work. 

AM: I’ve been wondering about the same thing too Luvuyo, especially in thinking about how for the first time, Art Week Joburg sees new art fair competition with the Latitudes Art Fair and to some extent, Underline projects too. But I don’t think I have the answer to that specific question because we haven’t effectively developed other modes of supporting the arts that aren’t financial. But what I can say is through this first curatorial project as a collective and also considering that Underline projects is also the first of its kind, there seems to be both deep engagement and consideration, from curators, of not depending on the consumerist nature of solely operating in an art fair (or gallery context) in order to be a successful (independent) artist or curator. And that is not to say fairs and galleries are bad, but they’re aren’t getting enough competition especially in South Africa. Surely showcasing at fairs shouldn’t be the only option artists and curators have in order to be taken seriously. There should be other models that compete with art fairs in this country, where the intellectual rigor of the artists can be taken just as seriously as their financial benefits. 

I am especially excited about what platforms such as Underline projects can ignite because there hasn’t been any explicit expectation for anyone to operate solely financially. The platform is also a space to test other ideas around artistic practices, around what kind of exchanges can happen between independent artists and curators. Exchanges that are not limited to just the Re-curators, but can be extended to dynamic platforms such as Underline projects where new approaches to curating and artistic production is encouraged. There aren’t any straight forward answers but we also not going to be idle and not attempt to try new strategies to showcasing art. 

We have also realised how important it is to democratise the role of the curator in necessitating not just representational participation in cultural spaces, but also disrupting the priori knowledge of art consumption. In the same breath we are not romanticising our roles as Re-curators as neutral or disinterested in the financial benefits of art. By framing our influences as coming from very specific contexts and intellectual frameworks such as decolonisation, we want to begin to see what other approaches of art making and exhibiting we can exhaust besides the art fair or gallery representation model. More so we also acknowledge, confront and sometimes even challenge our own ideological biases. 

Installation view of Familial Threads, with work by Zenande Mketeni. Image: Siphosihle Mkhwanazi.

Footnotes

1 On 3rd September 2019 Nontobeko Ntombela gave a Collegian Talk at the Centre of Curating the Archive, at Michaelis School of Fine Arts, University of Cape Town titled Allegories of Refusal: A few notes on Black African Curating in which she contemplates the idea of refusal through Black African Feminism as a manifestation of a different kind of exhibition-making practice, and in turn, value making.  

2  Shackville was a student led housing protest at UCT, where students erected a shack on campus to express their discontent of the housing situation. Several artworks were burnt that the students deemed as offensive and poor representations of black people. 

3  Okeke Chika, ‘Modern African Art’, The Short Century: Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa 1945-1994, edited by Okwui Enwezor, 29-36. Munich, London, New York: Prestel, 2001.

4 Uhuru Phalafala, ‘The Cow: A bridge between the living and the dead’, Archival Platform, 2013

5  Should Contemporary Art Last  was a panel discussion that took place as part of Iziko South African National Gallery’s annual Specialist Conservation Week on the 16th of July 2019.