Last December, Buhlebezwe Siwani, who was studying towards a Master’s at UCT’s Michaelis School of Fine Art, had her work up at the Michaelis Galleries for her exam. A Master’s Graduate Exhibition is usually up for a night or two, and although it is not a public event per se, members of the public can walk into the space to view the work.
In the madness of December and the ‘big days’, I completely missed the one evening to go see the work, but the following morning I saw pictures on Facebook, and the visuals totally grabbed my attention. I immediately got in touch with Buhle, who told me that the exhibition would be coming down at 10am. Naturally, I was there with my camera at 9am.
I asked her to give us a bit of a walkabout and talk to us about the work. Once I had a chat with her and found out what she was really exploring, I loved it a thousand times more! Then – like a cherry on top, and further confirmation that her show was indeed amazing – a week later at the Michaelis graduate show, she was awarded the Katrine Harries postgraduate prize for an outstanding body of work. Anyway, before I ramble on too much, let’s let Buhle tell it as she takes us on a Skattie walkabout of her exhibition:
The exhibition is called ‘Imfihlo’, which means The Secret, or what is hidden, because my whole concept was around secrecy, what we choose to reveal and what we choose to conceal. It’s also because my work is two-fold, I work both as an artist and as a sangoma, and I can’t separate those two things. However, as a sangoma I have to conceal so many things but, as a performance artist I have to reveal things. So there’s that paradox that I am constantly working with.
The process actually started with this piece [above], Inzilo: ngoba ndihlala kwabafileyo. Basically, as a sangoma I don’t operate as one person, there are multiple energies within me. For example I can never go to funerals, which also means I can’t mourn.
Why can’t you go to funerals?
We’re not allowed to be around dead bodies because they represent a spiritual enigma, and we’re spiritual carriers, so it doesn’t work for us to be in the same space. One would have to cleanse themselves of that death. I made this piece and put together a selection of things that reminded me of the way black women mourn. I created a bed for myself, and put together this potting soil so that I can plant my dress in it, and the dress is made of black buttons, due to their symbolic nature for women in mourning. But I also started thinking of the princess and the pea and I wanted to go higher and higher up, almost like a fairytale, because I was creating something that does not exist in this world. It was an existential kind of work, and an extension of the human body, hence the body does not exist inside the dress.
These pieces [above] relate to my fear of water, specifically natural bodies of water, because as sangomas we are generally not allowed in natural bodies of water. When we do go in we have to go in with people, never by ourselves. So this is about the sangoma initiation and the end of it, where one gets baptized. But it’s not just baptizing like the way it’s done in a river. You go deep inside the ocean and they take you to a certain space where amadlozi wakho want to be.
So I thought about which beach to go to where I could really come to grips with my fear. I remembered that during apartheid the beaches that were designated for black people were often the dangerous beaches, so I went to shoot this series in Mitchell’s Plein and Monwabisi beach in Khayelitsha.
For the video [above] I went home to the Eastern Cape, to a nearby dam. My grandfather was one of the five Xhosa kings that were left in Mdushane, and he built this dam, but somehow over the years it seemed to grow by itself. My grandmother warns against going into it. It’s huge and people have died in there, so my grandmother is always telling people not to go in and that there is actual life in there. Of course I went to film there.
I tried to as much as possible insert some of myself into this series. All the costumes are carefully thought out. Typically when you get baptised you wear a long loose-fitting outfit. But of course I want to look a certain way, you know, a pretty sangoma, hehehehe. So I always try to insert a bit of myself in all my work, whilst still refering back to the culture and the tradition. Even the costume in the video where I walk into the dam, it’s called incibi, and it is worn during initiation. There are different styles, but I decided to take umbhaco wasekhaya and wear that because I feel that it means much more to me.
This picture series [above] is called Qunusa! Buhle , it’s about how I used to be washed by my grandmother. It was painful man.
Physically? Was she hectic?
Not like that, it was more emotionally draining because she wouldn’t just wash me, she’d wash me in front of people and there I was this seven year old, and my aunt goes “Qunusa” which means bend over. When they wash boys they don’t do that to them. So I started thinking about this whole issue of purity and how women have to be constantly purified, and constantly cleansed. Yes we menstruate, we have sex, but men also have sex.
Come to think of it, when it comes to men, a lot of things surrounding sex, especially of the cis hetero variety, are not regarded as filth.
Yes, but when we have sex there’s a thing about filth, having to clean yourself up. This female body has to be constantly aware, emotionally and physically. I had a gripe with it; it kind of pissed me off. So I bought the soap and thought this will be the beginning of the work. It also made me think of certain sangoma rituals, like when I wash people, I often don’t know them or anything about them and they’re trusting me with their bodies and I’m also trusted to not judge and I don’t. Because, I mean, you get so desensitized to it and you just do your thing. But not everyone is desensitized and I felt like it was…how do you expect someone you don’t know to wash off everything, spiritual dirt, physical dirt, everything?
A chicken becomes an intercessor, a spiritual marker of an ancestor. Like when you see those guys walk around with the chicken that sits on their arm or on top of their head and does not move at all. It’s like their ancestors are literally walking with them. I wanted to refer to that and also a little bit to religion. I mean seriously, Christianity is the fuckery of everything for black people. It makes black people do things that we should not be doing, That’s why the piece is called iSana libuyele kunina, which basically means buyel’embo, go back to the beginning. This is African spirituality as opposed to the church in the background.
That’s interesting, because for me looking at the image as a viewer, the whole thing now represents modern African spirituality. Because these days one could be in church on a Sunday and consulting with a sangoma on Monday, like, African spirituality has become all encompassing.
Ja, I find it so convoluted and messed up, but we have to deal with it.
I think sometime it speaks to a bigger cultural issue. As black people we live in a permanent state of contradiction. One is never completely defined by one world view, or one culture, and the views or ways of living vying for one’s attention are often in contradiction to each other.
Yes, but this Africa, so we know what we should be doing, but there’s also so many issues that we have fix. With this series I’m going to start touching on those subjects, but I’m going to work more on it, there’s much more to do.
Firstly, where did you find so many damn skulls?
Hahahahaha, they were so gross, they still had flesh, they had maggots, it was so disgusting.
Euww! Did you have to clean them yourself?
Yep, I did. I cleaned them, I cured them, and I preserved them. So ja, this was tough, I worked on this for six months straight just cleaning the skulls, there are 127 of them. Some of them broke because of the chemical process. I also couldn’t see for days afterwards, so I had to take a break for like a week so my sight could get back to normal. That was because I didn’t wear any protective gear except gloves to protect myself from the chemicals.
For this piece I thought a lot of the story of Nongqawuse and Nonkosi, the two girls who were blamed for the Xhosa cattle-killing crisis (Wikipedia link). I thought of the issue as a woman, as a child, and as someone who is also black and Xhosa. That these two girls were blamed for the annihilation of two thirds of amaXhosa was just unfathomable to me. So I went to my uncle who is now king, and he kinda explained it to me. The village where it happened also falls under my uncle’s rule, but obviously the people who were there when it happened have long passed, and all the people who live there now are from other areas. In a way, being there was kind of me having a conversation with the dead. So the skulls are a metaphor for both the people and the cows that passed during that time.
Initially as part of the performance, I’m wearing a dress which covers the skulls, then bit by bit they are revealed, while Zinzi sings on the other side and plays umrhubhe and uhadi, and she starts announcing the deaths. All the skulls also have bullet holes, all the cows died quite violent deaths.
Did you shoot them?
No, that happened before I got there, it’s how the cows actually died.
Well that’s a bit dark.
Yep. I also decided to create ixhanti, it’s a sort of homecoming, not your celebratory type, because really, what would we be celebrating? There’s an inherent violence in the whole thing that I needed to bring across.
This one [above] is called Ubunxaxha, which means amnesia. Black people generally didn’t create monuments in the likeness of someone, we made stuff to commemorate people, something that speaks to everybody. In thinking about that I created this as a monument to amaXhosa who were shot by the British and whose homes were taken away by the British, so I thought about reclaiming the space and reclaiming the land with this piece and creating a monument with spears and wood, as those things were means of survival. This structure is also typically used as a way to store wood. Wood that’s used for cooking, burning, building, basically wood for life
I’ve actually never taken note of that, we really didn’t create monuments of people.
No we didn’t. Instead of creating a whole Queen Elizabeth statue, we were much more likely to create something like a pot with beads to say thank you, and put it somewhere. I know with royalty one could have their own blanket made of out of leopard skin that they put in your space when you’re gone as a marker.
The voice playing over the video [screenshots above] is my uncle; he is explaining a lot about our history and our lineage, uyasithutha. In the video I’m wearing a skirt that was left to me. It’s a skirt typically worn by men for sangoma initiation, but it was left to me because I am guided by male ancestors, and it was asked for. It is also a weird thing for me to get to grips with so I shot this at home in the Eastern Cape and I also shot parts of it kwaLanga to kind of talk about how things have changed and the notion of going home, ukugoduka. You know how amaXhosa who are not from here [Western Cape] are sometimes called amagoduka. I also use the skirt to talk about tradition and how tradition is constantly changing.
This one is called Ungenzele Phantsi, which means you’ve fucked me over basically, to put in bluntly. When they cleanse a person from death, from anything they always use a white chicken right? So I thought about being that chicken, trying to take that off, trying to strip down, to be pure, to be the cleanest clean, but not white clean because that’s a superficial cleansing. I thought about how anthropologists like to speak spiritual cleansing and the dark continent. Hehehe. Those people are crazy. So I thought about being the chicken and I stuck feathers to my body using wood glue, so I could feel them come off. I was literally plucking myself.
Ouch, didn’t that hurt?
Yep, I mean, look at my face in the video. And I’m also a very hairy person, so…