Buhlebezwe Siwani, Cape Town-based artist and member of the iQhiya collective spoke to ART AFRICA about her practice, the relationship between the individual and the collective, and the deeply liminal subtext that surrounds her work.
You are both a performer and a traditional healer. How do you navigate incorporating something sacred and deeply personal into your artistic practice? Particularly since you’ve stated that your practice is about making emotionally relatable work.
I find that they are one in the same thing and cannot be separated, my work is in a sense a catharsis for me. I always attempt to find myself and situate myself regarding the contemporary space by using what I find deeply personal and sacred. It is important that attention is brought to what is sacred and what some people regard as such. I mean death is sacred and everyone can relate to death, everyone has experienced death, we all feel a particular way about it. I believe that my work exists in a liminal space. It is not about everyone, but everyone can relate to an aspect of it.
You’ve stated in previous interviews that you draw a lot of thematic influence from your experiences growing up - from Xhosa stories and legends, as well as from different aspects of African spirituality. What are your aesthetic influences?
That is true, but my upbringing is not only about being umXhosa, although it could be interpreted in that way because of some of the motifs I use. I am a myriad of things. My genetic make up is not only Xhosa. There are Zulu Shangaan, Asian, German and Mozambican members of my family. I focus on isiXhosa because I think we need to write our own narratives and revive the stories that were suppressed. My aesthetic influences are the environments that I grew up in, not only in a physical sense but the spiritual realm, because both have a different aesthetic. Soweto, downtown Johannesburg, the Eastern Cape, KwaZulu Natal, Mpumalanga and Mozambique form a backdrop, all different, that I can begin painting on. All these aesthetics mean different things to me and trigger different memories. This is always where I begin. They are moments in history that are etched in my memory. From iZangoma, to iZion and the smells of home, my grandmother’s hands which are a landscape. The landscape is a major aesthetic influence.
As well as being prominently featured in formal galleries, your work also intervenes in alternative spaces. How do the politics of space affect your practice?
I love that word space! What is this ‘Space’ that you speak of? We have no space. Those are the politics of my space.
Your work is located in the body, its processes, its cleansing and the layers of meaning surrounding it. How do you feel this positions the audience? Are they voyeurs? Spectators? Participants? What is your intention when communicating with your audiences?
The audience unintentionally become participants. By them watching the body cleanse they become a part of the process of the ritual. By them watching and not necessarily understanding, I suppose they become voyeurs. I would like to mention that we are all voyeurs because we are constantly on the outside looking in. When I communicate with my audience I do not require anything of or from them, in fact whether they are there or not does not matter to me. What matters to me is the audience that exists in a liminal space, I need them to be with me. I suppose my intention is honesty, with accidental ‘participants.’
How do you combat or interact with the possibility of exoticising, fetishising and problematic othering?
Before anything I often think of my body as a costume, not as naked or nude, so when I make work I refuse to render my costume vulnerable or offer it up to people. It is mine and I own it in all my pieces. Furthermore, I have explicitly cited that this body that I inhabit is not mine, it belongs to my ancestors, it is a vessel. I know this sounds a bit contradictory so let me elaborate, this body is not mine alone. I often refer to myself as we, in a collective manner because I do not walk alone. This body is inhabited by my grandmothers and grandfathers, who have chosen me to be a spiritual healer. I have chosen to use their body to make art.
There is a long history of fetishizing and exoticising the black female body. When you finally offer it up and return the gaze will it be consumed in the same sneaky way that white people normally consume it? I constantly ask myself that question before I make work. How am I challenging the gaze? Who am I making this work for? Have I offended myself? Have I been honest? This is the set of questions I use to go to war.
Whiteness will always other. My dream is for white people to be seen as the subaltern in Africa. When were Africans a taboo subject in their own land? We need to begin with interrogating the word ‘othering' and what it means, to whom it is directed and whether it should not be directed at someone else.
How has being a member of iQhiya affected your practice?
Being a part of iQhiya has been one of the most exciting, but also one of the most exhausting, things that has happened in my life. These may seem to be at polar opposites, but I feel they are both positive as there is so much work that is happening and being done, important work. Of course collectives are not a new thing but, eleven black women getting together and ‘flipping the bird’ is a new thing. The one thing I want people to remember is that before we are iQhiya, we are all accomplished, prizewinning individual artists. I have also learnt how to be patient as I work really quickly. I needed to see how different approaches bear different fruit. Also black sisterhood!!!
Are you looking to take your work in other thematic directions, and if so, could you elaborate on this?
Once in a while my work strays from its charted course [laughs]. I am planning on reminding people that I can make prints, and that painting used to be my major at Wits before I found myself in a performance department that did not really exist. These prints and paintings though will exist in a performative realm, in a way that is being used by artists, however, I do not want to say too much because people will think that they have an idea of what I am going to do, which is probably wrong.
If there is one thing that traditional Fine Art tries to make one do is fit into a box, what if I want to tick all the boxes?
Anyway, I will be making work about the women in my family and their involvement in the politics of South Africa. Additionally it will be about genealogy. This is going to be a project that continues until I probably move to the other realm. The other body of work I am currently working on is African warrior queens and their link to traditional medicine.
The work I make will always have a slight reference to ubuNgoma even if I do not make it explicitly clear.