Lhola Amira

SINKING: Xa Sinqamla Unxubo

Investec Cape Town Art Fair | SOLO Section: Booth S9

16.02.18 – 18.02.18

Cape Town International Convention Centre (CTICC)
Cape Town, South Africa.

Central to Lhola Amira’s practice are gestures toward collective healing, emanating from an examination of the wound left by colonisation and systematic discrimination, as well as it’s continued weeping. She addresses the demand from the present to engage with the past and the future.

With Black history in mind, Lhola Amira subverts the gaze on Black Bodies; the gaze to the “stage”, the pedestal and the spectacle of performance by calling her practice ‘Appearance’. The embodiment of ‘Appearance’ draws from southern African Nguni spiritualism, that denotes plural existences in one body -Lhola Amira shares a body with Khanyisile Mbongwa- as well as an understanding of the Zulu notion of Ukuvela which contextualises an individuals’ existence in relation to collective historical and future narratives. Confronting the historical and contemporary precarity of Blackness, ‘Appearance’ acts as de-colonial practice moving from Black Bodies that perform to Black Bodies that ‘Appear’ on their own terms. In this sense, a Black Body that ‘Appears’ is imbued with POWER-the power to be, to protest, to imagine, to dream, to subvert, to laugh, to drink wine, to self actualise.

Lhola Amira’s work translates into film, photography and installation. A residue of her ‘Appearances’ are the arresting images and films that reiterate her engagements with past and contemporary history. Lhola Amira problematizes the spectacle-spectator relationship as there is no pre-conceived show to see, no script, or stage direction- instead there is purposeful embodied ‘presence’ and the gestural. These gestures, within de-colonial practice, position ‘Appearance’ in accordance to critical subaltern agency and the contestation of cultural value systems which have been monopolised by colonial hierarchies.

On SINKING: Xa Sinqamla Unxubo             

The sinking of the S.S. Mendi on 21 February 1917 is one of South Africa’s worst tragedies of the century. A total of 616 South Africans, including 607 Black men serving in the South African Native Labour Contingent, died when the steamship sank in the English Channel on it’s way to France to fight, on the side of the British in the First World War. This wound, the catastrophe at sea, is what Lhola Amira examines in the film SINKING: Xa Sinqamla Unxubo. This examination that takes places in both its physical and spiritual realms via site dedicated ‘Appearances’.

The lived experience of the Black individual is one that is intimate with all the many forms of death but for Lhola Amira, going to the source of the wound is about transforming “Us” via gestural healing. Lhola Amira’s practice is a demand from the present to engage with the past and the future and the concern here is how to stop the S.S Mendi from continuously sinking! The 1960 Sharpville massacre is another Mendi sinking; the June 16th 1976 Soweto uprisings is another Mendi sinking; 2012 Marikana massacre is yet another Mendi Sinking; and somewhere in South Africa everyday- a Mendi sinks. The fundamental concern here is how to curb the agony, how to stop the flow of agony, how to enact a narrative of living, because as Lhola puts it: “We already know how to die”.

“Be quiet and calm, my countrymen” said Rev. Isaac Williams Dyobha as he delivered his last sermon to the men as the Mendi went down, but quiet and calm is not the Mendi script and Lhola Amira’s intimate examination of the wound means subjecting oneself to conditions that one might not have bargained for, and there is risk in that enterprise. This space is a potent locale, the locus of human interaction with other worlds, the arena of communion between the living and the dead, the past and the present. What does it mean, within African sensibilities, to do healing work at the sites that are intimately connected to the S.S Mendi catastrophe, such as the ground where the S.S. Mendi men spent their last night on African soil before their fateful journey? The seven Black Womxn and the documenting witnesses had to hold space, no one was left untouched. Even the ominous and sudden change in weather -despite forecasts of calm- seemed to signal this sacred contact between physical and metaphysical realms. The naturally occurring blurred interludes in the film, evoking an almost motion sickness, a disquiet and instable atmosphere for viewers, these elements evidence the sense of encounter and ‘Appearence’ experienced, by each of Lhola Amira’s companions, on the day of gestural healing.

The short-film SINKING: Xa Sinqamla Unxubo is rooted within Lhola Amira’s grand narrative of ‘looking for Africa in Africa’ and in this short film, which concerns itself with collective healing, the collective ethos manifests in the phenomenal Womxn who partake in the process of examining the Mendi wound with Lhola Amira. They provide spiritual sustenance, fortification and within this communion are healers, writers and Sangoma’s – phenomenal Womxn skilled in the practice of therapy and catharsis- Womxn draped in white jumpsuits. But the Womxn also gesture towards the subtle violence enacted on precarious lives, premised on waiting and mourning. They do not know if their fathers, brothers, uncles, husbands will return from the sea, they do not know if their fathers, brothers, uncles, husbands will return from the mines. Too often does waiting turn to mourning. The aesthetic of this short-film echoes this ambivalence; waiting and mourning; erasure and collective amnesia; like Lot’s wife we are told: ‘do not look back’.

There are many layers to this work. The aesthetic is important but essentially this work is an act of faith. “What is happening now is what you came to do…you are going to die, but that is what you came to do. Brothers, we are drilling the death drill…” continues Dyobha with his sermon as the Mendi sinks. SINKING: Xa Sinqamla Unxubo forces viewers into an uncomfortable space, a space beyond aesthetics and beauty. There is little poetic aesthetic because the narrative is intensionally haunting, but more important are the gestures to heal within the pain. While the title of this film cannot accurately be translated, the notion is around ‘a curbing of agony or stop to the flow of agony’. Lhola Amira’s invocation here is the collective enactment of gestures toward transforming and healing. The work is thus an act of faith, any residue of beauty are the reverberations of gestural healing.

 Text by Tigere Mavura

The artist would like to note that this project would not have been possible without the six Womxn with whom Lhola Amira featured in this film: Thandi Gama; Faye Kabali-Kagwa; Linda Kaoma; Abongile Memala; Mthombo Sogiba; and Sibongile Tito.

Lhola Amira also extends her special thanks to: Vasiki Creative Citizens; Vuyo Kyana; Busela Mbongwa; Noncedo Cxekwa; Onele Liwani.

Filming & Editing: Zara Julius
Musical Score: Kyle Shepherd

View artist page: Lhola Amira