​A sangoma connects the art of performance and of healing with a search for identity

Buhlebezwe Siwani's performance piece, Zem'inkomo Nongqawuse, took place on the ramp at the Stevenson Art Gallery in Cape Town in 2015. (Stevenson Art Gallery)

Buhlebezwe Siwani's performance piece, Zem'inkomo Nongqawuse, took place on the ramp at the Stevenson Art Gallery in Cape Town in 2015. (Stevenson Art Gallery)

For multimedia artist Buhlebezwe Siwani, performance art is as versatile as reenacting rituals associated with ukuthwasa (training to be a sangoma), such as submerging in the ocean for the work iGagasi, and commenting on the stigmatisation of the female body, such as rigorously washing in green Sunlight soap in Qunusa! Buhle.

For a recent performance at the Stevenson Cape Town in tribute to K Sello Duiker’s The Quiet Violence of Dreams, she chose to represent mental illness by staging a 24-hour “performance” in isolation.

Siwani has recently embarked on a three-month residency at the Rote Fabrik in Switzerland, where she will create her own work and collaborate with the Theatre Spektakel’s Short Pieces programme.

In this interview, she speaks about negotiating the dichotomy of being a performance artist and a sangoma and about the different ways her generation of artists are using their bodies as disruptive tools.

What do you make of people who are critical of the fact that a lot of the work in South Africa is still exploring identity?
Those people are stupid and I will tell you why. We are still grappling with ourselves and we don’t know, particularly, who we are. Ten years of that has been safe speech, so we are obviously still going to be grappling with identity because it felt like it was far-fetched. If not now then when? I could basically do anything and it would still be about identity just because I’m black and female. A lot of other people talk about being German. You could literally put down anything that anybody does to identity.

Do you feel that your generation of artists, for example in some of the performances you do with some members of iQhiya [a collective of young black female artists], you are working with a different language to some of the people you look up to?
It’s time for us to break down those barriers of saying “we are doing performance art from a fine art background”. Or, “we are doing it from a drama background”. It’s time to figure out how we can push those boundaries instead of working within their constraints.

I try to be less dramatic but also a little too dramatic for fine art. So instead of standing still you move and try to create a narrative within. Nelisiwe Xaba did that a lot but she used dance and because she was a dancer people could understand where she was coming from.

But now, how about using your body to speak in certain ways as well, as opposed to just speaking in one way.

It seems there is a very clear connection between the two worlds you work in, the world of ubungoma and performance art. For you, do the two work concurrently or do they just inform each other separately?
They work together concurrently. I am a sangoma who is an artist and my subject matter is that. I can work on certain aspects, for example, which have to do with water and the historical references of water.

There are environmental references so I don’t just look at it from one angle. I try to put them all together but they will stem from the idea of ubungoma (the sangoma profession) and what it means to be a contemporary one.

How do the healing arts inform the intensity and choices in the work?
I always find it interesting that people are more perceptive than what we think. Even if we do not understand what I’m doing and what I am saying, there are some aspects that are relatable.

At the end of the day we are all human beings you know, and we have our individual experiences, but we also have collective experiences. In the course of the work, a lot of things happen that I don’t expect, like people crying.

When I started doing performances that was a shock, that people would be touched in such a way that they started crying.

I have to be honest with what I am doing. I have to make sure I am not in danger of getting into a trance in a public space. Trance is not for everybody, it’s for me and the people around me and abantu abadala bami (my elders).

Do you set out trying to affect people in considered ways?
I don’t like telling people what to do or how to feel and yet, as a sangoma, I should be telling people what to do. I can only help to give direction, and thereafter it is left up to them. It’s not a thing where I go out to say: “This is how you must feel because you saw this.”

I try to keep it as organic as possible, but I also try to make it as jarring as possible, because for me the training was a jarring experience.

Before that experience, at my house there were little things that would be done in relation to the ancestral world. Bekushiswa impepho, kwenziwe umqombothi (we would burn imphepho and make umqombothi as offerings) but there weren’t a lot of things.

So it was a shock when I had to eventually do what I am doing. I have a grandmother who is an Anglican who goes to church every Sunday and is part of the Mothers’ Union.

My mother used to go to church but she doesn’t any more. My dad was a staunch Christian but [my parents] are not like that any more because, when you have a child who is a sangoma, you either adapt or you just don’t take part in my life.

They listen very attentively to me. To an extent they always have been attentive because I was a child who could see things.

Do you find your peers to be open to consulting you as a sangoma and how has the way consultation happens changed over the years?
It adapts. For example, some sangomas use tarot cards, some use gems and stones. They always have in different ways. A lot of my friends come but a lot of people are scared to.

What is the fear about?
It may be about me knowing too much.

You recently did a performance for The Quiet Violence Of Dreams commemoration at Stevenson Cape Town. How did you go about conceptualising your performance to speak to the themes that the book deals with?
I have read the book before and I know of people who knew him before he passed away. It was just isolating the idea of being bewitched and the mind being a fragile thing, the mind’s awareness of itself.

So the performance was actually done in secret where I confined myself in the gallery for 24 hours. I didn’t speak to anyone or do anything. There was no technology, nothing.

It was just silence and a blanket. It was about being stuck with one’s thoughts, testing the boundaries of one’s mental state.

Because of the ephemeral nature of the performance, how does it live with you having gone through it?
People can ask questions about it but depression or being in a mental institution is your story, it stays with you. It is not something others can see. It is a singular experience. For me, a performance piece needs to have some integrity, especially when you have a set subject matter.

How did it affect you?
I am really tired and really sore and have been feeling like a zombie for the past day. It has been a very tiring experience.

How does your involvement in iQhiya speak to the current climate you are creating work in?
We do have discussions about what it means to be black and female in South Africa right now. Obviously there is a feminine energy that is rising and we’re tapping into that, and that needs to happen because for far too long there has been a white male energy. It was bound to happen.

Kwanele Sosibo

Kwanele Sosibo

Kwanele Sosibo studied journalism at Durban's ML Sultan Technikon before working at Independent Newspapers from 2000 to 2003. In 2005, he joined the Mail & Guardian's internship programme and later worked as a reporter at the paper between 2006 and 2008, before working as a researcher. He was the inaugural Eugene Saldanha Fellow in 2011. Read more from Kwanele Sosibo

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