At 26, Rochelle ‘Rharha’ Nembhard has a face that has already graced multiple publications including Vogue magazine’s Style.com, Dazed & Confused, i-D and Vice, among other local publications.
Her constructed image, the sum of the work she does with musician Petite Noir and renowned artist Lina Viktor, has defined Noirwave, a freethinking movement Nembhard cofounded with Petite Noir. It was born out of people trying to define Petite Noir’s new sound, which mixes a diversity of influences.
It is difficult to describe narrowly because it is offers a transcendent narrative about Africa. This month, Nembhard, who is reading for her master’s in museums, galleries and contemporary culture at the University of Westminster in connection with the Tate Modern museum in London, had a public conversation with Friday’s editor Milisuthando Bongela and Lina Viktor. This is an excerpt from the conversation.
I was born in the United Kingdom to British Jamaican parents. When I was five, my mother had a vision that we needed to be in Africa.
After much persuasion, my mother convinced my father to quit his well-paying job, give away everything they owned and move to Africa to be of service. The year was 1994 and Mandela had just been freed. My dad, who was a preacher, not a pastor, was asked to conduct a week of prayer at Orlando West church.
Growing up in South Africa I experienced all sides of life. Extreme highs and lows. My parents gave the first four years of their time here in South Africa to God as missionaries.
This meant I lived in townships from Soweto to Kagiso. My eyes were open to the harsh day-to-day realities that people faced. After those eye-opening four years, my parents began their business from scratch and became successful in their respective fields. I lived a life in the suburbs, went to private schools and took three to four vacations a year, but throughout my childhood my parents always reminded me that the material was fleeting. Here today, gone tomorrow.
Our lives were not our own and, as much as we were blessed, we had a right to pass those blessings forward on to others. All of these aspects have influenced the person/artist I am being moulded into. I am led by divine order. I believe my role as a creative is to be of service and realise this gift is not my own. Expression before ego and realising that I am simply just a vessel that outpours that which I am being filled with.
I lived and studied in Thailand for five years. I wanted to go to a place where I didn’t know the language and the culture — a place I couldn’t camouflage myself into society. I moved there less for study and more for experience. I rewired my colonial, Western brain and opened up senses I never knew I had. I travelled Asia extensively and it changed my whole outlook on life. Travel has taught me that there are multiple ways to live but, more importantly, it has taught me that I know nothing. I am a student first.
I am a woman first. An artist second and a black woman artist last—that’s where the “defining” ends. My skin tells you I am a black woman. It’s self-explanatory.
Unfortunately, today there is this constant need to “perform our blackness”. Our blackness comes before even being a person, and to some extent it is tiring. I am a person first. I create second and what I choose to create, which is in fact work that deals with the continent and “black issues”, is a choice.
A friend of mine from Los Angeles came to visit me in Bangkok and she showed me Lina Viktor’s Instagram. I was blown away by her artistry. I felt I knew her and it was only a matter of time before we would be involved each others’ lives. There was a deep sense of knowing. Her work resonated with me at every level.
At the time, I had designed a limited batch of “Drone society” rings. The rings’ message was “Many are called, few are chosen’’. I sent Lina a DM on Instagram offering her a ring as I believed she was “chosen”. She sent me a message and kindly accepted the gift. This was the beginning of a long chain of emails over many months where we talked about everything from purpose, to cosmology and spirituality.
A few months later, I was working on Petite Noir’s (Yannick Ilunga) debut album La Vie Est Belle. The only person I envisioned doing the album cover was Lina. The next thing, we were in London, and the rest is history.
I always remember I am being divinely led and in each moment I am exactly where I need to be.
We live in a spiritual world. Our essence is spirit. The material comes second. It is important for me to nurture and hone my spiritual core daily. If my spiritual core is not right, it is not only hard for me to create art of substance, it is hard for me to create anything at all. Spirit first — form second.
A diamond does not need to prove itself, it just shines.
We are visual creatures. We move towards what we envision and see, whether that is physical or mental. It is our role as artists to make images that the audience will internalise and move towards. All too often, black artists find themselves regurgitating what was and even what is. Yes, an artist’s job is to reflect the times. Yes, the past is important. Yes, knowing where we come from informs where we are going.
My problem is we are only focusing on the past 600 years of our struggle. There was a time before that when we were the centre of trade and commerce. We ruled empires and dynasties and brought education to the world. The more we perpetuate our struggle, the more it is going to manifest in the physical realm. I am much more interested in artists who create worlds and defy what is through their art. All of the greats did this. They broke boundaries of what was and created what is today.
Words have power. We need to learn to speak life, to speak a new reality into existence. By only focusing on what was and what is, we create mental shackles for ourselves. I use my art to create images that reflect the future I wish to move towards. I use my art to help people transcend the reality they are facing. Not only do I paint a new picture, but I live as though that picture is real, because it is.
The subconscious brain cannot tell the difference between reality and a dream, so the more we create this so-called “dream world” through words, music, art, architecture and literature the more the subconscious mind will think it is real. I really believe we have to start being more strategic. Our methods have failed us. We need to rise above and realise this war started with the simple power of thought and we can use that simple power to change it.
Love is the base. It is the foundation from which the art stems. It is first an inpouring and then an outpouring. You cannot give what you do not have. It starts with a deep self-love and acceptance of all I am and all I am becoming simultaneously. Once I have filled up I am able to give. I speak to my spiritual self everyday through prayer and meditation.
Passion is emotion. Emotions are fleeting. Purpose is calling. There is no choice in the matter unless you make a cognitive choice to shut up your conscience. Your calling woos you everyday. It communicates to you through signs. It is your compass. It is the small voice that you simply cannot ignore. It is the reason you have been put here on Earth, distinct only to you. Social conditioning programmes us to systemically learn how to silence that voice. I do not quieten that voice. My purpose is my life’s calling and I would rather die than not follow it.
Purpose is not something you find, it’s something you are. It’s not something you look for. It’s something that comes to find you. I have realised that to live on purpose is to live in supreme peace. It is the only way to be truly successful. The work I produce is purpose-led and comes from my DNA. My prayer every day is to live in purpose and alignment with my calling — “shut every door not meant for me and open wide the ones that are’’