There are moments of extreme discomfort that come with watching performance artist Lerato Shadi’s Sugar and Salt. In the six-minute video, Shadi and her mother lick sugar and salt off each other’s tongues.
As they go over the process repeatedly, with her mother struggling with the salt and Shadi having a relatively easier time ingesting the sugar, her commentary becomes clearer and discomfort soon gives way to quiet exhilaration.
Sugar and Salt may as well be Shadi’s biographical statement, emphasising, as it does, the importance of intergenerational dialogue and the pursuance of one’s lineage and sense of place in the world. To paraphrase a recorded conversation between Shadi and an interviewer, it is a “literal licking of one’s mother tongue”, in some ways a microcosmic expression of the grander themes in Shadi’s work.
Somewhat of a reluctant interviewee, Shadi has, through her practice, carved a self-contained, reflective language that comes to a forceful head on Di Dikadika Tsa Dinaledi, which is curated by Joan Legalamitlwa. In broad thematic strokes, Shadi seems to be calculating the cost of the continuing African Holocaust – the deathly silence and the near emptiness of its record. This is, perhaps more than anything else, what Shadi is forcing us to consider.
The exhibition, showing at GoetheonMain until October 2, combines four works: two installations, a performance relic and a video the artist has been working on over the years.
Mosako wa Nako, the performance relic represented here as a 12m-long crocheted scroll, with the remaining ball of wool planted on a white plinth, dominates the main entrance hall and the length of the gallery.
Matsogo, whose video displayed Shadi’s hands crumbling a piece of cake and then reforming the remnants into a similar triangular shape, is displayed here as a wallpaper installation.
There is Seriti Se, the travelling wall of erasure in which Shadi writes the names of black women whose contributions in various fields have been written out of history. She then invites audiences to erase the names by returning the print script to whiteness.
On a wall to the left of the entrance is the disturbing seven-minute video Motlhaba Wa Re Ke Namile, in which Shadi re-enacts the suicidal act of eating soil as a form of slave resistance.
In the segments below, Shadi speaks about some of the connective threads in her work.
Mosako Wa Nako
In her exhibition notes, Shadi speaks of Mosako wa Nako as a red river. It is the product of 60 hours of labour, which she carried out publicly over 10 days at the National Arts Festival earlier this year.
In some of her other publicly performed pieces (like Makhubu, where in small, barely legible script, she writes elements of her biography in concentric circles only to partially erase them again), Shadi has expressed the imperative of being observed while working.
The end result, with the ball of wool waiting expectantly for the next pair of available hands, suggests a perpetual fate of slavery or the opportunity for a turning point.
“In creating the work, there is a sense of looking at the past, the present and the future,” says Shadi. “There are a plethora of quotes that talk about [the idea that]: if you don’t have a history, you don’t have a future. I always wonder about the present. I always take it from a personal perspective.”
In this sense, Mosako Wa Nako is a futuristic work, a call for the brave to carve their own tomorrows while acknowledging the stasis of today.
I want to tell Shadi about a semantic discussion at work, about whether or not Krotoa should be called a slave, but I don’t. I tell her instead that the work reminds me of a lyric in Natural Mystic: “Many more will have to suffer, many more will have to die.”
The wallpaper exhibition of Matsogo presents us with a metaphoric Africa, frozen in time. Although it does not go as far as suggesting Shadi to be an Afro-pessimist, it suggests her to be a skeptic of narratives that suggest an Africa on the rise within a Eurocentric framework.
“South Africa is still very colonial,” she says. “How can we transcend it when the structures are still here, you can’t exactly be ‘post’ them.”
Matsogo, whose video displays the references to the economic exploitation of Africa, rendered by placing the cake in the financial section of the newspaper, were clearly legible.
The blurriness of the posters, replicas of the wall paper that are offered to the exhibition’s visitors, suggest the haze of mass production, with the giveaway commenting on “the economy of waste.”
“I was looking at how, in 1886, the cutting up of Africa, the whole colonial structure, the control of the economics and the resources being taken away and you are given back something that is completely useless. It has a form that resembles the first one but it’s not even really the same.”
In a 2014 talk in Berlin, where Shadi is completing her Masters in Fine Art, she tells her audience that the Germans like to take pride in how they do not have a colonial history.
I heard somewhere that the Japanese do not like to visit Namibia on their globe-trotting holidays. Something about its vast open spaces spooks them.
At a recent visit to Shadi’s exhibition, only the names of Wilma Rudolph, Phillis Wheatley, Poomoney Moodley, Zora Neale Hurston, Phyllis Ntantala and Yennenga remained out of 80 names Shadi inscribed on to the walls of the gallery.
She says people who are curious as to what lurks beneath the whiteness can only connect the dots by looking at a PDF file of previous iterations of the festival as performed in other places.
“The research is ongoing, I’m always collecting names, and here, I was trying to look at South African women that we do not know about, but also making it wider. I mainly concentrate within the African continent and I also have a lot of names from African-American women, Indian women, Aborigine women, transgender women. I was also thinking about marginalised women of colour.”
Motlhaba Wa Re Ke Namile
Interestingly, the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine records the act of eating soil as “geophagia”, which it regards as either “a psychiatric disease, a culturally sanctioned practice or a sequel to poverty and famine”.
For references of masks used to prevent slaves from suicidal mastication, one has to dig a bit deeper. In this sense, Shadi is again writing removed practices back into existence.
In the exhibition notes, it states that the seven-minute video was shot on location in Shadi’s home village of Lotlhakane in Mahikeng, which means the soil she is gagging on, convulsing until mucous streams from her nostrils, is home soil.
With only her chest and the bottom half of her face visible, Shadi, remains, in essence, a ghostly figure: of her ancestral land but, in many senses, deprived of it.
Like much of her work, Shadi makes deeply resonant personal statements about her sense of belonging while tapping into the political milieu of her home province, where vast slabs of platinum are extracted every day by the deliberately erased and voiceless.