It is the start of the Easter weekend and artist Tabita Rezaire holds a Kemetic yoga session in a nook bordered on either side by her graphic light box and a large-scale video work.
I wait the yoga session out, my ears glued instead to a pair of headphones, near the entrance of the gallery on the other side of the partitioning. I am transfixed by the video pieces that make up a significant part of Rezaire’s first solo exhibition, Exotic Trade, at the Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg.
Exotic Trade is a combination of videos, installation work and digitally produced self-portraits, all varying in scale and density.
In one of the videos, Hoetep Blessings, Rezaire wears faux fur, wigs, onesies and jumpsuits, backgrounded by a cluster of pyramids (perhaps from Giza) and the type of flute music one could associate with this digitally created setting.
In a sultry tone somewhere between an instructional yoga video and a phone-sex operator, she states that the word “hotep”, now black Twitter slang for homophobic, misogynistic black-consciousness types, has been “contaminated”, removed from its Kemetic iteration, which means “to be at peace” or in a state of balance (Ma’at).
“The hand of Selket will poison your tweets,” she threatens seductively. “And for those who keep name-dropping the names of our sacred neterus [gods] in order to perpetuate hatred against our people … Tshh. Tshh.”
The last bit is the onomatopoeic sound of your body being licked by a pair of sidekicks, delivered with the hissing approval of Rezaire’s snake-harbouring cunt. A serpent head flashes from the open slit of her tight-fitting jumpsuit as she delivers her kicks, and another one simultaneously peers out from the side of a pyramid.
That Rezaire’s “hoetep” has an extra “e” is important, for she warns that “with the power of the ‘e’, we celebrate the hoe within us and celebrate the wisdom of our cunts”.
From there, she launches into what are perhaps Kemetic yoga poses while her voice explains the properties of 5-htp, an amino acid known to raise the body’s levels of serotonin. Htp is also the “original” spelling of hotep.
I manage a few more minutes of other videos; a silent version of Sugar Walls Teardom, a graphic video depicting the violent history of gynaecology, accompanying a pink gynae chair. There is also the brilliantly structured Premium Connect, which traces the origins of the binary code to a Yoruba divination system.
I am wondrously overwhelmed by Rezaire’s knack for interpolation of various strands of information and visual snippets into a cohesive, immersive whole.
About an hour after entering the gallery, I watch as the yoga participants stretch their legs, taking in some of the instructor’s work before reconvening to hear Rezaire being interviewed.
Propelled by fomo, I ask a woman how the class went. “It was just so powerful in how it was just so simple and how we moved in poses of, I suppose, ancient gods and that,” she says. She is a strange combination of flushed, sticky and serene.
“It was very healing,” she continues. “The way that she held the space … It was a very powerful, awesome experience.”
Another woman confesses (to Rezaire) to seeing her mother in the session, a vision aided by the soundwaves of the gong. Her mother apparently tells her that her “left side is empty” and that she needs to pull energy from her right side to her left side.
Another speaks of her left ovary pulsating from the sound of the gong.
A few days later, at an interview in a Kensington house she is busy moving out of, Rezaire explains that the purpose of doing yoga with the audience is to “work on energy levels with the people present. It is really different to the intellectual level,” she says, crouched on the carpet of her modest cottage.
“I have a tendency to speak from head because of thinking too much. But when you work through your breath and body, you develop an awareness of your energies and your spiritual bodies. It was just to create an energy field that was more fruitful for discussion.”
In the said discussion, attended by her proud and attention-shy family, Rezaire explained to an audience member that her work is about drawing links between different spiritual practices “and also within my own self and my own life. I have very different influences in different practices. The lotus, for example, reminds you of Hinduism but in Kemetic cosmology it is the symbol of life.”
As a window into Rezaire’s mind, Exotic Trade is initially overwhelming. Her aesthetic of simulated cosmological action, open and stacked YouTube web browsers, lecture- room sound clips and incessant, complementary pop-up fragments can mimic a restless search for information on the internet, a place she admits spending a lot of time in. The videos’ excavational prowess casts them as audiovisual cousins of rapper DOOM’s sound art. In particular, King Geedorah’s One Smart Nigger and the melanin lecture at the tail end of JJ DOOM’s Winter Blues spring to mind.
These are no flippant comparisons. In the Seneb video, whose driving thought is the connection of health to soundness (or [being] sound), the backdrop to the rotating pyramid screen from where Rezaire delivers her missive suddenly changes. It goes from a mélange of outer space and energy field backdrops into an open YouTube browser window revealing a clip titled The Powers of Melanin.
Instead of remaining static as Rezaire continues, more browser windows pop up, claiming their space in the viewer’s consciousness. A dreadlocked man appears to the left of the screen, under the heading Ancestral Voices 1. The screen is now crowded, with overlapping, previous search windows colouring Rezaire’s rotating pyramid.
The right-hand corner of the screen now bears a robed Credo Mutwa being interviewed. He quickly disappears and then reappears, as the window of Dr Joy DeGruy’s Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome is maximised then minimised.
Some static and light beams recall a new set of backdrops, this time revealing a digitally replicated
rainwater collection system for plants.
“Seneb is about taking our health into our own hands,” implores Rezaire. The last segment of the video features Rezaire peddling “Nile water”, first to a backdrop of what seems to be golden conveyor belts, then to a setting of shimmery outer space. Here, Rezaire seems to be taking the piss out of the boom in “holy water”, a sudden dose of humour in a well of earnestness.
From combat to healing
In our interview, Rezaire speaks of her trajectory as moving from a combative tone to one primarily concerned with healing. A lot of that has to do with how the artist ended up on South African shores after finishing a research master’s in fine art at the Central Saint Martins art school in London.
“On my last day in London, I was going out and I met this guy from Mozambique and we started to talk,” she says. “Because I had studied experimental cinema from Mozambique in the Seventies and Eighties, we spoke about it. It helped shape Mozambican identity through film. It was the first images being captured in the country and it was politically led. He said he knew those filmmakers … so I went to Mozambique.”
She landed there in 2013, partly through film project funding crowdsourced by a Kickstarter campaign.
Rezaire doesn’t get into the specifics of the film but her efforts in Mozambique are, in part, preserved in her Vimeo account. They reveal a zealous visitor trying to immerse herself into the fabric of a new society. Her voyeuristic (read: documentary) tendencies self-consciously skirt the edges of human safari art, which she later alludes to.
In the Mozambican clips, one can sense the discomfort of the filmmaker meeting the defiant gaze of waste recyclers or the easy nonchalance of crisp sellers in Maputo’s red-light district.
“Even there [at the landfill] there is a dual gaze,” she says. “Mine was of a European looking at Mozambican oppression but there was something that didn’t feel right. There was no need to give voice to anyone, there was only a need to listen to people who already have voices.”
Rezaire says from that experience she started reworking her images “to create a distance between the image captured and the image shown … I stopped filming, basically, after this”.
Even more significant was the decision to train the camera on herself. “It’s something that I haven’t fully grasped,” she says. “It wasn’t a conscious decision.” She describes this early work — filmed with recyclers, the LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual and intersex) community and even sex workers — like “filming our relationships evolving on film”.
Born to a Guyanese father and a Danish mother in Paris in the late Eighties, Rezaire says using her body in most of her work is something she is still trying to process (especially an archetype regarded as desirable by a racist society). This adds layers of meaning to Inner Fire, in which Rezaire explores archetypes ranging from a gold-digger and a pole dancer to a deity.
Heist of reclamation
Although there is an undercurrent of whimsy in Rezaire’s work, it is, in reality, there just to mask the starkness of the message encoded within her videos. At the heart of it, Rezaire’s work is a complex, interlinked and highly allusive heist of reclamation. Take the ubiquity of serpents in many of the works, a creature whose image recalls witchcraft, poison or physical grotesqueness.
Rezaire, instead, celebrates these creatures for their “duality” and their ability to serve many functions simultaneously.
“Snakes they carry that divine polarity,” she tells the gallery audience. “In a different practice, they represent the spine, that spinal energy, that undulating … like, kundalini rising and that spiritual awakening. If you look at quantum physics, that modulating wave, vibrational frequencies. The way that they move … how they represent transformation. They shed their skin. They rebirth in the same lifetime and just their feel.”
In a corner of the gallery are a trio of bismuth snakes, their tops open to reveal pieces of the versatile element, which the artist says represents travel on a spiritual plane and engenders feelings of community.
If one is navigating this exhibition counterclockwise, this prepares you for the audiovisual assault of gynaecological chair, a combination piece accompanied by the 21-minute video Sugar Walls Teardom. Here, the artist simultaneously celebrates the womb (the “sugar wall”) as a technological superpower, capable of surviving genocidal practices sanctioned by racism and centuries of institutional violence.
Some minutes into the video, Rezaire recounts the story of Dr J Marion Sims, the American pioneer of modern gynaecological practices as the untold tale of unfettered mass murder and ruthless human experiments. Sims, as Rezaire eloquently put it that Thursday evening, accomplished his achievements with his own medical plantation of slaves.
“He butchered, literally, countless slave women in his plantation,” she said. “Many died in the process but he is celebrated. He started a women’s hospital. But how can you care about women if you are torturing black women?”
The video, which in parts likens this killing to a videogame-like bloodbath, surmises that “the colonial, capitalist, patriarchal medical- scientific complex is the reason why our wombs are hurting”.
But just when you think Rezaire’s aim is to bludgeon and pulverise with synthesised images of biological warfare, she changes tack, cueing in Queen Afua, the author of Overcoming an Angry Vagina. “As you overcome and learn the principles of how to heal yourself — naturally, mentally, emotionally, spiritually — what will end up happening is you will be walking on a journey to optimal womb wellness.”
Queen Afua’s prayer is more a prayer to self than to an external deity, an exercise in manifesting things from within.
I surmise, silently, that this is perhaps what underpins all of Rezaire’s relentless output: the constant need to remind us to awaken to what stirs within us, to tap into hidden but omnipresent systems of knowledges.
As I write this, Rezaire is at Ramapo College in New Jersey, giving a talk on Decolonial Trinity: Technology, Health and Spirituality. She will also take part in a workshop before heading to a residency at the Meetfactory in Prague.
With NTU, a group of artists featuring Nolan Oswald Dennis, Hlasko and Bogosi Sekhukhuni, Rezaire will be part of a group show at the Auto Italia in London, where they will exhibit the results of dream-plant experiments with libation tables.
During the course of my interaction with Rezaire, several people made the predictable guess that she must be Egyptian. In fact, she acquired the bulk of her knowledge of Kemetic practices by taking part in a yoga group in Yeoville. I marvelled at this: at what a few steps out of your comfort zone can unleash.
Exotic Trade runs at the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg until May 17