Birds of a revolutionary feather

Eleven artists in white stood atop crates of glass bottles, barefoot and silent, gazing ahead as an audience in Athens watched in silence, a performance piece that was distinctly demanding, calling for physical, mental and emotional endurance from the artists. Titled The Portrait, it isby the Cape Town iQhiya collective and is at Documenta, one of the longest-running and prominent exhibitions of contemporary art in the world.

Documenta takes place every five years in Kassel, Germany, and this year was, for the first time, split with a second city, Athens, Greece, in a public exhibition entitled Learning from Athens.

In Kassel, iQhiya contributed to the Parliament of Bodies: How Does It Feel to Be Part of the Problem “performative gathering”, with a presentation entitled Fresh Off the Boat.

Characterised as an “antifascist, transfeminist and antiracist coalition”, Parliament of Bodies is a series of engagements created in response to the rise of fascist movements that have metastasised across Europe.

iQhiya was established as a network for black female artists in Cape Town to offer each other support while gaining visibility in the art world. It was founded by Asemahle Ntlonti, Bronwyn Katz, Buhlebezwe Siwani, Bonolo Kavula, Charity Matlhogonolo Kelapile, Lungiswa Gqunta, Pinky Mayeng, Sethembile Msezane, Sisipho Ngodwana, Thandiwe Msebenzi and Thuli Gamedze.

Curator Paul B Preciado describes Parliament of Bodies as a “public space of visibility and enunciation” for the people dominant racist discourses have deemed a “problem”, and that “establishes no hierarchies between radically different knowledge, languages, and practices, between activism and performance, between theory and poetry, between art and politics”.

Presented by iQhiya members Ngodwana and Gamedze, and live-streamed on the Documenta 14 website, their presentation aimed to “acknowledge the sticking power of a Eurocentric knowledge system — particularly Greek — which continues its violent erasure of local, radical knowledge production, that is key in restoring citizenship to what remains a south of colonised subjects”.

As individuals, iQhiya members remain forces in their own realms.

Katz contributed sculpture to Le Jour Qui Vent, a group exhibition at Galeries des Galeries in Paris curated by Marie-Ann Yemsi, a prominent independent curator of African art. Stylised as an “encounter with a brand-new generation of artists from the African continent and its diasporas”, the show also includes artists ruby onyinyechi amanze, Turiya Magadlela and Mohau Modisakeng.

Katz’s sculptural practice combines ready-made and installation art, developing on the formal and thematic considerations initiated in her solo show Groenpunt (2016). Her work uses the evocative power of old mattresses to comment on themes as varied as land and memory.

Artist and spiritual healer Siwani also recently showed in Paris at the Louis Vuitton Foundation, contributing a 3-D rendered soap sculpture of herself, as part of an installation piece in the Art/Africa, le nouvel atelier exhibition. Siwani’s works explore African spirituality and womanhood.

The multipart exhibition included young artists such as Siwani, Jody Brand and Bogosi Sekhukhuni alongside established artists William Kentridge, Sue Williamson and David Koloane, which suggests that international interest in the South African art world extends further than past and present, into the future.

Locally, Ntlonti opened her first solo exhibition consisting of sculpture, installation and sound, entitled Kukho Isililo Somntu II. The exhibition runs from April 28 to June 3 at blank projects in Cape Town. Described in the gallery text penned by Gamedze as an exploration “of the history of violence, and histories of love”, Ntlonti’s exhibition uses the colourful plastic plates emblematic of funerals in black, working-class communities as a centrepiece, resulting in a meditation on death and racial violence that is idiosyncratically vibrant.

Msebenzi contributed her work to Displacement, a group show held at 99 Loop Gallery, Cape Town, alongside artists Sitaara Stodel and Nobukho Nqaba. All three are young black women who use photography “to look at the displacement of the female presence in a patriarchal system”.

The rise of iQhiya is indicative of the greater attention being paid to marginalised voices in an art world that has been predominantly white and male. This attention is being given as a response to the powerful work they are making, but is also owed to their collective efforts in insisting on their presence and visibility.

The level of discourse that takes place in iQhiya’s work and in their exhibitions promises a future in which the high quality of formal and critical engagement in the practices of black women artists, which has been downplayed in the past, will be represented with the complexity that it deserves. This is not a trend; it is a movement.

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