​What does it matter if a man is in the room?

There is an associative magic that should accompany brilliant curation. Perhaps even beyond theoretical soundness. I suspect that the interplay between Tabita Rezaire’s Sorry for Real video and Dineo Bopape’s A Silent Performance (both of which form part of Being Her(e): Meditations on African Femininities) may be a function of geography as well as the calculating smarts of curators Refilwe Nkomo and Thato Mogotsi.

Presented by the !Kauru African Contemporary Art project, Being Her(e), a group show of 13 artists spread across two showrooms (a section of the Women’s Jail at Constitution Hill and the Old Fort rampart), is a sparse collection of works. It ranges from suspended fabric tapestries to photographs and videos.

In the dank, dark Old Fort rampart, the works take on a more severe tone that mirrors the space. Rezaire’s Sorry for Real performs double duty, being a standalone work and a narrative companion to Bopape’s slide show.

Rezaire’s work is a holographic projection which, in her own words from a 2015 Mail & Guardian interview, “questions the role the apology might have as a Western tool of control and oppression”.

It is a typically layered look at the hierarchies that keep this system turning. It includes a dull monotone apology from the “Western World”, like an automated voice prompt, the caller identifiable through the caller profile of a digitally represented cellphone.

“Western World” also apologises for perpetuating gender binaries and the myth of racial superiority. The soulless drone of the computerised voice spilling over into the adjacent slide projection that is Bopape’s work melds these pieces into an audiovisual mashup. The mechanical clicking and whirring of the slide machine punctuating the metrics of  Western World’s apology.

Bopape, captured in various states of undress, sometimes with a strapped-on beard and bulging member or with the baggage of history appended to her posterior, jests at and toys with “Western World.”

In another cell, Egyptian artist Ghada Amer’s Silver Girl presents us with a straightforward polemic embroidered on to an acrylic painting: “I want a zero tolerance policy on all the patriarchal bullshit.” It depicts a woman posing luxuriously as one would for a sunny travel advert.

The figure is nude and the fauna barely obscures the salient parts of her body, calling into question the language employed about women’s sexuality, in particular references to virginity. There is a particular, almost silent violence called up by seeing the knots and the stitching frontally, perhaps speaking to how masculinity can simultaneously revile and revere the female form.

Nandipha Mntambo’s trilogy of images, titled Everyone Carries a Shadow (I, III, IV), continue the thread started by Rezaire. It depicts a duelling couple with grace and poise not unlike that of Mntambo’s body language in previous works, such as Ukungenisa. Mntambo duels with an androgynous figure in ambiguous poses somewhere between lovers in embrace and the fighting arts.

The raw elegance of the images, though, and the title suggest less the dangers inherent in male/female encounters in this country (where three women die at the hands of a partner every day), but more a woman coming into her own, perhaps her own sexuality.

At a complementary symposium held at the Women’s Jail on Saturday May 20, a participant stated that, where black women are gathered to participate in a form of communal healing — a healing represented by the symposium, for example — it does not matter whether a man or a so-called white person is in the room. One monkey, or a troop of them, won’t stop the show.

Similarly, Phoebe Boswell’s trio of videos about her visits to a seer in Zanzibar, where she first learns about “the lizard of unmarriedness”, seem less a function of hectoring to “Mr Western World” and more a reckoning with the self.

In the first video, a black-and-white close-up, in which a disorienting effect echoes her words and seems to multiply her features, Boswell confesses to being a cynic on her first visit to the “witchdoctor”, who, she says, many Zanzibaris believe in as a counter to the “powers of Shetani”, the KiSwahili word for Satan.

There is a jarring moment in which Boswell tells of experiencing an excruciating, shooting pain in her abdomen as soon as the seer repeats her name. She conceals the pain, not wanting to alarm him until he points to the corresponding spot in his own body, explaining that his main practice involves exorcising the lizard “spirit” residing in some women’s bodies. Boswell remains ambivalent throughout the experience, a doubtful visitor even as she carries this new-found pain back home with her to England.

The lack of resolution in her saga is liberating. It is evinced in a 20-minute final video of her return visit to the seer. In the end, one is unsure whether her pain remains or whether the seer cures it. She moralises that we all learn to live with our lizards and they become a part of us, a sentiment represented by a video in which a sideways bare torso flashes with an X-ray image of a lizard.

There is a decided lightness to the material housed in the Women’s Jail, which, according to co- curator Mogotsi, is a function of sparser installation and the frontal portraiture that characterises many of the images. The Salooni Collective, a Ugandan-based collaborative project that looks at the politics of hair, presents a satirical video championing the joys and familial bonding that accompany hairstyling and an assemblage of portraits that re-enact the portrayal of African femininity through the ages.

The twelve portraits, presented as a print of self-contained triptychs depicting four women moving from present to future, end in a sepia-toned Afro-future not too far removed from the past.

As the zeitgeist attests, the conversation on hair is slowly moving forwards, complete with a recognition of natural hair hierarchies and the rise of black-owned natural hair products.

As companion pieces, the video, titled The Surviving Supremacy Black Girl Swirl Tutorial, cheekily exorcises the ghosts of white supremacy and Madam CJ Walker, the African-American hair-straightening mogul of late 19th-century America, while the Salooni Portrait Project print carves a parallel world where Walker may never have entered.

Such is the powerful agency on display with Being Her(e), and this review is merely the tip of the iceberg. Considering the temperature of the land, the exhibition is a force that quietly mutes the omnipresent noise of maledom.

The exhibition runs until June 9.

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Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo is the editor of Friday, the arts and culture section of the Mail and Guardian.

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