‘Native of Nowhere’ by Mbali Khoza

The dictionary defines “native” as “a person born in a specified place or associated with a place by birth, whether subsequently resident there or not”.  

For many people of colour — whether Aboriginal or San — being of the place you’re born into has meant little by way of rights or humanity. Native people have been displaced without any recourse or justice and the expectation has been that they should be able to move on and accept that history has dealt them a bad hand.

With nowhere to call home, and no title deeds to show that they own the land, native people have been uprooted from their places of birth and forced into being nomads. Displacement, alienation and abandonment have been the central theme for native people, whether they were being shipped from Senegal to the shores of America or being moved from Sophiatown and District Six to matchboxes in Soweto or Grassy Park, being “a native” has yielded nothing but strife and trauma for people of colour. A new exhibition attempts to unpack and decipher the notion of the constant motion. 

Artist and Rhodes University lecturer Mbali Khoza shares her findings on the issue of land through an art exhibition titled Native of Nowhere. It is displayed on blue walls in the narrow building CHURCH, an art space in Cape Town’s city centre. Khoza explains that the migration of black bodies is no longer profitable for Western colonialists and the re-criminalisation of transatlantic travel in an effort to deny migrants asylum or European citizenship has exposed the West’s long-standing ideas about black people, who were strategically used by many EU countries to endorse anti-migrant movements such as Brexit.

Through a series of interventions, Khoza explores how black people across time and space have mused over, navigated and negotiated mobility, detailing the importance of land and the significance of what it means to black people in terms of social, economic, spiritual and political affairs.

Khoza tells the history of blackness, black existence and black expressive culture through the series. “This art exhibition is a visual extension of the PhD research I have been doing for the past five years about being black and the historic image of black people. My findings are derived from critical research and an analysis of post-colonialism,” she says.

She adds that, with this artistic display, she hopes to spark a thought process of blackness in a certain context of how black people have to constantly move around and find a space that is not their native land because of political, social or economic movement.

Khoza is enrolled at Wits University as a history of art PhD student. Her research examines the history of blackness, black existence and black expressive culture. 

She tells of how, after travelling to Dakar, Senegal, she witnessed refugees finding new identities and new ways of communicating with each other after being forced to leave their native land. More than 14 000 survivors have found refugee camps near the Senegal River, which separates two countries just kilometres away from their homes.

“The constant movement from land to land among black people has forced them to find a way to think about their identities which results in loss of language and culture. This is all from a notion of exile,” says Khoza

In terms of how land resonates with being spiritual, Khoza explains that land is seen as a holding for ancestors, a space where religious activities honour the living, dead and unborn. 

“Africans’ relationship with land is viewed from this holistic point of view. In order to be rooted in the case of South African natives would mean being in possession of one’s land and to be settled in this land,” says Khoza.

Native of Nowhere officially launched on 9 July in the unconventional black-owned art space of diminutive proportions – CHURCH – in a heritage building. Made visible by its gold paint on the outside, the art node forms part of the vibrant Church Street inner-city precinct. It is a project space focused on experimentation, innovation and exploration in the arts. 

It is known as a space where artists take risks, test boundaries, formulate new ideas and elicit conversations that might not necessarily be accommodated in more conventional art spaces. And this has helped Khoza in displaying her Native of Nowhere exhibition by activating thought processes which date back to where people come from and how they’ve had to constantly set up on new land. 

 Khoza says the blue-painted walls inside CHURCH have inspired how she places her pieces. She often revisits and revises her work. She says that the exhibition will have a second part to it, which she will add based on her findings of her research.

“My plan is still to travel to Europe and complete the second part of my research, which explores how people fit into spaces and behave in certain instances.”

“It is a liberal experience for me to have to move between spaces, and read the room, and see how one has to behave. How to not take up space and how to take up space.Often one finds it difficult to fit in. This art space allows people to feel a sense of pride and comfort to those who enter the space,” explains Khoza.

  • Native of Nowhere, an intervention by Mbali Khoza, runs at CHURCH, 58 Church Street, Cape Town, until 31 August

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