/ 4 April 2023

‘Lilahloane’: Death rites live beyond the grave

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Fig 3: Detail Still of Lilahloane by Imameleng Masitha. Courtesy o AVA Gallery Fig 4: Imameleng Masitha. Courtesy of artist

Death is a shared experience across religions, cultures and families. However, how it is mediated and understood within communities can vary drastically.

My understanding of death and burial rites stems mostly from the passing of my maternal

grandmother when I was 14 years old. What stayed with me was the intimacy with

which the living had with the deceased from death to subsequent burial. My mother

sat in her mother’s bedroom for an entire week before her burial, and stayed with her body the night before my grandmother’s meeting with the earth. When I relayed these happenings to my white classmates, their mouths were ajar with shock.

In the context of Imameleng Masitha’s video installation, Lilahloane, showing at the AVA Gallery in Cape Town, this deeply personal recollection is pertinent as this work serves to confirm the persistence of African cultures surrounding death despite colonial legacies, forced removals, displacement and migration. Lilahloane (which means abundance) refers to one of the multiple names bestowed upon the artist’s mother by a family member, and is intended to impart a legacy to the young that will live beyond the namesake.

The space in which Masitha’s film is shown is preceded by a proverbial stairway to heaven before you arrive at the entrance of the New Media Gallery upstairs at the AVA. In this dark room, you encounter the video installation, which is sparse in sound yet full of imagery, and the room begins to operate as a site of meditation and visual rupture simultaneously. Only captivating you for three minutes, and leaving you wanting more, the work not only deals with ephemerality — death and migration — but is itself an ephemeral experience.

The body in relation to the earth is an important theme. Cape Town-based dancer, choreographer and theatre-maker Siphenathi Mayekiso is depicted inside a room interacting with a mound of soil. These visuals are juxtaposed with aerial views of a funeral procession before we return to Mayekiso.  

Drawing attention to the soil speaks to a larger narrative — its role in embedding and tethering oneself to home, cultural identity and ancestry, says Masitha.  

“Home is not necessarily a structure, but home can be where your placenta fell from your mother and was buried … when I die, people might not know that my placenta is in Lesotho and my body must be moved there,” she adds. 

A longing for home in the midst of moving and migration is integral in engaging the earth as a site of homing for displaced people.

The use of sound and silence is a powerful feature of the film. At first, you are met with a reverberating and repetitive deep voice singing the words, “Kgale ke tsamaya” which translates to “I have been walking for a long time”. This Sesotho hymn written by actor Yongisipho Mthimkhulu mirrors what in the Basotho culture is called “mangae” — initiation school hymns. 

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Masitha describes their purpose as “a new beginning or reciting of a past or present”. The sound is hypnotic to the ear, pulling you in just before a deafening silence kicks in mid-lyric. The fading remanence of the hymn in your mind becomes the new soundtrack to the piece, leaving you to fill in the gaps. 

Silence can be jarring, uncomfortable and, at times, steeped in pain. These are all characteristics that fit squarely in the box of death left for the living to make sense of. 

Inga Somdyala’s (As Long As I Am Alive) You Will Be Remembered, which showed at the Whatiftheworld gallery recently,  came to mind.  His work also centres on soil and making sense of death and belonging.  He exhibited the pair of soiled sneakers which he wore when burying his grandmother in the Eastern Cape.  

Masitha’s background is in documentary filmmaking, but it is not too far of a reach that this work sits in a fine art context of the AVA. Perhaps this is the case because the role of performativity within the work finds a home in the realm of other fine arts media through material, practice and subject matter.  

As she is currently also pursuing a master’s degree in digital curation, it is fascinating to see her engage more deeply with how images — film shots in this context — are collated, manipulated, embellished, distressed and then presented. This work does not offer a clinical observation of death, but rather a unique perspective by an artist that is relevant to a wider collective experience.

However, there is the predicament that the medium she has chosen to convey this story is ephemeral in nature. The role of performance and video art in the larger art ecosystem is growing, yet you get the sense that commercial galleries do not invest in the form as much as others because its intangibility can be difficult to monetise. This is where the role of the AVA becomes indispensable as an art organisation that focuses strongly on providing a space for art — the historicising and development of it — before concerning itself with any bottom line. 

With a SAFTA and Human Rights Award already under her belt for the documentary film

Water is Water (2022), the trajectory of Masitha’s career looks promising. Whether this will take form in video work again, or a future endeavour in curatorial practice, Lilahloane shows an artist determined in tackling themes grounded in a personal reality and shared in a manner that makes it easy for any individual who encounters the art to find a meaningful connection. 

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Fig 3: Detail Still of Lilahloane by Imameleng Masitha. Courtesy o AVA Gallery Fig 4: Imameleng Masitha. Courtesy of artist

Although death is the central theme of the work, you are left with a sense of invigoration that a history, culture and tradition around burial and migration in the African context has been captured and will live beyond the grave.

Imameleng Masitha’s ‘Lilahloane’ shows at the AVA Gallery in Cape Town  in the New Media Gallery until 20 April.

 This text was produced as part of an independent journalism development project by African Arts Content focused on the Church Street art node in Cape Town.