/ 21 November 2023

Reimagining our sense of being

Self Portrait In The Sand 2 Min
Bongi Bengu’s Self-Portrait in the Sand. Photo: Elose Dry

Just a stone’s throw away from the Union Buildings, in the heart of South Africa’s capital city, you will find the Pretoria Art Museum

It is hosting an exhibition by artist Bongi Bengu.

The exhibition — aptly titled Umhlaba, which can be translated as the world, the globe, the soil, the land — speaks to the multiple ways in which we can, and must, attend to our understanding of life. 

It focuses on Bengu’s multi-media work from 1998 to today.

Bengu was born in KwaZulu-Natal but she grew up in exile in various parts of the world, including in Switzerland and eSwatini. 

She got a bachelor of arts degree from Mount Vernon College in Washington in the US, and a master’s degree in fine art from the University of Cape Town. 

Bengu has participated in numerous international residencies and workshops and has received awards and scholarships from prestigious institutions. Her work has been exhibited in South Africa, as well as at various shows and galleries around the world, such as the Harlem Arts Festival in Chicago and Boston, in the US; Germany; Switzerland and the United Kingdom, to name a few. 

Feminine power and energy is visible and central in many of the portraits on the exhibition. Bongi inserts herself through self-portraits and by doing so offers a visual self-storying and reflection on her life. 

She brings in the theme of womanhood most vividly through portraits titled The Lady, Sister and Mother

Another central theme is the importance of the life force. Bengu draws from nature in her use of materials such as feathers, leaves and clay.

One can read her work as a depiction of a decaying world and as a call to re-centre and rebuild the moral fibre of our being in the world. 

Looking at her work, we are confronted with how the umbilical cord that should connect us to our society has been severed. As a result, we are left with a capitalist system that thrives by devouring the marginalised and vulnerable. 

This is what scholars such as Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni call the invisible vampirism technology of colonial power, which sucks all of us dry, constantly, until we have nothing to give; a technology that lives in our languages, dreams and imaginations. 

Bengu’s work is a powerful artistic portrayal of this colonial capture of people’s lives. 

The work highlights the importance of going back to the source to rebuild ourselves. As you walk through the exhibition, you are exposed to the powerful depiction of the inter-connectedness of all living beings and their roots in the natural environment. This is how life began.

The decision to name the collection Umhlaba was not taken lightly as it resonates with how removed we have become from the land and how this has affected our well-being as a people. 

Within African cosmology, spirituality is intertwined with the land. People use the land to worship, make sacrifices and give thanks. 

In her discussion on the issue of land and spirituality, author and healer Mmatshilo Motsei argues that people are inseparable from each other and from the land. The way human beings relate to their physical environment matters. 

The environmental calamities confronting the world are not happening in isolation but are linked to people being disconnected from nature. 

We need to revive our indigenous knowledge systems as they carry possibilities for how we might respond to environmental challenges. 

Bengu as part of her self-storying brings her Zulu culture into the work as a way to call, confront and centre the importance of ritual and ceremony in our engagement with each other and the world. 

We have, over time, taken from the earth and there is a need to start focusing on replenishing it as doing so will assist us in replenishing ourselves as human beings. The healing of the physical environment is intricately linked to healing ourselves.

How do we learn about umhlaba? In a capitalist system that puts profit over wellness, understanding umhlaba as wholeness is a challenge. Existing in an individualist system where human connectedness is not at the centre means fertile ground for moral decay is nurtured daily. 

Bengu’s work asks for a renewal, for reflection, for reimagining life and our place in the world. This requires us to recentre ubuntu, starting with educating young children. 

As Motsei suggests in her book Reweaving the Soul of the Nation, the education process begins at the time of conception. The woman who carries a child in her womb is the first teacher and the kind of life she leads will be a major determinant of her child’s journey. 

By zooming in on feminine power in her work, Bengu reminds us of the critical role that women play in the shaping and socialisation of the current and future generations. 

The work calls for us to look back in order to look forward and imagine a future where we live in harmony with each other and with nature. 

Umhlaba is on at the Pretoria Art Museum until 17 December.