/ 10 February 2024

Izonzobila: A tear in the world

The artist Asemahle Ntlonti. (Jonathan Kope)

In the opening section of black Canadian author Dionne Brand’s A Map to the Door of No Return (2002), titled A Circumstantial Account of a State of Things, she mentions a shared sense of disappointment between her grandfather and herself. 

It is regarding their precise origins in Africa, that is, the people they are descended from, and her insatiable desire for a name that would guarantee her a place in the Old World and suture her historical wound born of a violent ontological, natal and metaphysical displacement. 

For Brand, this radical deracination marks “a rupture in history, a rapture in the quality of being”, which signifies what she terms “the end of traceable beginnings”. 

I begin with Brand because I could conceive no better place to depart from when reflecting on Cape Town-born artist Asemahle Ntlonti’s current body of work. 

More so, I find interesting her preoccupation with the tension between the Old and New World — the politics, that is, the stakes of this involuntary movement from one World to the other. 

Crucially, for Brand, the “Old World” is gone. It will not return and be part of our problem, our modern dilemma, is that due to the asymmetrical (non-)relation between these two epistemological and metaphysical standpoints (the Old and the New) — a return to the Old World is unfeasible (in spite of our sentimental and psychic investment in it). 

In Ntlonti, we encounter an artist wrestling with this problem — denying an easy, uncritical and reductive romanticisation of the Old World while confronted with her misplacement in the New World. 

Her quest to restore or repair fractured paternal relations, she recalls, introduced a profound sense of betrayal that is as sobering as it is debilitating in its rude awakening to the pitfalls and (im)possibilities of the black intramural (as an emotional and psychic space of collective nourishment). 

We might think of this, by way of Brand, as engendering “a tear in the world”, a certain ontological displacement that marks one’s always already compromised, if not precarious, position in all those worlds. 

In the work on Izonzobila at Blank Projects in Cape Town, Ntlonti extends her interest into this “tear”, this fracture and fissure. It is manifest in the surfaces of the canvases as cracks and splits that open up the skin of the paintings while deferring any conclusive readings. 

Her description of her method as “ukugromba” invites us to think of her practice as archaeological investigation. Ukugromba, or “ukugrumba”, loosely translates as “to dig” but also “to exhume”, “to excavate”. 

Ntlonti’s method involves hand-peeling the top paint layer or scab, targeting blobs and softer spots, with a sharp nail-like object or using her fingers to drag or lacerate the skin of the work, revealing a dry, brown patch of protruding cardboard. 

She sprays water on the cardboard, turning it dark brown, and scratches into it, “ukuyigr[o/u]mba”, while it is still wet. 

Asemahle (1)
An untitled work which appears at Asemahle Ntlonti’s exhibition at the Blank Projects gallery in Cape Town until 8 March.

It reveals a layer of paint from her trusted palette of “shy colours”, as she calls them: purples, earthy browns, pinks, dull whites and patches of subdued turquoise. 

Ntlonti admits the colour of the cardboard — brown — evokes land(scape) and soil, hence she mobilises “ukugr[u/o]mba” as a metaphor for her abstractions. 

However, the unavoidable associations with the skin, or more fittingly the flesh, and its relation to the aesthetic (as David Lloyd puts it in Under Representation: The Racial Regime of Aesthetics (2018), that the aesthetic domain is always, that is, constitutively racial), is chilling. 

If the archaeological gesture, in its chthonic pretences, seeks to discover what the layers of the earth hide, that is to unearth them, what does digging into the skin do (or seek to reveal)? 

(Thinking about flesh and land reminds me we are yet to take seriously the scene from Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese’s film This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection (2019), where Mantoa, played by the late Mary Twala, buries her head in a pile of soil when overcome with grief.)

What is at stake here is a fixation on a lost object, whose status evades us, that we may call trauma. 

“Memory is very important to me,” Ntlonti once told me. 

According to psychoanalyst Bruce Fink, “Trauma implies fixation or blockage.” For Fink, “fixation always involves something which is not symbolised”, that is, something we cannot bring under the weight of language and represent symbolically. 

This elusive something not only escapes us, but it is necessary that we repress it, and as Bloke Modisane puts it in Blame Me On History (1963), that it is “pushed down and banked”, until “one violent eruption … release[s] the cauldron” of repressed woundedness. 

So this “banking” of the repressed psychic material is the Lacanian “Real”, not to be confused with (social) reality, since the latter can be thought and spoken about through language, while the former, if we follow Fink, “does not exist, since it precedes language” (emphasis in original) and one’s formation as a subject stricto sensu (in the strict sense), and is “best understood as that which has not yet been symbolised, remains to be symbolised, or even resists symbolisation”. 

In conclusion, black artists’ “discrepant” turn towards abstraction in light of (or afterlives of) racial slavery and colonial conquest makes the most sense. Critic and art historian Kobena Mercer, in his Discrepant Abstraction (2006), observes the “various ways in which abstract art conversely addresses historical experiences of colonial trauma, such as genocide, that are strictly speaking ‘unrepresentable’ when they overwhelm their witnesses and survivors”. 

We could turn to what the artist calls “isingqala”, a state of being that defies easy translation. This condition can be thought of as a deep sense of sorrow or the near-permanence of grief that grips and overwhelms the body and psyche. 

It is the vibrational and sonic properties of isingqala that could account for the tear in the land(scape), and the flesh, what Brand, in the text above, calls a “rupture of geography”, that has become a signature in Ntlonti’s visual vocabulary. Isingqala signifies the afterlife of the catastrophe, its ongoing-ness and persistence, whose effects reverberate through our present.

Izonzobila is on show at Blank Projects  in Cape Town until 28 March.