/ 26 April 2024

Listen to the water and land

Portia (1)
Rejuvenation: Artists Molemo Moiloa and Nare Mokgotho (above right) created the sonic exhibition Quiet Ground for the Venice Biennale under the curatorship of Portia Malatje (above left).

Imagine yourself in a room half-lit with natural golden light. The brick walls have the col-our of reddish-brown sand just after rain. The room has gently curved wooden planks that resemble terraced land. As you turn your gaze to the centre, hundreds of strings intertwined with the resurrection bush hang from the ceiling. The sound of raindrops echo in the background while an African woman narrates a story about rain. If rain drops touch the twigs, they come to life.

Except, it’s not real life; it’s the sonic installation created by South African art collective, stylised in caps as MADEYOULOOK, and curated by Portia Malatjie for the 60th International Art Exhibition, La Biennale di Venezia in Venice. It’s one of the oldest art events in the world, with over 80 countries and artists represented at various individual pavilions in the famous Italian city. This is the seventh time South Africa is participating in the exhibition. 

The government commissioned exhibition entitled “Quiet Ground”, is the culmination of seven years of research by the art collective, MADEYOULOOK. It comprises two Joburg-based artists, Molemo Moiloa and Nare Mokgotho, who centre their work on showing everyday black practices that have either been historically overlooked or deemed inconsequential. They encourage the re-observation of everyday of urban South African life – hence the name. They use different forms of art, but they tend to lean towards African oral history. 

“We have been looking at the history of a people called Bakoni who were settled in that land [in Mpumalanga] in the sort of 1500s, possibly earlier, and we are looking at the cycles of displacement and dispossession that they have been subjected to for many, many years both colonial and precolonial,” Mokgotho said in an interview with the Mail & Guardian.

“What we have found to be quite amazing of the Bakoni is their capacity to always find ways of repairing themselves and repairing their relationships to land through all of these cycles of displacement and dispossession, so that’s kind of what it forms the work we have been doing over the past seven years.” 

He said they have also started looking at the Bahurutse people in the North West who have also suffered forms of displacement and dispossession over the years. 

The exhibition is called “Quiet Ground” and is meant to signify the aftermath of South Africa’s struggle for land and the subsequent pain the land itself had to ensure.

The curator, Portia Malatjie, said there’s an understanding that the land has endured violence, as have the people of South Africa. The work is meant to speak about that very land that absorbed the trauma, but at the same time lead into the repair and rehabilitation of that land. 

“It’s essentially then thinking about the aftermath of struggle when, you know, in the aftermath of struggle when dust settles, when there’s essentially an attainment of the things that one would have been protesting against. But there will be a moment of quiet when the land is unable to listen to itself when land is unable to contemplate the trauma that has gone through by absorbing other people’s trauma,” she said. 

Malatjie said her vision for the exhibition was to explore the nuances of land and politics.

South Africa’s politics can never be divorced from its past, and this piece is no different. Although it alludes to South Africa’s history, it is set in the politics of today. 

“Land politics is not something of yesteryear. It’s something that people are experiencing on a daily basis. And that’s not just in South Africa. It’s actually a conversation that’s happening internationally, it’s something that’s current, that’s urgent as well,” Malatjie said. 

The overall theme of the La Biennale di Venezia is “Foreigners Everywhere”, which gives everyone, everywhere the opportunity to think about what “home” means to them.

The piece itself is titled Dinokana (2024) which translates to small rivers or streams. The other key story that the piece seeks to tell is the story of water and the story of rain. 

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The sonic exhibition Quiet Ground for the Venice Biennale.

Malatjie said land cannot be separated from water.

“When we talk about forced migration or displacement in the context of South Africa, we often talk about how people have been removed from particular land and it’s usually land of their ancestors maybe moved from fertile land to barren or arid land that we seldom consider – there’s also been forms of water displacement.”

The issue of water displacement and living in arid regions in South Africa leads into the discussions for the need for rain. 

Malatjie said MADEYOULOOK explores the currency of rain, the scarcity of rain and how singing for rain to fall is embedded in orature and African traditions.

“Part of the idea of the water is trying to think of water as a kind of infrastructure of repair. We cannot speak about land without speaking about the role that water plays, but also in many African contexts, especially in the semi-arid contexts of Africa, water is a very sacred and rare resource,” Mokgotho said. 

He added that when the Bahurutse sang rain songs, they are asking the heavens for rain and that it is only cultures that live in very arid areas in the world that have rain songs.

The concept and development of the piece and the exhibition was a collective effort managed by the Institute for Creative Repair and included creative visionaries including architects who developed the landscape, and vocalists who worked on the sound pieces for the work. But it also included the land workers and farmworkers whose voices and knowledge are embedded in the waves of the sound reverberating from the exhibition. 

When asked what’s the key element of a South African sound in this exhibition, Moiloa said it’s the sound of rain. It’s the pitter-patter against Johannesburg’s thunderous storms that make the piece what it is. 

“One of the interesting things about rain is that it does bring repair. It’s part of who we are as human beings and part of our spiritual connection with the skies. We use rain in this work very much as a kind of metaphor to think about how we nourish the land and how do we nourish South Africa after such a challenging history and how do we use these technologies of working with water to repair ourselves in this very complex place of South Africa,” Moiloa said.

That’s a South African story worth telling the world. 

La Biennale di Venezia is running until 24 November 2024 in Venice; the South African Pavilion will let the rain fall from 19 April for its opening.