Ask the Curators: Gcotyelwa Mashiqa and Precious Mhone
Still Here Tomorrow to High Five You Yesterday…is an exhibition at the South African Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African Art (MOCAA) running till September 22, 2019. The show provides an opportunity to re-examine notions of utopias, African futures, and Afro-futurism from artists on the continent and in the diaspora, while simultaneously calling for a re-reading and re-writing of both real and imagined narratives, to create narratives that aren’t constrained by time and place. Still Here Tomorrow to High Five You Yesterday also explores the different ways in which artists tackle the complexities within the concepts of progress in post-colonial Africa.
Derived from tropes of the Afro-futuristic movement and notions of the exploration of space, the exhibition is realised in chapters that will unfold over the course of the show, morphing and progressing to present a plurality of post-colonial futures. As such, Still Here Tomorrow to High Five You Yesterdayshapes and shifts in the gallery, disrupting and distorting both the constructs of utopia and dystopia, prompting more nuanced perspectives on progression and multiple readings of its themes. In this interview with Omenka, the curators, Gcotyelwa Mashiqa and Precious Mhone, discuss the show in detail, their underlying philosophies, and the reception of the show.
Installation view: Still Here Tomorrow to High Five You Yesterday…
Congratulations on your recent exhibition Still Here Tomorrow to High Five You Yesterday… at Zeitz MOCAA, which explores “the different ways in which artists, performers, writers and architects tackle the complexities inherent within the dual concepts of utopia and progress.” What personal experiences inspired it, and how did it resonate with the public and larger community?
Precious Mhone:Thank you. As a young African working in the arts, particularly here on the continent, I’ve always been interested in the ways in which we tell our stories, a merging of the past and present.
I’ve always had an interest in fiction (particularly science fiction), music, and the ways in which storytelling can morph and change to create more of an experiential way of understanding our histories.
This exhibition created opportunities for the public and the larger community to ask questions about the way in which art can be used as a lens for Africans to tell our own stories and centralise our own narratives, histories, and ways of imagining or own futures.
Gcotyelwa Mashiqa:Growing up, I used to watch sci-fi series (Stargate, Quantum Leap) and tuned into Radio Umhlobo Wenene (an isiXhosa station) every Saturday to listen to Gcina Mhlophe orating intsomi (folklore). I also read books by African authors such as Ben Okri, Chinua Achebe, Binyavanga Wainaina, and NoViolet Bulawayo. I tapped into these experiences to shape my ideas about Still Here, a show where we centred black bodies and Africa. We used the exhibition as a medium in which to create a vision and alternative stories that do not even up with how black bodies are perceived and how Africa is depicted or written about in mainstream spaces. We hope people are able to leave with a different and positive perspective of who they are and who they’ve imagined themselves to be.
Regarding your curatorial methodology and process, did you have a reference point from other exhibitions, or is this a new, experimental approach?
Mhone:It’s always important in the early stages of planning to conduct research into past exhibitions that have looked to unpack ideas related to time, utopia, progress, and possible futures on the continent and in the diaspora. This drew our eye to concepts of time as not being necessarily just linear but to the fact that it can be viewed as cyclic and inter-dimensional, with the possibility to shift and change. This in turn informed the physical layout of the exhibition space, which we wanted to be reflective of that cyclical concept. We looked at themes such as “yet-to-be spaces,” “one small step for humankind,” and “notions of home” as the framework for the artwork layout.
Mashiqa: However, our curatorial approach is also experimental, as we had to consider a variety of elements, such as the architecture of the building, exhibition themes (i.e., time and space), participating artists, and so on. “Time and space” became the heart of the show. Our conception of time as cyclical, repetitive, and continuous mimic our political, social, and economic histories in Africa. So we wanted to capture the element of continuum in the exhibition, hence we opted to open the show in different stages.
Have you both always worked together? What underlying philosophy informs your individual practices?
Mhone: This was the first time that Gcotyelwa and I have worked together, but it was a great exercise in collaborative process. Our different backgrounds (nationality, education, and interests) helped us flesh out our ideas in a way that had more perspective and spoke to a wider understanding of the African experience.
Mashiqa: This is the first time we have worked together on a project, besides the obvious fact of working for the same institution and being part of the curatorial department. As a visual storyteller and a collaborator, I believe it is my responsibility to tell all sides of histories, especially those that have been included in grand narratives.
“Fiction has a critical role to play in shaping imaginations and directing ideas for contemporary Africa.” Kindly tell us more about this statement.
Mhone: Fiction broadly refers to any narrative that is derived from the imagination—in other words, not based strictly on history or fact.
If the imagination can be considered to be a radical act of freedom, the artists that are part of the exhibition tap into looking at fiction as a way to create alternative notions of past, present, and future. Taking ownership of those narratives speaks to a sense of agency on the continent right now that shapes our ways of looking, seeing, creating, and being in the world.
The exhibition features Kumasi Barnett, Cristina de Middel, Kathrien de Villiers, Kadara Enyeasi, Wanuri Kahiu, Cassandra Kloss, Osborne Macharia, Michael MacGarry, Loyiso Mkize, Ndikhumbule Ngqinambi, Muchiri Njenga, Liona Nyariri, Daniel Obasi, Kathy Robins, Aristotle Roufanis, Yinka Shonibare, Ablaye Thiossane, and Atang Tshikare. Considering their diverse geographical locations and media, what selection criteria did you employ? How have the artists resident on the continent engaged the theme differently than their international counterparts, and to what would you attribute these differences?
Mashiqa: Once the concept of the show crystallised, it was then easier to identify artists whose work deals with the show’s themes. But we also selected works that challenged and complicated the idea of utopia and dystopia as clear opposites and allowed us to discern the multiple viewpoints or definitions of these concepts. Almost every artwork in the show existed before we mounted Still Here, with the exception of Loyiso Mkize’s mural, Liona Nyariri’s installation, Kadara Enyeasi’s photographs, and Ralph Borland’s sculpture. Since the topic of utopia or imagined futures is not new in Africa, the selected artworks prove that artists (authors, filmmakers, etc.) have been engaged in these conversations. I also think that their location in the world influenced their unique creation processes and thoughts about imagined African futures.
Since its establishment in 2017, how successful, in your opinion, has Zeitz MOCAA been in redefining the local art industry?
Mashiqa:I think it’s still early to say, as the museum is in the early phase of defining and shaping its mission and curatorial vision within the local and global art industry.
Mhone:Zeitz MOCAA is fortunate enough to be able to mould a mission and vision that work to put a spotlight on contemporary artistic practice on the continent. As a new institution, we are also able to learn, grow, and adapt in real time to the needs of our community and the public, to ensure that we provide knowledge, education, and access for all.
Oyindamola Olaniyan is the Head of Media and Communications at Revilo Publishing. She holds a B.sc in Botany from Lagos State University. Broadly experienced in this area, her core expertise includes social media management, content development and brand identity.
August 21, 2019