Sethembile Msezane: Spirituality, Commemoration and History
Sethembile Msezane was born in 1991 in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. She lives and works in Cape Town, South Africa. She was awarded a master’s in Fine Arts in 2017 from the Michaelis School of Fine Art, University of Cape Town, where she also completed her Bachelor of Fine Arts in 2012. Using interdisciplinary practice encompassing performance, photography, film, sculpture, and drawing, Msezane creates commanding works heavy with spiritual and political symbolism. She explores issues around spirituality, commemoration, and African knowledge systems. Part of her work has examined the processes of myth-making that are used to construct history, calling attention to the absence of the Black female body in both the narratives and physical spaces of historical commemoration. In this interview, she discusses her work in detail and her ongoing exhibition.
You were born in KwaZulu-Natal and raised in Soweto. How has being in these environments, and currently living in Cape Town, influenced your work?
I’m still connected to home whilst being in Cape Town. I find it difficult to call Cape Town home even after being there for 10 years now, because of various factors, particularly its history, which I’ve journeyed through in my work. I think that’s the reason visiting home in Soweto and KZN gives me clarity, as memories of family, dreams, furniture, and simply existing filter into my mind. I carry my people both alive and dead with me and you see that in works I create.
I’m also deeply rooted in the influences of womanhood and different forms of spirituality because of the women in my family and in my life. They are the people who make things happen. My practice then testifies to their greatness, acknowledging their existence and work.
My late grandfather was an influence in my life who gave me the love of my cultural identity, which is layered in practice.
Please elaborate on your relationship with photography, film, sculpture, performance—your primary media.
I simply use the medium that best articulates the message or idea I want to put across. Initially I was trained in photography, and later I acquainted myself with other mediums, as my curiosity about speaking through the body, questioning structures, and narrating through moving pictures became part of my practice.
Your performances have taken place in a variety of public locations and embody various symbolic female characters. How do you go about selecting the space and the image the performative body presents?
I think of these women as spiritual embodiments rather than characters. Sometimes I’ve chosen to study the narratives of these women, and sometimes they choose me and I embody their spirits. This means my body becomes their instrument to be present in that time.
The preparation involves a lot of meditation and research of clothing, location, hairstyles, cultural references fused with contemporary interpretations, and so on. This then helps me bring them into the presence and prepares me to surrender myself, whether I am tired or experiencing pain in the moments that they are there. The space chosen depends on the history or the figure.
In 2017, your works were presented at the inaugural exhibition of Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African Art. Tell us a bit about the experience and some select works.
The museum presented some of my favourite works, namely Signal Her Return I, which was a sound installation with an 18th century bell, a long braid of hair on the floor that rose to the ceiling, coming down to meet a number of live candles on the other side.The work was a prayer and commemoration for the lives of women such as Sara Baartman, who died under undignified circumstances.
I received a lot of warm responses via social media and other platforms about the work. I felt it could have been better presented, as it was meant to emulate umsamo (a shrine) and needed a space of solitude to be a place of memory and meditation. Somehow that atmosphere got lost in the curation.
However, this gallery space seemed to be received well with my ensemble of candles, hair, and salt sculptures and Lungiswa Gqunta’s curtained petrol bomb installation, match stick embossed prints, and bed frame installation. It became a gallery space loaded with South Africa’s historical baggage.
Congratulations on your ongoing exhibition Speaking Through Walls at Tyburn Gallery from January 25 to April 13. This is a first for you in the UK. Please tell us a bit about the pieces you will be exhibiting and what you hope to achieve with this exhibition.
Thank you. I’ve had the pleasure of being one of the speakers at the Royal African Society conference Africa in 2018: Prospects and Forecasts and have exhibited some of my work at 1:54 London in 2017 and 2018. I’m pleased that the UK will see a bit more of my practice with my first solo in London titled Speaking through Walls.
The exhibition consists of photographic sculptural works. I’ve embedded dreamscapes in headboards, drawing from my dreams and intuitive encounters with certain spaces. It is also a reflection on the socio-political moment in which South Africa finds itself in relation to Zimbabwe’s history.
I have been drawn to landscapes such as Philip Kgosana Drive in Cape Town, which is located in the city but presents the possibility for hidden narratives of people practising different forms of spirituality in the open. I Grow Tired of Telling You, They Are Already Here III demonstrates this, where two worlds seem fused in one in a Victorian mirror and on physical land that seems barren with charred fynbos. Fire stimulates the seeds of fynbos to grow, thereby completing its evolution. Plants such as imphepho grow here; these are used for spiritual purposes associated with prayer and cleansing, often invigorating transformative moments.
In this body of work, acknowledging ancestry and the spiritual realm in a moment where the constitution is being redrafted to amend land reform in South Africa may be the germinating seed for the next season. Perhaps it makes sense that the land would hold the answers for the dispossessed to restore their dignity since African forms of spirituality were one of the sites of attack in the colonising of Africa.
Speaking through Walls reflects a difficult past, in which you ask the question: “How do we begin to humanise ourselves in spaces and on grounds that have been fertilised by bloodshed?” Kindly speak more on this statement.
The land, like the body, can carry trauma. The individuals who move in that space may unknowingly be affected, even generations later, by the historical ills that have occurred there. I’m interested in how the dispossessed can find peace and a sense of freedom in such spaces—how expressing love can permeate through the wicked ghosts of the past. Within the land, this expression can be carried out by practising communion through cultural rituals, spiritual gatherings, celebrations, and simply just chilling. The problem is that South Africa is still haunted by the laws of segregation and by policies that control gathering in numbers, that limit the use of animals in cultural rituals, and that restrict noise levels in these practices.
The exhibition then journeys through portals of reflection and ancestral communication through my spiritual dreams, which are articulated in natural landscapes in South Africa and Zimbabwe, highlighting the history and influence of spirituality, violence, and land in both settings. The work echoes the insistence of the dispossessed on practising their identity through love; gathering to exist; praying; burning imphepho on “protected land”; occupying and exploring spaces in townships, suburbs with pockets of natural landscapes, and nature reserves. This is the dispossessed’s resistance to rigid and suppressive systems.
In doing so, the work also remembers the land before the trauma of colonial conquest, when indigenous groups such as the
!Xam and Khoi people communed in such spaces as Stadsaal Caves and Sir Lowry Pass. It reflects that we too can commune in the spaces that we currently choose to move and exist in, whether it be the city, township, or rural areas.
In some of your works, including Speaking through Walls, your face is covered with a mask. What is the significance?
The beaded veil has long been a thread in my work and has several functions. It started off as being part of my cultural identity in a work titled Untitled (Heritage Day, 2014). It then became an apparatus that moves the attention away from my face (as a person with my own identity) in the hope that the woman I embody will assume that space. In Speaking through Walls, it signifies spiritual figures, some being of my own ancestry.
In previous works, particularly the performative living sculptural works in public spaces, the veil also allowed for the Black female spectator to identify with the spirit of these women that I embodied—as if they were reading select elements of their own story or ancestry within these figures. I am aware of this because people wrote their thoughts on the base I stood on and spoke about how they feel about these performances.
What can you say about the increasing global attention to African art? How sustainable is it, and what does its future portend?
What can I say about African art and the global attention it’s getting? Nothing. That concept is too commodified.
But what I can say about art from Africa and its diaspora is that it continues to be in conversation with itself and the world. It reflects; it repositions the margins; it can be whimsical, spellbinding, grief-infused, political, overwhelming, and, and, and….
It connects with people. As long as art can do this, its future is vast, despite unstable economies and weathered opinions.