29 Apr Featured: Symbolic Expression in Andrew Brukman’s ‘Gule Wamkulu’ Portraits
“The reasons for travel – relaxation, history, sightseeing or art, amongst many others – are as varied as the places one can go. I (un)knowingly drive into the horizon for most of these reasons but I also do this to make connections. I try to make connections with people in remote places who I struggle to communicate with. Or someone in a bar in Nairobi, talking about the seemingly mundane and extraneous. These links are between an experience, myself and, ultimately, where I’m from. This process allows me to reflect. If you are not thinking, questioning and constantly reevaluating then you are standing still,” says documentary photographer Andrew Brukman who, in June 2014, left South Africa to drive to Chad. The following August he spent a good part of the month photographing a symbolic cultural dance form of the Chewa tribe in Malawi called gule wamkulu, “the big dance”.
In various parts of Malawi, Zambia and Mozambique, the ancestoral spirits take on varied and spectacular corporeal forms and dance for their living descendants to entertain, inform, chastise and guide. Gule wamkulu is a cosmic celebration of life and death which is intended to influence issues affecting society such as materialism, dispossession and inequality. The rituals, traditions, taboos and social etiquette portrayed represent mwambo, the moral code laid down by ancestors.
“In almost every character signs and signals cannot be taken literally and are deeply symbolic. For example,” Andrew explains, “Mandevu symbolizes a foreigner or stranger in the village. His red face, long nose and beard indicate someone of European extraction. He sometimes rides a bicycle or carries a radio, and his purpose is to warn villagers to use caution when adopting modern practices or using new-fangled devices.”
Reflecting on what he encountered, Andrew says that “Often you experience something which, at the time, holds no real meaning over and above the immediate context. How many times have you watched something on TV, not really thought anything of it, but have subsequently been talking to a friend and said, ‘Oh I saw something like that the other day’? This connection you make, what ever it may be, is a way of using past experiences to make sense of or extend a concept.”
Currently in South Africa we are dealing with issues of symbolism (amongst many others) – an aspect which was first highlighted to Andrew by renowned Anthropological professor Andrew Spiegel, who in a Cape Times article remarked that “Better grasp of symbols can be achieved by teaching anthropology at school.” He goes on to explain the importance of symbols in understanding the Cecil John Rhodes statue and the subsequent #RhodesMustFall debate. “Until I read this,” says Andrew, “I had only understood gule wamkulu in an isolated context – a form of symbolic expression for a particular culture. I immediately thought of a conversation I had with Jenifer Stern, an insightful writer I was working with. She noticed that as Westerners we often lack a profound understanding of symbolism.”
Something about this struck a chord and it stuck in his mind, attached to a vivid photographic memory of driving up the Usa Pass to Dedza from Mua Mission, where he had just learnt about the gule wamkulu in Malawi. “I just had to look at the debates raging on social media and opinion pieces scattered around news outlets to see the limits in understanding of the power of symbolism.” This led Andrew to wonder whether South Africans lack understanding of the power of symbolism because of our culture and education and, whether symbolic power can be dangerous on a physical level.
As he points out, symbolism has many different definitions and he’s used two understandings in order to unpack its importance. The first comes from Freud, who defines symbolism as “the process whereby one idea is used (most unwittingly) as a substitute for an unconscious idea; in other words, a symbol is the veiled, masked expression of a thought in a fantastic form which contains an analogy”. Another interpretation from the noted philosopher, literary critic and poet Samuel Coleridge defines it as “an actual part chosen to represent the whole”.
The irony that this collection of portraits show a cultural practice from Malawi, Zambia, Mozambique and in some migratory cases, Zimbabwe is not lost on Andrew. “The current xenophobic violence in South Africa is as much a political and economic problem as it is a lack of symbolic understanding,” he says. “In his famous speech King Zwelithini reintroduced “the foreinger” as a powerful symbol for all the problems that the majority of South Africans face. They represent a “part of a whole” bigger problem. But of more concern, they are a symbol in “the process whereby one idea is used (most unwittingly) as a substitute for an unconscious idea”. “The foreigner”, no matter what, is a blight on South African society.”
Although the images were taken over half a year ago, Andrew has purposefully chosen to exhibit them now. It’s his belief that understanding how Chewa people interpret signs and signals in gule wamkulu, while making symbols which teach moral codes and ethics, can bring new ways of seeing how we make meaning of symbols in our own society. “Maybe we need to look deeper,” he says. “To try and understand how a symbol as powerful as “the foreigner” can cause perpetrators of xenophobic violence to commit murder.”