Sethembile Msezane is a visual artist whose performances subvert colonialist ideologies and highlight the history of black women in South Africa. This year she was one of the 100 Barclays L’Atelier competition finalists and was invited by the Open Stoep residency at the AVA Gallery as well as the Vrystaat Kunstefees Festival to perform her piece, Love in the Time of Afrophobia (2015). Her previous work, the Public Holiday Series, took place over public holidays in a variety of historically iconic locations and raised questions around the kinds of figures and events that earn national commemoration. Presently, she is reading for her Masters at Michaelis School of Fine Art and through her work hopes to conscientise viewers about the injustices caused through selective history.
Can you tell us what drew you to art and about your journey towards becoming a performance artist?
I’ve always been creative growing up. It made sense to explore this talent even when I had limited access to art education. I enrolled at UCT and completed my Bachelor in Fine Art at Michaelis in 2012, but it is only after leaving the institution that I found my own voice as a visual artist. I use performativity in my work to locate myself within time and space. The body is loaded with history, identity and meaning. I found that the absence of my body as a black woman within public memorialised spaces muted my existence, thus erasing my history, identity and meaning. Therefore, Performance Art became a vehicle in highlighting these issues within my work.
Who or what has been most influential in the creation of your work and why?
Living in Cape Town, a city that prides itself with its eurocentricity through it’s wonderful architecture and monuments, influenced the type of work I currently make. It was important for me to locate myself – my identity within these colonial structures, in celebrating the complexities of womanhood, blackness, space, Africa and self-assertion; concepts that colonial ideology has successfully misrepresented.
You were born in Kwa-Zulu Natal, and raised in Soweto. How has being in these environments, and currently living in Cape Town, influenced the work you make and informed your perspective on South Africa in both the past and present?
I identify with all three localities and yet question each space. Having spent portions of my life in each space I find that the norms and politics of each space are constantly in flux and that requires me to be able to adapt to each space while still being true to myself – uMsezane, uMashoba, uVezi. Being a millennial, I am influenced not only by my own locality, but popular culture in the form of films, music videos, books etc. These factors all come into play when producing work. Thus when viewing one of my images there seems to be a cross pollination of references or even cultures as well as time. Bringing all these factors into my work is an observation of my experience of the past of South Africa as I read in books, heard stories from my elders as well as engaged with current issues that make our country great but deeply flawed.
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 perfomative body presents?
The women I re-enact depend on the subject matter I’m addressing such as Lady Liberty in relation to Freedom Day. Some of these women exist within history and mythology and others are reimagined. The location chosen to suit these characters is also closely aligned with the subject matter and sometimes working with the limitations of where I can afford to be – which is usually Cape Town.
Last year on Women’s Day, you performed ‘Untitled’ in Langa Freedom Square, whereby you stood bare-breasted nearby a taxi rank to draw attention to violence against women but also highlight an important space that many women, who were active in the struggle, frequented. What inspired this particular performance and what kinds of reactions did it garner from the public?
This performance honoured women both past and present who continue to make a difference in our lives. This character in particular took the form of my great grandmother who cared for me deeply when I was younger. This was one of my most memorable performances because I had an unexpected co-performer who lived in the neighbourhood. While I stood on the plinth she sang and danced around me pulling an audience that stood and watched for the duration of performance (which usually does not happen). With markers provided this woman wrote ‘Wathint’ abafazi Wathint’ Mbokodo Viva Women’s Day’. I felt content that she was brave enough to express her views as did I on this occasion. Other interactions, involved an elderly lady who came up to me and said, “Inhle lento oyenzayo. Keep it up.” She then proceeded to raise her arm and put money into my clay pot that I was using to bead my necklace and then walked away. I received proposals of marriage from some men and others debating whether I was a virgin or not while staring at my breasts. Ultimately, I was pleased with the overall outcome of the performance.
Can you elaborate on both psychological and physical processes that you undergo to prepare for each performance?
Each performance begins from when I conceive the idea. From then on the process of research, production and then performing becomes an active exercise in preparing for the performance mentally as well as physically. I usually exercise weeks ahead of the performance to prepare me for the hours of standing I will have to endure while on the plinth. The day of the performance is often less then calm until I step into character and position myself on the plinth. I move between a space of ease and discomfort as gravity, weather conditions and time take their toll on my body. What helps through these transitions is firstly remembering that these stories need to be told, secondly meditation and lastly a sense of humour – people can say and do the funniest things.
Most of your work explores the black female body and its exclusion from the grand narrative of history. What in your opinion, are some of the psychological effects of this absence?
The lack of representation of the black female body, as depicted by ourselves, erases the existence of black women in public memorialised spaces and in essence nullifies our presence and visibility within society. This leaves constructs of stereotypical images that remain which homogenise black women as objects of desire, abject, ‘other’ and so forth. This is damaging for the legacy of black womanhood because it not only misrepresents and excludes us but it creates negativity, which can be violent towards our existence. Writers such as Patricia Hill Collins and bell hooks have written extensively on this subject matter, as it is a condition within our society, which seems to be ignored.
On commemorative days, the living body in direct comparison to statues, offers an immediate opportunity to compare the past with the present and evaluate our current milieu. In your opinion, where do you think we are now?
I think that there is a disruption in South Africa that questions the ‘New South Africa’ or the concept of ‘The Rainbow Nation’. There’s a shift in awareness amongst the youth of South Africa, where there is an attempt to transcend the legacy of Apartheid and Colonialism by transforming contemporary South Africa from an Imperialist society to one that is rid of racial, class and gender abuse through public debates, music, art and so forth. This can be noted through the engagement of issues discussed in Parliament on social media, the number of views on Youtube particularly with issues that the (in)famous EFF raise as well as the wide spread plea to decolonise universities across the country as well as abroad.
Recently, The Guardian featured your performance during the Rhodes Must Fall Movement. What do you think was most challenging and triumphant about this particular work? What insights did you gain through this experience?
The most challenging aspect of this work was possibly experimenting with hair in new ways. I wanted to push myself in the many ways I could use hair as a material, but still had to be conscious of time as I had anticipated that ‘the fall’ would be close. Getting my mind to a place where I could ignore the pain my body was feeling while I stood on my plinth wearing 6 inch stilettos for about 4 hours; and witnessing this historic event while temporarily placing a black female body before and after the removal of the Rhodes statue was definitely a triumphant moment in my book.
You’ve stated that you’re not sure we need statues because they’re intrinsically linked to colonialism. In what other ways do you think Africans should be commemorated?
Statues in this country have traditionally been used to immortalise the powerful men of our society, most of whom acted out some of the greatest atrocities on the black-African majority. I think few public statues avoid this narcissistic reading. I think we would be better commemorating Africa and its people through a history month/months. This would be comparable to the American Black History Month and would include cultural initiatives such as theatre shows, art exhibitions, TV documentaries and musical concerts etc. Furthermore, it would be important to introduce African History into the schools curriculum from a primary school level onwards.
The nature of performance is unpredictable. What for you is the riskiest thing about it?
The likelihood of physical harm to both myself and my photographer.
What contribution would you like to make through your art? What do you hope it achieves?
I hope my work creates consciousness within my viewers on particular issues. For example, if we are to have statues, where are our black female heroines? I hope my viewers can draw similarities in history and learn from events such as Human Rights Day, previously known as Sharpeville Day, so that further Marikanas do not occur in Democratic South Africa. I would like to engage with a critical society that is not only aware of the injustices of Apartheid but also the current disparities in our society inherited from Colonialism at large. I’m speaking about the colonial mindset that allows for the genocide of fellow African nationals in South Africa while embracing other nationals of non-African descent as welcome tourists.