16 Jun Buhlebezwe Siwani: We are woke, we are lit
For performance artist Buhlebezwe Siwani, the body is both a medium and site of protest and power. The black female body has historically borne the brunt of all manner of colonisation, which today continues in gender and systemic-based violence. By using her body in her art, Buhlebezwe is claiming her agency and creating her own narrative. As a practicing iSangoma, her body is also a medium connecting her to the world of the spirits. The parallels between artist and iSangoma are closely aligned, often overlapping and informing one another. Through the two practices, Buhlebezwe performs the creative and sacred rituals that inform her history, identity, and politics.
Does being an artist influence your practice as a sangoma? Does being a sangoma influence your work as an artist?
It’s a balance actually, I feel that it is quite a symbiotic relationship. One cannot exist without the other. I cannot differentiate between the two and one does not take precedence over the other. My work is about primarily being iSangoma so it is my art.
What is the relationship of ritual to your art?
The work is about ritual, but even life is ritualistic, brushing teeth is a morning ritual. My rituals are different, they are linked to history, tradition, culture and rites of passage.
A lot of your work seems to evoke a personal journey to more fully understand your own history and traditions. Do you think that many other young people today feel the same motivation?
Of course, colonialism and apartheid have buried us in versions of themselves, we find ourselves yearning to find a truth of some sort about our histories and traditions, which I think is very important to the youth. The youth are remembering!
Your body is a central subject and site in your work. Can you tell us more about this? How does this sit alongside wider conversations around gender and racial politics and the body?
I cannot use any other body to represent myself, I am many different bodies in one as iSangoma, so it only made sense to use my own body. It is important that I own my agency! The black female body is always a site for violence and malevolent action, so I needed my own black female body to take the power back! I own my skin, I own my androgyny or femininity. I wanted people to look at the black body in front of them and answer to it, without it owing anyone explanation of it existence. The racialist do and sexualized black female body needs to own it narrative and begin a new one.
Do you think that cultural traditions sometimes stand in opposition to contemporary youth culture? If so, how do you see young people navigating this tension?
It’s interesting that you ask that question. Culture is ever hanging and so is the youth, the youth will always have a problem with some aspects of culture, it’s the way of the world, but, culture adapts and so do the youth. It is my opinion that the culture of the West is more oppressive than that of Africa.
Do you feel that as a young artist you have a sense of responsibility to make work that is a reflection of your time?
Yes definitely, I want people to look back one day and not even think twice about the year and what was happening at the time. As an artist you have a socio political responsibility to make work that matters, that speaks to the social condition and ills, if you are not doing that then why are you making art? I feel that if you have nothing important to say you should make art for your living room and your cats (although, the cats I know have good taste so…).
You give all of your works isiXhosa titles. Is language one of the ways in which you explore identity? What sort of issues do you see arising around language and the ability to tell one’s own stories?
My titles are either titled in isiXhosa or isiZulu, this is because there is such a richness in these languages, one word can mean many things, the terrain is limitless, also if I were to title my pieces in English the work would not be honest. Another thing is it’s about time white South Africans learn another South African language. We have eleven and the majority expect us to communicate in what they are comfortable speaking, it’s time for us to balance the scales. I also work a lot with the idea of secrecy so I find that it helps to title the pieces in my own languages as it makes it more difficult for others to access. I can tell a beautiful story in my language, it is who I am, I find myself in it, I can immerse myself in it. We need to begin telling stories in our languages. Language can either be a barrier or an open and endless playground, there are so many issues around language…I just wrote my thesis in isiXhosa so I’m cool!
You’ve just returned from Berlin. What were you doing there and how did it go? Do you think that there is enough opportunity currently available for young artists? What could be done to improve/change this?
I was in Berlin for an exhibition that is part of African Futures, which is still running now, at Savvy Contemporary Gallery in Berlin. The show was curated by Bonaventure Ndikung and co-curated by Elena Aguidio, the exhibition is called The Incantation of the Disquieting Muse: On Divinity, Supra-realities or the Exorcisement of Witchery. I think that my time there was well spent, it looks like I slayed, because there is no other option as a black woman, you cannot have bad work representing your people, there are definitely other opportunities that have come out of that visit. I’m super excited about the prospects. The possibilities are endless for young artists that side of the world, but that is just my experience. The South African youth are so lucky right now because African art is the hottest thing right now, there is no excuse for us not to apply apply apply! Also never be afraid to put your work out there, you might get rejected a couple of times but MaBheybs that is how the world works! These people need to know you came to slay! I do think in South Africa the opportunities are endless, one just needs to stop waiting for a white cube to approach you and do your own thing. The world is waiting for us, do not let the world pass you by.
Recently young people have been the drivers of important conversations around issues of identity, history and politics. What do you think is behind this resurgence of youth activism in this generation?
The youth is remembering as I noted before, our parents and grandparents were promised so much but given nothing, the youth want their refund! We want to live without being harassed in our land, we want what was promised and if you can’t give us that then we are prepared to fight for it, we are well equipped and ready to battle it out using the education you armed us with. The youth is also remembering that South Africa was robbed of being angry, in order to heal the youth needs to be allowed to be angry, that step, anger, cannot be missed. The reason why these issues are brought to the surface is because the youth has been robbed of their identity, their history and are told to be neutral! That time is over, black bodies are political, enough said!
In what ways has art enabled you to shape your own future, and what advice would you give to other young people to empower them to realise theirs?
Art has always been a part of my life, my family never stifled my creativity in fact they nurtured it. I can’t imagine doing anything else, art is my therapy, it’s my outlet, it hasn’t shaped me, it is who I am, it’s in my DNA. The only advise I guess I could give is never give up, people give up too easily. If you really want to make art, be honest to yourself and primarily to the work. It’s easy to give up, make the difficult decision to stick to your guns!
What will the legacy of today’s youth be?
Legacy…..hmmm, I suppose it would be that we fought for our convictions, we were lit and didn’t buy into the faux wokeness! We are woke, we are lit and we fight for our beliefs when we are not making beautiful artwork!
Photographs of Buhlebezwe by Gabriella Achadinha
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