Q&A: Art student Smangaliso Khumalo debuts powerful series ‘The Monkey on My Shoulder’

Smangaliso Khumalo is a Bachelors in Visual Arts student from Unisa, whose artwork explores themes of identity politics and what it means to be Black in post-apartheid, post-colonial South Africa. He draws from a number of different influences which fit together seamlessly, creating powerful, content-rich, thought provoking work that is impossible to look away from.

We talk to the artist about the process and influences, and how it all came together in the context of modern-day South Africa.

How would you describe your artwork?
The work is of a photographic nature. I guess the work is informed by a lot of theoretical engagement, fusing of my personal journey and traumatic past and present. The work is performance based and site-specific like The Cradle of Human Kind in Krugersdorp and Albert Luthuli square, previously known as Fancis Farewell square.

Why did you choose to label this body of work The Monkey on My Shoulder?
“Get the monkey off my back” alludes to “removing a problem that has been difficult to get rid of or a problem/ situation that makes one unhappy” essentially. I then subverted the metaphor to become a malaphor (intentional in this instance). Just to put things in context, the reason for this is, a lot of African names are misspelled or mispronounced. For example Ramaphosa, which will inevitably become “Ramaposer”, which I find demeaning and disrespectful.

There has also been a lot of dialogue pertaining to Penny Sparrow’s polemical utterances in 2016 where she called black people “monkeys”. Subsequent to this, a teacher at George Campbell School of Technology (a high school that I went to) was in the news accused of her aspersions by calling a black pupil “monkey”. So these subliminal instances of othering keep resurfacing and not going away hence the moniker “The monkey on my shoulder”. The monkey on my shoulder essentially concerns a personal exploration of my traumatic past and present by inserting myself in public sites that are previous bastions of colonialism. The domains of the West still relegates the rest to the terrains of “the primitive”.

You paint your body in this work, what colour do you paint yourself and why?
Black. Because I am not quite black enough and not quite masculine enough. My grandfather used to call me Boesman/Bushman — alluding to me looking mixed. My performance ritual commences with undressing, covering my naked body and face in graphite powder that emphasises my blackness.

Since it is mined; graphite powder both alludes to the exploitation of black mine workers and artists such as myself, because in pencil form, it is used as a mark-making tool. The sheen of the graphite delineates the muscles and sinews of my body while simultaneously covering/concealing it.

Can you tell more about some of the material used in this body of work?
I carefully selected traditional Zulu accessories, fundamental to my identity. I wear umfece around my ankles, as worn by Sangoma initiates during traditional Zulu ceremonies, and ubusengi, worn by men in the Shembe Church of Nazareth. Most black Christians disdain these symbols of Zulu tradition. My headdress is made from plaited string, a mop as metaphor for the cleansing of psychic detritus.

My shoulders are covered by a red, black and white cloth used by Sangoma initiates, since I have undergone Igobongo, a traditional ceremony to cleanse ancestors and enhance clarity. My loins are covered by an apron of cattle tails called ibheshu worn by males and deemed a sign of respect for Zulu men. Why all these accessories? I suppose one is changing the peripheral thinking that our culture is something that does not deserve recognition and that level of respect. The social conditioning that Western culture and Eurocentrism as preeminent must change.

You evoke figures like Franz Taaibosch and Sarah Baartman, can you tell us about going into history to include these people in your work?
As previously uttered by artist Kemang Wa Lehulere that History will break your heart. Indeed it will! When one reads the non-salient narrative of Franz Taaibosch one is left with this incredulous sadness. The history of Taaibosch is somewhat erased from our collective memory. Here is this Korana man who has not received as much popularity and interest in contemporary scholarly discourse as that of Baartman. Sarah Baartman was by no means the only Khoesan to be exhibited on stage and be subjected to a Western “scientific” gaze, yet hers is the only name that is widely remembered and commemorated as a symbolic representative of Khoesan exploitation and suffering, which I thought was very important to uncover and tell.

It is believed that Taaibosch began his career as an entertainer, dancing for the amusement of the British troops and making “little money for Willem Roberts”. Why this non-salient narrative of this marginalised man? I suppose my story of being labeled with defamatory names not being black enough not masculine enough and not speaking with that quasi-English accent resonates with Franz Taaibosch’s marginalisation and him as this jejune object and abject being. Mastering the elocution of the master’s language proved to be a difficult task bestowed upon me.

The works of other artists are also part of this project, like Nandipha Mntambo and Tracey Rose, why?
Nandipha Mntambo and Tracey Rose were two contemporary artist that I studied in order to conceptually execute my body of work. The work quintessentially speaks of impositions suffered by the black body. My work is somewhat a clarion call to address these issues, not just of black women but black men too. The ‘”superficial semblance” of Sarah Bartmann is evidently depicted metaphorically in Tracey Rose’s Venus Baartman . This figment or phantom of Sarah Bartmann could be a resurrection in Tracey Rose’s work, which serves as possession of agency avenging all dehumanising objectification and exoticisation of the Eurocentric gaze.  Tracey Rose’s Venus Baartman extrinsically connotes ideas of sexual representation. Tracey Rose reconsidered the historical allegory of Sara Baartman in the work.

In The Rape of Europa,  Mntambo positions herself as victim and aggressor, a hybridised bull-human who ravishes her body-double, Europa, in a lush tropical paradise. She simultaneously alludes to Renaissance paintings, Greek mythology and Picasso’s etching Minotaur Kneeling Over Sleeping Girl  – metaphors associated with historical narratives of race, gender, violence and politics. Rape, as implied, serves as a metaphor for exploitation of the female body, and particularly the exoticization and fetishism of the black female body within the colonial project. Metaphors concerning both black and white female bodies become intertextual feminist narratives. The power-violence relationship is subverted and power is reclaimed through a counter-gaze.

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