Arts + Culture

Lhola Amira's Work Offers a Call To Connection and Remembrance

Lhola Amira's Work Offers a Call To Connection and Remembrance
Photo: SMAC Gallery © Lhola Amira.

Lhola Amira, IRMANDADE: The Shape of Water in Pindorama (detail), 2018.

The South African artist's first solo U.S. exhibition will be staged at San Francisco's de Young Museum, and will also mark the museum's new African art program.

Lhola Amira is poignant when selecting words to talk about the process that led to the body of work making up the artist's first solo show in the U.S. Opening December 17, 2022, it’s titled Lhola Amira: Facing the Future, and brings together Amira’s most captivating pieces of work, while also marking the opening of the museum's program dedicated to amplifying its African art collection. Through this program, artists like Amira will create new dialogue with pieces in the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco's permanent collection.



The South African artist, born in Gugulethu in 1984, has been part of notable group exhibitions, including the 33rd São Paulo Biennial, and held a number of residencies. Amira uses capitalized pronouns to emphasize the plurality of the work that is rooted in THEIR traditional Nguni practice and spirituality. From the outset, the artist asserts that it is important to understand that 'Lhola Amira' is a collective, a plural existence – THEY are the vessel for the work and move through each process as it is called upon THEM to be in a particular space and time.

In the plural existence, WE distinguishes the marking of Lhola Amira in the body of Khanyisile Mbongwa – a spirited connection since 2008 that was fortified by the last work Mbongwa made in her name, titled "Umnikelo Oshisiwe (Burnt Offering)". “WE arrive from the timeline of our ancestors, and WE am [sic] very aware of how the universe is intentional in moving US, and so the plurality is vast. This work is another rhythm of where WE have been asked to move," Amira tells OkayAfrica.

THEIR interrogation challenges the notion of a “post-colonial timeline,” one THEY say is suspended in the continued dehumanizing projects of colonialism and slavery.

When asked about the interconnectedness of slavery and the recurrent thread of water and land in the work that THEY explore and what draws Amira to a place -- what the calling is to the northern California region where the museum is situated -- THEY articulate this connection in terms of the wounds and “wounded-ness” of people in the United States of America. How travel and land, even in death, the burying of bodies that continue to carry vibrations across continents when linked to the wounds, call one another, and call upon THEM to work on the healing.

Installation view of Lhola Amira's Affective Affinities: 33rd Bienal de São Paulo, 2018.

Photo: SMAC Gallery © Lhola Amira.

Further expanding on this idea, Amira was drawn to Bahia in Brazil, to create the piece "IRMANDADE: The Shape of Water in Pindorama (2018–2020)". The film documents Amira’s journey through the city, meditating on the wounds of the ocean, the land, the genocide of indigenous people, and the descendants of enslaved Africans, while offering gestures toward healing.

THEY say, it is marking “where the genocide of the people of the land connects with the enslaved brought to Brazil across the water, and that is why in the USA you must ask about the wounds of the land and water because the lines integrate. That is why this work features in "Facing the Future" because we are always part of the land, even in our death we work the land. The integration between wound of the water and the land also means when you find the grave of the enslaved African American, if you dig further, you will find the bones of those native to the land.”

A film still from \u200bIRMANDADE: The Shape of Water in Pindorama (2018\u20132020).

A film still from IRMANDADE: The Shape of Water in Pindorama (2018–2020).

Photo: Courtesy of SMAC Gallery. © Lhola Amira.

Created in response to the permanent collection’s ancestor sculptures, Amira’s Philisa installation or “Constellation” Zinza Mphefumlo Wami invites viewers to “be at rest with spirit.” This portal for remembrance and resurrection pairs beaded curtains with a ceremonial salt bowl for cleansing, golden pillars with candlelight and water pitchers for channeling, and song to help invoke ancestral energies.

The ancestral connection is articulated with a veil; it is the veil between the living and the ancestral and where the Sangoma (healer) sits. The veil will be part of a visitor’s experience. But Amira cautions not to mistake this or any other practice in THEIR work as ritual or healing. “It is an offering that gestures towards healing, only when you can see your wounds can you begin to heal,” says Amira.

The number nine plays a pivotal role in Amira's work and its reiteration is symbolic and concise. There are nine panel pieces of fabric and beads that emphasize the end and beginning. The work channels Lucile Clifton's poetry and Abbey Lincoln’s wailing that mixes harmonies’ with the wailing of the Sangomas. “The Black diaspora have been in conversation a long time ago. This collective marks how the global dialogue must continue and that THEIR work unapologetically facilitates a pathway to healing for those whose ancestry is embedded in enslaved passages of time,” says Amira.

\u200bAn image of a wooden ritual vessel (aduno koro), Mali, early 20th century.

A wooden ritual vessel (aduno koro) from Mali, early 20th century is part of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco's permanent collection.

Photo: The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Don Tuttle Photography 2010

Inspired by Ubuntu, Amira says that it is not about humanity as we have come to understand it, rather it is about all of us operating as one particle, a particle that is part of a much larger eco-system. “WE have been summoned to make this particle in the eco-system more just, more equal, through the calling of being at a place in time to do the necessary work.”

Feet, water, land, bones, beads and veils, and salt and sound all selectively, deliberately prepared and placed, work towards a healing that Amira hopes, that through THEIR work, can be a soft, gentle, kind healing. Amira is someone who has been summoned to do the work on THEIR own terms. "The spiritual world exists in a different time and creation," says the artist, and THEY believe to be sharing this timeline through a calling, by invitation.

As the museum notes, Facing the Future is a resource for today’s troubling times, reminding us of our deep and profound connection to the earth and to each other. So, those taking in Amira's art are simply invited to heed the call to feel and possibly heal through the artist's own calling to this work, in this place, at this time, through this constellation of energy.

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