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Meet The Young, Black & Female Collective Challenging South Africa's Art Game

iQhiya is the up-and-coming, South African female arts collective you need to know.

I was eavesdropping on a table of well-dressed young ladies in Johannesburg when I kept hearing the word iQhiya. The girls were talking fervently and using the term ‘slay’ like it was punctuation all dancing around that one phrase. As they were leaving I asked them what they were talking about. They pointed me to a Facebook page for an up-and-coming, South African, female arts collective: iQhiya. Their first group exhibition was a week away in Cape Town. So I rented a car and drove there.


iQhiya is made up of 11 women––aged 22 - 32––who met while studying at the University of Cape Town’s Michaelis School of Fine Art. As students they wanted to do a group exhibition at the school, though the university didn’t offer them a space large enough to accommodate all 11 artists. Tired of constant under-representation and minimization of female and black artistic efforts in South Africa, their original idea for an exhibition morphed into the collective we now know as iQhiya.

Courtesy of iQhiya.

The group-members are using their individual excellence to draw attention to one of South Africa’s most undermined demographics: black women. Bronwyn Katz won last year’s Saosol Merit Award—South Africa’s longest-running art competition of its kind—for her video Grond Herinnerig. Buhlebezwe Siwani received the Katrine Harries postgraduate prize for an outstanding body of work. She also works as a sangoma, and incorporates that life into her work. Thandiwe Msebenzi uses photography as a medium to question how culture and tradition can coexist in a post-colonial society. Sethembile Msezane was invited to Australia for an artist residency at Situate: Art in Festivals. Of course, that doesn’t even constitute half of the collective.

The entrance to their show at Cape Town’s AVA Gallery was a work of art in itself, with the words “futuristic black girl,” “evolving,” “creation station,” “light beam” and, again, “slay,” surrounding the artists’ names spraypainted white against black styrofoam. To the left was a giant wooden sculpture by Lungiswa Gqunta. Opposite it was a collection of Bonolo Kavula's lithograph prints that I stared at for the better part of 20 minutes.

An explanation of the exhibition read as a manifesto: “The works speak to voids, tensions, histories lingering between the materialities of the everyday and the imaginative, fantastical futures where we might be free…”

I caught up with iQhiya via email and asked them a few questions surrounding their collective identity and art in South Africa.

iQhiya: Bonolo Kavula, Bronwyn Katz, Sisipho Ngodwana, Asemahle Ntlonti, Lungiswa Gqunta, Buhlebezwe Siwani, Thandiwe Msebenzi, Matlhogonolo Kelapile, Sethembile Msezane, Pinky Mayeng and Thuli Gamedze. Photo: Charl Attan for the Mail and Guardian

Nereya Otieno for Okayafrica: For all our non-Xhosa speaking readers, what does iQhiya mean? What does it mean for you guys?

iQhiya is a Xhosa word for head wrap worn by women. it represents “unshakable power and infinite love.” For the women it also represents togetherness “you know how when you wearing a doek you bring both ends and wrap them together, that’s what it means for me to be part of iQhiya, bringing women together to support each other” says one of the members. It also “signifies what this collective is to me, a space where I find comfort, I can be vulnerable and feel safe."

As individual artists we have different associations with the meaning of the word.

You all belong to a generation that is a first for South Africa. This is the first generation where the majority of the population could even consider being artists, let alone studying fine art. Does that put a pressure on you as a collective, or is it more of a freedom?

There are artists who have been before us who have left legacies of their own. There are the women artists Helen Sebidi and Noria Mabasa, to name a few. But quite literally a few, because there were only a small number of female artists practising as visual artists in South Africa but women have always been creating. We are just operating in a space that hasn’t celebrated black women artists in the same way that it has male artists. Our only pressure is asserting ourselves and giving ourselves the agency to create spaces for ourselves.

Sethembile Msezane Chapungu, The Day Rhodes Fell, 2015. Courtesy of iQhiya.

iQhiya seems to have a love/hate relationship with being a collective: very happy for curating a support system you value, but frustrating at needing numbers to gain attention. Can you elaborate on the trials of this?

iQhiya stems from a lack of recognition of black women artists. The frustration lies in the fact that we have to form a collective in order for our individual practices to be recognised. We have realised the importance and the power of coming together as a collective of black women artists and consciously use this power as a tool to empower not only ourselves but also others who find themselves at the margins of society. The collective has become a coping mechanism as we support each other.

How has being part of a collective influenced your individual work? Has it at all?

For some members ideas discussed as a collective has started to feed into their work and built confidence to communicate what we stand for in our individual practices.

Pinky Mayeng, Moriri, 2014. Photographic Triptych. Courtesy of iQhiya.

Nereya is a writer, thinker and sandwich-eater who can often be found proudly multitasking at all three. Keep up with her at her website and Instagram.

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Introducing OkayAfrica's 100 Women 2020 List

Celebrating African Women Laying the Groundwork for the Future

It would not be hyperbole to consider the individuals we're honoring for OkayAfrica's 100 Women 2020 list as architects of the future.

This is to say that these women are building infrastructure, both literally and metaphorically, for future generations in Africa and in the Diaspora. And they are doing so intentionally, reaching back, laterally, and forward to bridge gaps and make sure the steps they built—and not without hard work, mines of microaggressions, and challenges—are sturdy enough for the next ascent.

In short, the women on this year's list are laying the groundwork for other women to follow. It's what late author and American novelist Toni Morrison would call your "real job."

"I tell my students, 'When you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else."

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In a time of uncertainty in the world, there's assuredness in the mission to bring up our people. We know this moment of global challenge won't last. It is why we are moving forward to share this labor of love with you, our trusted and loyal audience. We hope that this list serves as a beacon for you during this moment—insurance that future generations will be alright. And we have our honorees to thank for securing that future.

EXPERIENCE 100 WOMEN 2020

The annual OkayAfrica 100 Women List is our effort to acknowledge and uplift African women, not only as a resource that has and will continue to enrich the world we live in, but as a group that deserves to be recognized, reinforced and treasured on a global scale. In the spirit of building infrastructure, this year's list will go beyond the month of March (Women's History Month in America) and close in September during Women's Month in South Africa.

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