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Studio Africa: Buhlebezwe Siwani & Unpacking the Witch’s Baggage

This multi-disciplinary South African artist is exploring African Spirituality, Christianity and the black female body through concepts derived from local witchcraft.

Whether it's here or in another realm, you need to meet Buhlebezwe Siwani, a South African Sangoma and artist expressing double consciousness through the mediums of performance and visual art.


In South Africa, those who practice traditional medicine and divine healing are known as iSangoma. Siwani’s latest solo exhibition, Ingxowa Yegqwirhakazi, is an exploration of African Spirituality, Christianity and the black female body through performance art, video and installation.

The idea of double consciousness as it comes across in Siwani’s work has to do with channelling her ancestors as she uncovers the duality of revealing and concealing. Working with a green soap that is a staple in many homes on the continent, Siwani conjures feelings of nostalgia while using her body in performance to look at ideas of purity and cleansing.

This exploration of Siwani’s infinite selves—manifested as Ingxowa Yegqwirhakazi—began at Michaelis School of Fine Arts, where she recently completed her MFA as the youngest student at that point in time and the only black student.

Ingxowa Yegqwirhakazi features a video installation of Siwani’s performance Ngenzelephantsi which sees the artist plucking chicken feathers off her body. Consider for a moment that chickens are used in some traditional cleansing ceremonies during funerals; Siwani as iSangoma, who cannot attend funerals, turns to Siwani as an artist, to cleanse a body which is multidimensional.

Buhlebezewe in her studio. Photo by Chaze Matakala

In 2016, Siwani travelled to Zurich, Khayelitsha, Berlin and Harare, performing her shifting between realms as Sangoma and artist, taking out piece by piece the unfathomable weight that is the witch’s baggage. As Siwani puts it, “we are constantly costumed by how people see us. We are costumed by historical baggage, we are costumed by cultural baggage, we are costumed by patriarchy. So the only honest way for me to actually just return the gaze in a sense, is by me taking everything I have put on, off. So that we can look at each other.”

We visited Siwani in her workspace at Cape Town’s Greatmore Studios, a windowless space filled with the scent of the same green soap that forms a component of Ingxowa Yegqwirhakazi.

So we’re here to speak about your new body of work, Ingxowa Yegqwirhakazi. What does the title translate to in English?

The witch’s baggage or luggage. Because certain words in isiXhosa have double meanings, so as you translate them, it, I think, is your choice as the artist which translation to use.

Ingxowa Yegqwirhakazi is basically about the many ways in which I was cleansed and washed and how I feel about how I’ve grown up and my memories surrounding that, regarding Christianity, colonization, being a black female body, history, culture, all of those things, and the violence around the black female body in these spaces.

You mentioned double meaning, and I find it very curious that you are both an artist and a Sangoma. Something that I picked up in your work, especially in the video of you plucking yourself as a chicken, is that you use your body as both artist and Sangoma to do things that you may not be allowed to do in one realm and enact them in this physical realm.

Definitely, I can’t separate being a Sangoma from being an artist. They work in the same way. It’s the same thing for me. Buhle the Sangoma artist makes work about Buhle the Sangoma artist.

I think there’s so much more to kind of uncover and to write about and to make work about concerning revealing and concealing. Because the thing is with secrets is that we all know the secret actually. Nothing is really hidden. we all know how these things work, it’s just the language we develop in understanding them. Some people understand them better than others because they’ve been a part of the rights of passage, the rituals, that have to do with this particular, secret.

Buhlebezewe in her studio. Photo by Chaze Matakala

It's interesting that the gallery where your work is, WHATIFTHEWORLD, used to be a synagogue. So you your work is touching on African spirituality, Christianity, and then you have Judaism being the space that is holding this conversation.

I actually like that idea of taking over. We have so much work to do as a people and everybody else needs to understand that we needed to have started here. So taking over that space totally means a different thing for me. And I think it needs to be understood in that sense. Because if we are not to take over in our own spaces and we allow everybody to take over our own space, that means that, okay everything is still free for the taking, Black people are still not free in those spaces.

Let us talk about performance art as a practice of self-love through the confrontation of fear. The images of you going into water, into the ocean. Even that again is you transgressing your limitations as a Sangoma, but then performing as an artist and conquering that fear that you have for yourself.

My fear is very very very directly linked to being iSangoma. There are different kind of spirits that we have as iSangoma. It might happen to be mainly water spirits. And ever since I was a child, water seemed to like me more than I liked it.

For me going into water is journey of just, I have to conquer, I have to do this. And there are rituals that take place in the sea. But you know as an artist, I had to find a language to translate that fear and to substantiate, to kind of show how big and endless this body of water is.

So it is a practice of not self love, but, because I love my ancestors because they are the reason I am here, I am their vessel, I am not a lone human being. I work with them. So everything I create I create with them in mind and I create it with them, and in that sense it becomes Our art piece.

AMAKHOBOKA (DETAIL) 2016 Enamel bowls, green soap, rusted metal, wool and holy ash Dimensions variable

Another thing I’d like to speak to you about is the soap. That was the first thing that struck me when I walked into the space it was just the smell…because it was filling up everything. So I like the way that you’re playing with sensory awareness in the space.

I started with the performance, Qunusa! Buhle, which grew into a photographic series.

The whole thing came from a memory that I have of being washed by my aunt at my grandmother’s house. And I was washed in the kitchen that day, like many days, but the difference is that there was just a lot of people. And that particular today, my aunt said qunusa! Which means bend over, you know, because she wants to wash your cooch. And I was just, first of all, I’m about ten years old, I can wash myself, but you’ve chosen to take me from the streets playing with the boys, and you’ve decided that it’s time for me to wash and to look like a girl now.

I kept on thinking about that, it became this idea of purity and how we cleanse in order to be spiritually sound, and also just desirable. I just wanted to grapple with the idea.

At that point in time when I was just beginning the material, I had my memory understanding of it and then I wanted to understand the material now. Because this green soap used to be brought home and it would be cut up in pieces. And it would be used for washing dishes, washing clothing, washing you. It would be cleaning the house. There were all sorts of purposes for this long bar of soap.

And it’s so wild that this is not the way Africans would clean themselves before.

No.

Still from uNgenzelephantsi video by Buhlebezwe Siwani

And now, it’s extended into every aspect of our domestic space, and it’s actually poisonous chemicals.

Yeah and this was the other thing, as soon as I started working with it, my hands started stripping themselves, like the skin the flesh, started stripping itself.

So yeah, I also was looking at other ways of washing in African spirituality and how they cleanse and how they believe bodies are clean.

Because cow dung, which is also used on the floor, it’s a thing that cleanses the spirit in African spirituality.

And then holy ash is also used widely in African churches, but Zion, ZCC, so it’s African led churches. Churches that would use drums and all this kind of stuff. Not necessarily using the bible but parts of it. But it’s still think that those a very patriarchal, they can be very patriarchal, and the ideas are very patriarchal which is also problematic, which is what we need to deal with- the church is patriarchal, the whole bible is patriarchal. So these are the things that we have to contend with. But also ubungoma, has elements of patriarchy of because of culture. But it really isn’t patriarchal. It’s crazy. It’s just that people like turning things into what will suit them and what will suit their agenda. So we always constantly have to be careful about who purifies us and in which way.

I always like to think of my body as a costume. Not as a, you know, naked body. You know we always as artists, I you’re going to go out in the world and put a nude there, or a video where you are not clothed, it is totally something that is in here, for you you need to go into that space with the idea that my body does not only belong to me, it belongs to every single African woman.

I read somewhere in cyberspace that you grew up in different places around South Africa. Johannesburg, you are based in Cape Town, then there’s KZN...

And the Eastern Cape

So how would you say then that your nomadic experience of your identity as a South African plays into Ingxowa Yegqwirhakazi?

Wow, that’s something I’ve never been asked. It’s taught that we are really the same people and we exist in the same way. Yeah. But it’s also taught me something interesting about art being a marker of the times. And how people take back what’s theirs. I learned something interesting about how tribalist we can be. Because I can speak all of these languages and I can speak them mostly properly…

What languages can you speak?

I can speak seSotho, seTswana Shangan, isiZulu, isiXhosa, seSwati, uh, yeah.

And of course English and Afrikaans, which I just refuse to engage with actually anymore. And then what’s that other one? There’s another one, I probably just can’t think of it now. Oh! But my best friend is also Tsonga, and it’s also very close to Shangan. We really are very very close to each other. But going to all these places had me wanting to learn about my history and my people, my clans and all these things, even more. Yeah. So I guess that’s something that influences my work. These bowls are a memory for everybody. Washing is a memory for everybody. But it’s how you translate bodies of work that matter and how you execute the work. So moving around has taught me how people relate differently to certain things and how similarly we relate to the same thing.

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Photo still courtesy of YouNeek Studios.

The Official Trailer for 'Malika: Warrior Queen' Is Here

Malika surely means business in the clip that sets the scene for YouNeek Studios' newest animated pilot.

After much anticipation, the new trailer for Malika: Warrior Queen, starring Nollywood's own Adesua Etomi, is finally here.

In the trailer, we already see the Warrior Queen fearlessly stand up to defend her people against enemies who have set their sights on seizing her expanding empire of Azzaz. Facing threats of invasion by foreign cultures, Malika now has to decide how to fight a war both inside her kingdom and outside of it.

"War is coming," she declares.

Malika: Warrior Queen was executive produced by Niyi Akinmolayan of Anthill Studios. The series has been three years in the making, with a two-part comic series already available for reading; and even more so in line with YouNeek Studios' mission to create stories inspired by African history, culture and mythology.

Joining Etomi in the cast are Femi Branch, voicing Chief Dogbari, Deyemi Okanlowon, voicing the WindMaker and King Bass, Blossom Chukwujekwu as Abdul and Sambassa Nzeribe, voicing General Ras.

Check it out below.

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All photos courtesy of Remi Dada

Afropreneurs: Meet the Designer Reinventing Nigerian Workspaces

Remi Dada's Spacefinish is shaking up design to create futuristic work environments for African companies

In the digital age when a fancy rectangle in our pockets can find us whatever we want, customize it and deliver it to our door, it's odd that the same thought process isn't also applied to physical space. Why does every parking lot feel exactly the same? Can waiting rooms be designed to make time pass more quickly? How can we bring these new standards of personalization into the areas where we live our lives?

Nigerian designer, Remi Dada, is doing just that. With both architecture and business degrees, Dada started his career in tech working in user experience and product marketing–eventually ending up at Google Nigeria. Once he started working in the office however, Dada didn't find it to be an environment that sparked inspiration or productivity. It felt more like rooms with tables and chairs rather than a place that nurtured new, progressive ideas. Luckily, the perfect project presented itself: redesign the office. Dada jumped at the opportunity to meld his practical knowledge in user experience with his love of design and architecture–and the result turned some heads.

Thus Spacefinish was born, a pioneering design company based in Nigeria that works with companies to transform ordinary office space into beautiful and functional environments that increase productivity and employee satisfaction. I spoke with Dada about the purpose of Spacefinish, the importance of design in the workspace and the unique properties of designing in Nigeria for Nigerians. Read on for insights from the design entrepreneur on the impact of spaces and what the future holds for the company.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Nereya Otieno for OkayAfrica: In your experience, how important is workspace environment in Lagos? How is it viewed?

It hasn't been prioritized. A lot of employers do not invest heavily in their employees and you can see that in work spaces all over the world. Now, people are also beginning to understand that high-performing employees–especially millennials–want to work in a space that inspires them and with people who inspire them. Right now in Nigeria it is still very new.

We've been able to measure how companies have been performing prior to us renovating their space and afterwards. What we've seen consistently is that our spaces help with employee retention, they help with collaboration and they help with inspiration. One important thing that we always measure and that we try and add to our design is what we call 'PIC.' PIC is the measure of productivity, innovation and collaboration–now we can track that within a workspace. These three key things are the pillars of how we create better work spaces.


A sketch showing plans for a space in the PwC Experience Centre, Lagos.

With that data, it's probably pretty simple to pitch Spacefinish to a company. But what was it like in the beginning to try and sell the first Spacefinish idea outside of Google? You're essentially coming into a stranger's space and saying 'you're doing this wrong.'

True. We were very lucky in that the first space we did was a Google office. It's Google. Everyone aspires to have a workplace like Google and people visiting the office were curious about how a space like that could exist in Nigeria. So there was a lot of interest but no commitments. Our first real commitment came from a company called Andela, a tech startup aspiring to be like the spaces you see in Silicon Valley. But they were looking to create a space just to meet their capacity and meet their head count, that was all. They thought they wouldn't be able to afford what we'd done for Google.

I went and pitched for them to do something different instead of creating the standard, generic workspace that we've all seen. Then I took our approach: connect the expense and cost of that project to the potential output of the team working there and how that could affect the company's bottom line. When we do that, it becomes an easier conversation to have. Once we are able to connect with the key decision makers and give them metrics they actually care about—like it's not about having a pretty space but about having a space that will allow people to achieve their short and long-term goals—they tend to be more receptive.

A meeting room at the Google offices in Lagos.

Do you feel like a bit of a disruptor or trouble maker?

I would say when we started we didn't feel like a disruptor. For me, it felt very natural because it was in line with what I was hired for and the world I was coming from. When you work at Google, you tend to live in an innovation bubble. So we didn't feel like disruptors while it was happening, but when we got people's reactions—the industry's reaction—then we realized that what we were doing was actually groundbreaking and very new to that part of the world.

Okay. And then what do you do after that? You just keep poking at that nerve?

Yeah. [Laughs] So what happens after that is the floodgates open up and we start to see a lot more demand than we can handle as a company. That gave me the confidence to quit my job at Google and do this full time. We are now starting to figure out how to do it to the best of our capacity at the same level, and sometimes surpassing, what our peers are doing across the world.

What do you find is the most important element within the workspace? How does Spacefinish highlight that?

People are the most important element in the workspace. One CEO said that his team was very unruly—weren't well composed. There is a mentality that we all subscribe to, especially coming from Nigeria where you see people at the local airports not obeying the rules. But those same people, as soon as they land in Heathrow, they're suddenly very compliant. They're the same people. The only thing that changed is their environment. New spaces can cause people to change their behavior—they morph into the space. For that client, the leadership was very happy that their team members began acting in the way they wanted them to act when we changed the space. The psychology of the whole thing is very interesting. That's why we take a human-centered approach to design, with a lot of qualitative and quantitative research before we begin.

View of the Vibranium Valley warehouse workspace in Lagos.

I'm originally from California and I grew up in Silicon Valley–it's a very peculiar place simply because of the concentration of resources. There are surely different challenges for a developer in Nigeria versus one in Silicon Valley. What is the most unique thing for you, after all your travels and experience, that makes designing for Nigeria special?

That's a really good question. You rarely find imagery of inland Africa that is progressive and modern. The first time in recent times was the Black Panther movie and that's why it was so huge. Kids could see a different version of what Africa could be in their collective imagination. I'm making this correlation because that is what I think is different for us, from a design standpoint. For example, the Google office in Nigeria looks very Nigerian. It has a lot of cultural nuances and it is locally relevant to the region, however it is a very sophisticated and modern space with all the right technology. There's videoconferencing, micro-efficiency, access control and security but with the backdrop of an African space. When people see that, it feels very fresh and new and there is so much content that we can use to inspire–from artwork to traditions–and we infuse all those things in to the spaces we're creating.

Do you have a favorite space you've done?

All the spaces we've done have been fantastic. But I think my favorite to date is the PwC office, it is an innovation hub and a huge cultural departure for PwC. They are more or less known as a rigid, stoic brand and they wanted a space that defied all of those things. So we created an innovation hub that was super, super, super futuristic and the first of its kind in West Africa. Anyone who knows interior fitouts understands that lines are straightforward but curves are complicated. This space has a lot of curves. That's difficult to do anywhere in the world but 10 times more complicated in Nigeria because we just don't have access to the right tools and technology that you will find elsewhere. But it came out very well and that has been my most exciting space so far.

A look at the PwC Experience Centre, Lagos

Was it also the most challenging?

It was, yes, because of the design ideas we wanted to achieve. We have things like revolving doors that were inspired by the hobbits' shire in Lord of the Rings and a single workstation that extends across the entire space. There are a lot of lights, floating elements and Nsibidi—an ancient African writing system that we used to create a new language. The artwork is very deep and gives a timeline of different instances in Africa where technology has inspired innovation. It was a very involved and challenging project. But we do the challenging things because we feel it allows us to move forward and push boundaries.

Sure. It's exciting for you and everyone you work with but also, I'd say, for the local contractors and artists doing the artwork.

You know, that is something that we do differently. Most architecture firms just design but we design and build. We do that because, when we started, no one in the market really understood what we were doing. We were asking for materials that didn't exist so we had to create our own. Also, everything we do is local, we don't import anything–which can be an even bigger challenge. But we want to know that we are helping to build industries here in Nigeria, we want to help fix the lack of resources in this part of the world. We could import but it doesn't help the community and economic infrastructure in the long run.

A meeting room in Vibranium Valley

I think the first time our impact hit me was when we were building a place called Vibranium Valley. That's been our biggest project so far: a 2,000 square meter office that was built in a massive warehouse. I went there on a Wednesday one day and we had over 200 people working in the space. And for the first time I was like, "Wow, we really have the ability to create jobs as well." It put things in context for me.

Are there any plans to venture outside of offices and corporate workspaces with your human-centered approach? Classrooms, waiting rooms, etc.?

We are actually about to embark on our first non-office project. We are designing and building the interior of two international airports in Nigeria: Lagos and Port Harcourt. Two very massive projects that we couldn't say no to because...no one says no to international airports [Laughs]. So it's a good way to toss us into things outside of the workspace. So everyone should come fly to Nigeria and check it out when we're finished.

Catch Nereya on her Instagram here.

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Still from 'Harriet' trailer.

Watch Cynthia Erivo as Harriet Tubman In the Moving New Trailer for 'Harriet'

The highly-anticipated biopic about the life of the iconic freedom fighter is due out on November 1.

Back in 2017, it was announced that Tony-winning actor and singer Cynthia Erivo would be taking on the role of the iconic freedom fighter Harriet Tubman in the upcoming biopic Harriet. We've been anticipating its release ever since, and today, the trailer for the buzzed about film has finally arrived.

The moving and climactic trailer sees Erivo delivering a convincing performance as Tubman. The film follows the hero's journey from escaping slavery to becoming a legendary abolitionist and freedom fighter. Here's the official description of the film via Shadow & Act:

Based on the thrilling and inspirational life of an iconic American freedom fighter, Harriet tells the extraordinary tale of Harriet Tubman's escape from slavery and transformation into one of America's greatest heroes. Her courage, ingenuity, and tenacity freed hundreds of slaves and changed the course of history.
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