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.


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.

The front page of The New York Times on January 16, 2019

Kenyans Are Furious at the New York Times for Posting Photos of Terrorist Victims

After the the deadly attack on Tuesday, many are accusing the American newspaper of having a double standard on which dead bodies they allow into the paper

Is the New York Times guilty of a double standard when it comes to publishing images of dead bodies?

Kenyans, and others fed up with the coverage, took to social media in the hundreds to denounce a Times article that included an image of victims of Tuesday's Nairobi terrorist attack, bloodied from bullets, and lying hunched over their laptops, dead.

It has cause enough debate online to where the Times' incoming East Africa Bureau chief Kimiko de Freytas-Tamura felt the need to explain their photo policy, which is to show the dead only if their faces cannot be seen in the image. The photo in question fits the policy as the faces are facing away from the camera. She would later apologize before posting the official policy to her Twitter account. The photo remains up.

The Times' official response, as those tend to do online, has only created more anger. But unlike many unruly Twitter mobs, those responding to the official statement have a rather coherent message—"you wouldn't do this with photos of the American dead."

Some of the responses to the Times' official statement.

In a response to the controversy from the Poynter Institute, a typically astute observer of journalistic practice in the United States, they run through the typical American journalism school approach to publishing photos that might shock or offend. They write:

Should the Times have run the photo?
There is no easy answer.
The first question any news organization must ask when deciding to publish violent images is: WHY show it?
In other words, what is the news value? Does the public need to see such an image to fully grasp what happened? Does the public need to see such a photo to confirm or disprove the official account of the events?
An argument could be made that a writer's words could accurately describe the scene without being as disturbing as the image. In addition, when it comes to an act of terrorism, might publishing such a photo actually advance the cause of the terrorists, showing the damage they caused, thus fueling dread and panic?
Also this: The photo on the Times website came without warning. As a reader, you didn't know you were going to see a photo of dead people until you actually saw it.
Those are arguments to not run such a photo or, at least, warn readers of its graphic content.

While it's a fine analysis of when to show a violent image, it misses the central issue at play for those aggrieved by the Times' posting—that the American news-gaze values certain lives differently. Black, brown, foreign, poor—American journalism organizations, including the New York Times, cannot escape a base ethnocentrism in their coverage. It's so embedded into how these institutions operate, and the gap in understanding is so wide, that to much of the world, the Times' official response is laughably wrong at first glance.

"We take the same approach wherever in the world something like this happens--balancing the need for sensitivity and respect with our mission of showing the reality of these events"

And while there are examples from the Times that complicate this feeling, like these images of the dead in the terrorist attack in Nice, France, it doesn't discount the wider and correct feeling that the white victims of American mass shootings are treated differently than their African counterparts. And while there are complicated and systematic reasons for this which will always make discussing it difficult, to simply deny that different standards exist, does not increase the Times' credibility with Kenyans or the newspaper's growing online audience which will only become more vocal about how they're portrayed.

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In a speech this morning, Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta declared the rescue mission over, stating that there were 700 people rescued and a total of 14 casualties. He also stated that all of the attackers had been killed in the operation, according to Quartz Africa. "Every person that was involved in the funding, planning and execution of this heinous act will be relentlessly pursued," added Kenyatta.

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