In our March ‘Women in Art’ issue, we celebrate creative women whose contributions inspire us. However, that is a celebration that goes beyond a single issue, it is in everything we do. As women in South Africa and beyond, we consistently contribute to and lead various ongoing conversations about our world. Below, artist and writer Thuli Gamedze looks at the work of artist Khanyisile Mbongwa, an ‘active thinker in engaging with the way black women are perceived in society’. Thuli writes about her current exhibition,‘Looking For Ghana & The Red Suitcase’, which is presented through her alter ego, Lhola Amira.
The idea that black women are either ignored, or conversely objectified and exoticised as though their existence functions as a performance, is a difficult reality to engage with, especially if you are what is termed a ‘performance artist’. Yet this is what the artist Khanyisile Mbongwa attempts to do through her alter ego Lhola Amira, who ‘entered’ the South African art scene in 2009. Since then she has been an active thinker in engaging with the way black women are perceived in society- “as hyper visible or invisible”- as she puts it. Amira does this by rejecting performance itself as an artistic medium, and instead opts to use social, conversational- everyday- engagements in her fleeting appearances.
Amira makes herself ‘visible’ as she is charismatic, knowledgeable and glamorous – she is typically fashionably dressed, wears lipstick and high heels – however she (and Mbongwa) reject the label ‘performer’. In her current exhibition ‘Looking For Ghana & The Red Suitcase’, showing at SMAC Gallery Stellenbosch, Amira presents documentation of her travels and her political take on it in Ghana using photography, video and installation, as well through dialogue with her viewers.
Amira is therefore not a fictional character, but an artist who ‘shares her body’ with curator Mbongwa. Mbongwa is currently studying her master’s in Performance Art, Public Art and Public Sphere through University of Cape Town-associated Institute of Creative Arts. Her artistic involvement beyond curatorship has consisted in working with collectives- Gugulective in the past, and currently with Vasiki Creative Citizens. She has viewed creative practice as a mode of activism. Lhola Amira’s career path continues this line but she is currently a solo artist, guided by, and in conversation with her ‘maker’ – Mbongwa.
The two voices in conversation bring up interesting, if sometimes conflicting ideas.
In the case of ‘Looking For Ghana…’, the separation between Lhola’s art practice- photography, video, installation- and who she is as a person is glaring. Her images are dramatic, striking and carefully composed, using a different language of communication than Lhola does in person, which is more relational and less staged. So while Lhola, striking and glamorous, but still just herself, simply surfaces at different moments, it is arguable whether or not the images she presents ‘capture’ these appearances, or in fact perform them.
However, as Mbongwa says, “you can’t perform the thing you are”, and so we could also view these discrepancies between Amira’s art objects and Amira as describing the very same discrepancy between any artist and their work. The journey of Amira is described by Mbongwa as one of “consistent deconstruction” that moves according to the politics of the time and results in living a ‘plural existence’, that is in some way representative of the continued survival of black people under ruthless colonialism and new expressions of inequality. Through this insistence on plurality – expressed through this curious existence of two selves – Amira challenges western norms of art, particularly its reliance on the artist as individual. A complex character to say the least, Amira’s aim does not seem to be preoccupied with a watertight and unchanging self-definition. She is in constant motion.
‘Looking For Ghana & The Red Suitcase’ explores, defines and imagines the idea of ‘Africa’ according to Amira’s own experience, rather than through anyone else’s eyes. The exhibition documents her seemingly counter-intuitive process of searching for this forced perception of ‘Africa’ within an African country, and in doing so, debunking myths around our continent as being homogenous. Additionally, it speaks to Amira’s curiosity and hunger for engagement, understanding, and ultimately, for knowledge about the continent and its history, present.
This was evident through her appearance at the opening, as an engaged party and a ‘viewer’ in her own right who observed her own work, conversing and playing with everyday interaction and conversation as an artistic medium. She walked through the installation of e-waste and unlit matchsticks and talked to the people in the room, referring to aspects of the contemporary Ghanaian situation that raise questions around global capitalism and its bond with racism, patriarchy, and how these operate in relation to colonialism and decolonisation. Amira takes on an entirely new character than that of Khanyisile, and while approachable, interested in conversation, and keen on sharing knowledge and ideas, there is a certain distance about her that is not shared by Mbongwa; she has a deeply insightful air, and an irresistible mystique.
Amira is interested in travelling Ghana as it is “the first sub-Saharan country to demand independence from colonialism”. Mbongwa (and Amira) is keen to know “what decolonisation looks like”, implying that in order to address the consistently morphing shape of inequality, we need new site-specific ideas and solutions that exist completely outside of the colonial paradigm.
It is through Amira’s (social and artistic) engagements in various spaces that she seeks to affirm the subjectivity of both black people and the African continent.
In using a visual language that differs greatly from her conversational and social style, we can question the effectiveness of the delivery of Amira’s message, but can hardly argue that her approach is not fascinating and incredibly challenging, and its commitment to fluidity means it will remain impossible to pin down.
Looking For Ghana & The Red Suitcase’ shows at Smac Gallery in Stellenbosch until April 1