iQhiya Collective, based in South Africa, grew out of a need to present and represent. Eleven black women, all in their 20s and 30s, bonded during their time at the University of Cape Town’s Michaelis School of Fine Art, after they were denied a group show there. As their connection strengthened, the collective aimed to counterbalance underrepresentation of black female creatives in the South African art scene. Their work spans across many different mediums, including live performances, photography, video, and multimedia sculpture. One of the members, Sethembile Msezane, had an interestingly poignant showing at Cape Town’s Gallery MOMO during February and March of this year. Her body of work captures a sense of the timeless quality that shapes the art of a collective and provides its lasting impact.
In the majority of her work as a member of iQhiya, Msezane uses historical figures as the basis for embodiment. Inspired by feelings of displacement within the city, her series of public reflections of statues placed in and around Cape Town immortalises female figures that lack spaces in the city around them. In So Long a Letter, Msezane takes on the position of the male statue behind her, holding the form of a baby in the air, in a gesture of charisma and victory. Her face in this work, and in other performances, such as Excerpts From the Past, is covered by a veil of natural beads which remove her identity from the actions that she embodies. However, as she transforms her own body to represent these figures, she underlines the lack of a real connection between the past and her own time. In her 2017 exhibition at the Gallery MOMO, Msezane explores this missing link in a very tactile way.
In Re-Imagined Bodies of A (South African) 1990s Born Woman, Msezane pairs antique furniture with hair, lace, and photographed self-portraits transplanted onto mirrors. Conscious of the racialised nature of hair, she uses both recognizably black and white hair, with thick dreadlocks contrasted by pieces of white lace in the middle of an oval wooden picture frame, or long, opalescent white colored hair in a long braid, again encircled by a wooden frame, as if the woman’s face could be found behind. The self-portraits feature Msezane staring defiantly outside the mirror, in antique garments, and images slightly distressed by visually rendered age. Although each piece appears to tell a story of past times, their symbolic value places them clearly in the present, a modern retracing of domestic space, which Msezane wanted to reaffirm for today’s South African woman.
By blending very temporal visual texts, Msezane’s work highlights the creative prowess achieved by working within a like-minded collective. Surrounding the body with decaying structures and dated pieces of furniture places her artworks in a dialogue with the past, raising a meta-question on the larger role of a contemporary art collective in engaging with the past, in order to address the present. iQhyia assembles work that contains variants of equally legitimate truths: of restrictions, inequity, racism, sexism, and oppression. The tendency to come together and address these issues in a collective manner makes incredibly much sense today, and it might be the key to unchallenged success for activist art.
Words: Annunziata Santelli
Copy edited by Elena Stanciu