Language, Remembering, and Defining Your Own

Curator Khanyisile Mbongwa
Curator Khanyisile Mbongwa. Photography Tatyana Levana

I am a curator, but I also exist in plural, as two beings in one body. As Lhola Amira, the work WE do exists in the art world. Or you can also say that the art world exists as one of the places WE use to engage and communicate the things WE are asked to communicate. But as myself, as Khanyisile Mbongwa, I don’t make any artwork, I only curate. I have been very deliberate and intentional about positioning myself purely as a curator and sociologist. As a curator I don’t engage with Lhola Amira’s work curatorially, I don’t impose my curatorial perspective on it, even though there are meeting points. We maintain an autonomy between the two of US. It is a very challenging thing to do, but it is very intentional not to blur those lines.

People are aware, especially in South Africa, of OUR plural existence. Lhola Amira exists as a plural being, as an ancestral presence that manifests itself physically through my body. And so when WE speak in OUR plurality, OUR pronouns are WE, THEY, US, and YOU. WE have been existing in plural since 2008. OUR practice is in the form of ‘Appearances’, constellations and short films. WE are very particular in defining OUR practice, finding the language that articulates it that is embedded in an indigenous African Nguni ancestral and spiritual perspective.

My interest has always been about how we develop as human beings in the world, our socio-political and socio-cultural positioning, what kind of conditions create those positions, and how we respond to that. For me art, or the creative space, is a medium, a tool I use to explore, experiment, express, and test, some of my own philosophies and ideas. Sometimes it’s a tool that challenges my preconceived notions. I usually say that my interest is in public space, and its social, political, economical, racial, gender, historical, and contemporary complexities. It is a way to make sense of the world now through its past, and our future imaginations of it. I am interested in the complexities and nuances of the everyday in the public space.

South African alleyways as a space for Radical Black Imagination. My Masters subject matter in 2018 was to look at townships and their alleyways as a possible public space, and as the only free space, the only one that the Apartheid regime, and its philosophy, didn’t contextualize when they were designing the townships and conceptualizing how they could limit Black people and Black lives. My theorizing was that this space is for Radical Black Imagination, where we can imagine ourselves, a choreography of potentiality and possibility. Alleyways are places where people go through from one section of the street to the next, typically narrow, badly lit, filled with some form of graffiti, shortcuts really, to get to the taxi rank, bus stop, train station or whatever the destination, quicker. Some of them happen naturally, some of them are part of the township architectural design, but they are very common in South Africa. Townships are not only the architectural product of Apartheid, but also colonialism, a geographical location with only one exit. It is a very particular grid design, like a maze. Architecture in South Africa is quite deliberate and specific, like highways or train tracks that are a way to separate different races, they are buffers between a township and the suburbs, between Black, Coloured, White, and Indian people. The alleyways are the only space that the Apartheid regime and colonial project didn’t theorize or contextualize. I grew up in a township and my relationship with the alleyways is different from the usual perception that it is dangerous and filthy. Besides all the people who are walking through them, there are all the tagging on the walls, the boys that sit on the edges of the entrance, forming a sort of boyhood family network, where they engage in particular ways and different codes. There are the young lovers who make it their meeting spot. It’s the shortcut for the womxn on her way to church.  Buses, taxis, and trains are also a form of alleyways, where Black people are corridored into the city and out, every day as early as 5am and as late as midnight. The alleyway is continued via the local transport system. I conceived these ‘Demonstrations’, actioned by other people on campus, through indigenous forms of movement, setting up places in a particular way, discussions, listening to songs together, exercises, and exploring how our bodies remember, embody and archive things. Those are the kind of topologies I used when I was putting together these ‘Demonstrations’, an application of sensitivities to the histories we carry knowingly and unknowingly.

Khanyisile Mbongwa
Khanyisile Mbongwa. Photography Marc Degenaar.

Arriving. I was invited by Julia Haarmann for a 3 months residency at CAT Cologne, in 2018. She was interested in my curatorial practice. It was shortly after Europe was closing its borders. At the time, a lot of people were leaving their countries and trying to get into Europe, via Spain, and again were dying in the Mediterranean. It is not new that Black and Brown bodies are drowning in the ocean. I was looking at my own movement because of the work I do, and the privilege it brings to my way of moving. When I got to Germany, I was interested in people who identified as afro-german, I was fascinated by this form of identification. The questions that I was asking myself then were ‘when do we actually arrive anywhere? What are the forms of arriving, when you are migrating or possibly moved, or when circumstances are pushing you out of your home? And you imagine yourself in this other space, do you ever arrive there? This is how “Blueprint” came about. We are classified or labeled as immigrants, aliens or illegal immigrants, never fully seen as ourselves but through this very specific classification that barricades us. Our identities are hyphened, you are afro-German or afro-European. What kind of blueprints can we then put together to assist people who are arriving to this new place that they want to call home? The project consisted of a series of performances in public spaces, conversations, interviews, and a catalog. I worked with artists who lived in Germany but who are not necessarily German. I asked them to engage with a music archive from ILAM, a very colonial music archive based in Rhodes University, as a way to draw parallels between time, space, and histories.
In September this year I worked on another project with CAT Cologne, a group exhibition called Process as Resistance, Resilience, and Regeneration. I couldn’t go because of Covid-19 of course, but also because I had a baby this year. I opened the triennial when my baby was just 2 weeks old!

Starting a triennial from scratch. The Stellenbosch Triennale approached me to take on this task of curating, but also imagining from scratch what the triennial would be. I had worked with Elana Brundyn, one of the triennial trustees for several years, and with Mike Tigere Mavura, another board member. I am also an alumni of Stellenbosch University and so I have context of the town, beside its history. Stellenbosch is / was instrumental in theorizing and instigating the legalizing of Apartheid. It is one of the richest towns in South Africa, with wine farms and a long history with the DOP system (payment in alcohol rather than money). It is a contested space that carries a lot of trauma, and in some ways continues these violent racial legacies. It is one of the most racist towns in South Africa. It isn’t an easy location, but a necessary one, to go where the wound began, a place ripe with possibility and potentiality for various forms of transformation and self-reconciliation to happen. We opened this year in February, but the triennial was cut short after 4 weeks because of Covid-19, and we couldn’t do some of the outreach programmes. We had about 40 artists represented, including an exhibition at the museum with over 140 artworks. The opening week was phenomenal, also because we strategically opened during the time of Cape Town art fair, to facilitate an art ecosystem and give people more reasons to come to Cape Town. The reviews have been quite interesting, both the critiques and the celebrations. The first one is the hardest, it’s about doing something new in that space, and testing the waters about what is really possible, and whether we are ready for such encounters.

Before I had a baby, I used to do a bit of kickboxing. I love active meditation. When my body is in a very active space, I become more aligned. I also play indigenous drums, igubu, to mediate and centre myself. I find it very calming. I also love nature, I love to take walks, hiking or be in the forest alongside the ocean. You can walk on the Promenade in Sea Point or go to Kirstenbosch (botanical garden) or go to Newlands forest, there are many other spots but these are reasonably accessible via public transport. In Cape Town, we are spoiled with nature surrounding us.

A book that still haunts me is “In the Wake. On Blackness and being” by Christina Sharpe. She’s amazing. In this book she critically uses the term ‘the wake’ and terms such as “the hold’, ‘the ship’, and other vocabulary from the history of the transatlantic slave trade, as a way to navigate our experiences as black people, historically and in contemporary times. It speaks to my soul!

I love dancing! My friends know. I love being on the dance floor just to dance. When I go out, I am very specific, I love deep house, afro vibes or what people nowadays call world music. I really love African music, such as Malian singer Ali Farka Touré, he plays guitar and indigenous guitar. In South Africa, I love people like Busi Mhlongo, Kwaito singer Lebo Mathosa, electronic duo Black Motion, or poet Busiswa—she does very beautiful house music, she uses the genre for such a feminist perspective! Every album is a conversation, unpacking everyday lived experiences, and her own as a Black woman in South Africa and the world. She’s just amazing. I could go on about music, there are many more people I love like Mandla Mlangeni, Msaki, Urban Village, Madosini, Mandisi Dyantyis, Abbey Lincoln…

Aligning with my ancestors. When I look back into the work that I have been doing in the past five years or more, I have been aligning with my ancestors. I have been in communion with my ancestors for a long time, and very much aware of it. I always say that part of my curatorial practice is informed by ‘curing and caring’, I also think it is very much informed by ‘remembering’. Part of remembering is finding the kind of language we need to use, to say what we want, to define, so that we no longer sit in definitions that are against us, in spaces that know how to kill us. Where I am right now is understanding the spiritual and ancestral gravitas that is needed for emancipatory practices to happen, on a holistic level. Since we are deeply traumatized by enslavement, colonialism, and Apartheid—we must as well be carrying the deep wisdom of our ancestors. We are not just one side of the violent experience, and that’s what I am interested in, that’s the remembering!

If I wasn’t curating I would be a scientist or a dancer. I was raised by my grand mother, and I used to see how she used to labor. When I was younger I fancied myself a scientist and that I would design and come up with these things that would alleviate some of the pressures that womxn undergo. That was what I wanted to do. Or a dancer! A scientist or a dancer! They are two extremes.

Khanyisile Mbongwa

Independent curator

Cape Town, South Africa


Khanyisile Mbongwa is Chief Curator of the Stellenbosch Triennale 2020. She is a Cape Town-based independent curator, award winning artist and sociologist. She works with public space, interdisciplinary and performative practices, unpacking the socio-political, socio-economic, socio-racial, gender-queer and historical-contemporary complexities and nuances of the everyday. In 2018 she took up a curatorial research residency at CAT (Community Art Team), Cologne, Germany focusing on the public sphere, interventions and public policies. As a result, she curated BLUEPRINT: Where There’s Nowhere To Go, Where Is Home? Currently she works with the Norval Foundation as Adjunct Curator for Performative Practices and with Cape Town Carnival as Curatorial and Socio-Critical Development Advisor.

Art critic and writer.

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