Paris+ par Art Basel | 2023
20.10.23 - 22.10.23
Sitting on The Cusp of Knowing: Entangled Matter and Tacit Knowledge in Simphiwe Buthelezi’s Izinyathelo Zabagcotshiweyo
Text by Chiara Mzizi
Simphiwe Buthelezi’s (b. 1996) 2023 exhibition Izinyathelo Zabagcotshiweyo (Footsteps of the Ordained) gestures us towards a safe space of uncertainty. Here, we pass through, neither coming from nor arriving at. It is a style of knowing, being, and making best encapsulated by what Athambile Masola calls ukuzilanda (to find oneself) or what the artist herself deems bantu modes of thinking. In this schema, thinking and making are the entangled activities that propel Buthelezi’s spiritual and artistic journeying which are all mediated through her engagement with organic matter.
The process begins with careful consideration of iCansi (the Zulu word for grass reed mats) which operate as a constant conceptual and material motif in her work. Fiber art has long held its place in art-making as the elusive feminine; traversing the line between art and craft and in most instances abolishing such a binary altogether. Thus, the journey of sourcing, harvesting and manipulating these organic materials draws our attention to the often neglected artistic and intellectual knowledge passed down by (and for) black women. In this instance, the grass reeds harken back to a long history of black women’s weaving practices used for spiritual, practical or aesthetic purposes.
The artist hones in on this South African form of spirituality in her employment of the natural material. Indeed, iCansi is used not merely as an object, but equally as a framework for being in the world. For Buthelezi, they unfold as a technology of channelling. The extended amount of time needed to construct the pieces necessitates meditative contemplation for the artist, whereby the practice of making carves out a space of catharsis and reflection. Doubly so, functioning as a spiritual medium between the artist and her ancestors, the grass mats disclose tacit forms of knowledge gained across time and space. Seen in this light, Buthelezi’s invocation of iCansi guides the conceptual undertones throughout Izinyathelo Zabagcotshiweyo. Like the long grass reeds, the artist’s body of work stresses a sense of openness and cartographically functions like a map. Ephemeral ripples of mirrors, glass, and reeds disclose varying sites of entry and departure as if to mirror the entangled routes (and roots) that direct her metaphysical journey as an artist and healer.
Here, the mundane is transformed into the spectacular as Buthelezi literally and figuratively elevates the materials, revealing their political, cultural and spiritual power. In this view, matter is layered with meaning as iCansi discloses fugitive echoes of black modes of being in the world. For Buthelezi, the material enables divine communion in her personal journey of ukuzilanda, where this attention to matter, in all of its elusive and unfurling forms, comes from her kinship with the earth and her heritage. Certainly, the invocation of a medium manifests itself both spiritually and aesthetically, alerting us to the fact that, as Karen Barad writes, “the very nature of materiality is an entanglement. Matter itself is always already open to, or rather entangled with, the Other”.
Deeper still, Buthelezi’s attention to materiality takes on various scaled forms. Zoom in, and one is attuned to the movement of her works as layers of tankrali (ancient Zulu beads) sit delicately alongside each other. As an artistic medium, Zulu beadwork has most often been used as a dynamic form of self-stylisation to reflect the fluidity of the wearer’s complex identity, time and location. This sense of movement, both historical and personal, is encapsulated in the oceanic feeling that the glass beads induce.
Moreover, zoom out of the works and the artist’s care towards broader cosmological patterns becomes evident. In many ways, the exhibition reads like an installation where no single object can be explored without grappling with its interactions and relations. That is, the liquid-like forms that the beads visualise are strongly connected to the moon - both physically as a way of moving water and additionally to a broader spiritual astrology. For instance, the Zulu word inyanga describes the more literal word for the moon but it is also synonymous with divine healers. Thus, Buthelezi’s works move through various scales that visually structure her spatial imagination.
When seen in this light, Izinyathelo Zabagcotshiweyo attends to an ideological tradition of centring black women’s ecological and spiritual labour as a necessary and ever-evolving practice of insurgency; which requires us to re-think our relationship to matter away from eurocentric modes of environmental degradation or preservation. In this way, Buthelezi’s work has deep resonance within South Africa’s fraught history - and contemporary reality - of segregation and land dispossession. In a country where millions of South Africans were forcibly removed from their homes, their epistemological frameworks disregarded, and their cultural practices invalidated, the artist gestures towards both inward searching and outward mobilization.
This commitment to the politics of land and space is set under the backdrop of Buthelezi’s personal history of familial migration. Her formative years were spent with her mother in Vryheid, KwaZulu-Natal before moving to Johannesburg at eight years old. This matrilineal and ecological separation prompted Buthelezi’s later artistic and spiritual trajectory, which she cites as a way of returning to the womb. In this context, working with the land became an important way for the artist to commune with her mother’s ancestry and doubly so, to navigate the broader context of land sovereignty today.
Subsequently, as the world around us changes and its hegemonic structures, both physical and figurative begin to fall, the work prompts a careful consideration of what ‘homing’ means. Therein, iCansi functions as a symbol for mobile forms of belonging, paying homage to malleable cultural iconography and decolonial conceptions of space. That is, if etymologically, colonialism signifies structure, order, and categorisation, Buthelezi’s decoloniality operates with regard to the continual preservation of malleable forms of knowing, making, and belonging. Izinyathelo Zabagcotshiweyo works to blur the boundaries between the mystical, the cultural and the structural. It is in this generative sweet spot that Buthelezi ushers in a form of soft architecture, whereby her conception of home has a social and historical structure, (and is embedded in the material conditions of South Africa), but nevertheless gestures towards an otherworldly space. Thus, by placing a silent k in her presentation of (k)new knowledge, the work does not mummify her cultural heritage but projects it into an ever-evolving present/future. And in this channel, residing somewhere between movement and grounding, the here and there, viewers are prompted to re-think the spaces and materials we may be able to call home.
In this way, the artist’s practice finds resonance with Stefano Harney and Fred Moten’s insistence that: “we want to take apart, dismantle, and tear down the structure that, right now, limits our ability to find each other, to see beyond it and to access the places that we know lie outside its walls”. There is something about burning, manipulating, re-working and weaving the materials that politically attunes us to the necessity of damage. Namely, Buthelezi’s work attends to ideological and physical breaking as it reworks the normative in favour of the mystical, and opaque. It dares us to look differently and hone in on fugitive paths of escape as it maps out the ecological, spiritual and political radicality weaved into the matter around us. However, land, in all of its abundance and density is at once sacred but not immune to damage. Rather, the artist reminds us that destruction opens up a gateway to healing and fruition. Thus, Izinyathelo Zabagcotshiweyo operates at a frequency both open and concealed. Buthelezi’s aesthetic grammars break where necessary, playing with tacit forms of knowledge in the hope of journeying towards a divine elsewhere.