AKUDZWE ELSIE CHIWA
21.08.20 – 18.09.20
Artist Rooms is a new feature of SMAC Gallery’s exhibition programme. Created in response to art fairs and exhibitions being postponed globally as a result of the global Covid-19 pandemic, Artist Rooms creates a space of experimentation and easier work flow to accommodate for these restrictions.
The contrapuntal: Multiple forms of retelling a personal history in Akudzwe Elsie Chiwa’s Nocturnes (2020)
This body of work began – Chiwa tells me – as many projects towards the end of March 2020 began: in quarantine. Making sense of a global health pandemic that has effectively altered our whole lives – mainly because of the unsustainability of capitalism; yet in the classical hegemonic framework of articulatory neutralisations, we are finding (techno-capitalistic) innovative ways to both resist the virus and adjust our lives around its many inconveniences. However, lives are still being lost and this has come at insurmountable socio-political, economical and psychological injustices disproportionately disadvantaging especially poor Black people and minority groups all over the world. With this in mind, enter somnium Luna noctis (The moon night’s dream – kurota kwemwedzi husiku) which starts as an excavation of Chiwa’s teenage traumas, that amongst others, includes seeing members of her immediate family ravaged by another global health crisis: HIV/Aids in the early 2000s in Zimbabwe. These memories that are especially conjured up in the nighttime, spliced by the nostalgia of the joys that came with these traumatic events, is that of 16-year-old Chiwa playing the piano for her Mainini whose HIV/Aids ailments eased when she heard classical nocturnes Chiwa learned to play strictly by ear.
This work – somnium Luna noctis (The moon night’s dream – kurota kwemwedzi husiku) – is a radical imagining of the nuclear family of Chiwa’s Mainini represented in Mainini is now basking in the moonlight. (pretty girl); Mainini’s daughter Bye bye baby (sweet baby) and Mainini’s ex-husband, We forgot about you, sorry. What Chiwa does in this work is what Anthony Bogues (2012: 34) calls the intellectual labour of thinking about the traditions of thought that grapple with dead and erased bodies that speak – living corpses whose archives and histories are not recorded in particular archivist notions but their histories living in multiple forms and embodiments that resist and serves as a contrapuntal – counterpoints to the canonical archive. It is Fred Moten who says ‘’Blackness and imagination are compact’’. Thus, it is not surprising that Chiwa imagines this nuclear family replete with the celebration of a tactical absence that acknowledges more than just the multiple sites of (generational) trauma in her family. The sculptures in their dynamic drapery and luxe fabric are sites for imagining the current and future presence(s) of these living corpses.
For me, the general situatedness in the oeuvre of Nocturnes (2020) is first and foremost a critical and radical celebration of the tumultuous multiplicity Chiwa exalts in her Being; and through this body of work, continuously consenting to not be a single being. Chiwa surpasses easy categorisations of her work’s deducibility to pain alone and its assumed translatability as it pertains to her subjectivity as a Black Zimbabwean woman currently living in Cape Town. Instead what Nocturnes does is play. Chiwa plays with personal memory and remembrance of family members alluded in somnium Luna noctis (The moon night’s dream – kurota kwemwedzi husiku); she plays with the multiplicity, double entendres and ‘cultural untransferables’ in Pungwe; Chiwa also indulges in the intimacies of pleasure through the lens of feminist erotic justice whilst invoking the deep contemplation that comes with associations of the night. These associations include Frédéric Chopin’s incessant use of the contrapuntal to develop his innovative magnum opus nocturnes that Chiwa obsessed over as a teenager, teaching herself the piano in the starry night of Masvingo referenced in the use of sequence and mildly glittering fabrics in Mainini is now basking in the moonlight. (pretty girl) and Moonlight sonata (blue baby).
It is when Chiwa shows me the last body of work – some Contemplation before you sleep and specifically Moonlight sonata (blue baby) – that she bursts in tears with the soundtrack of her youth, Moonlight sonata (1801) by Ludwig Beethoven playing in the background that she evokes her journey and the contentment of not so much arriving at a place of healing, but rather progressing in the work of atoning her multiple personal histories that function, in the biopoetics of her work. Functioning as literal social fabrics that require dynamic understandings and even non-understandings because as Michel-Rolph Trouillot (2015) offers, ‘’[personal] history is a socio-historical process that happens in the real world, and then it happens in our mind – what we understand to be happening.’’
¹For instance, theorists such as Ernesto Laclau , Chantal Mouffe and Stuart Hall speak of hegemony as not one thing, rather as a consequence of advances of transnational global techno-financial capitalism – holding a multiplicity of articulations within political discourse.
²In Njabulo Ndebele’s The Rediscovery of the Ordinary ( 2006) the author uses the phrase ‘tactical absence’ in responding to the future of post-protest literature that acknowledges past injustices that have informed cultural production, but is also similarly interested in futurity.
³Fred Moten’s trilogy published between 2017/8 that is interested in defying easy categorisations of Blackness.
4In Accented Futures: Language Activism and the Ending of Apartheid (2013) Carli Coetzee speaks of ‘cultural untransferables’ as certain things that need no translation (especially to English) because the cultural nuances get lost in the translation.
Bogues. A. 2012. And What About the Human?: Freedom, Human Emancipation, and the Radical Imagination. Boundary 2 39.3. p29-46.
Trouillot. R. 2015. Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History. Boston: Beacon Press.
Text by Amogelang Maledu