Abangani bami – Izithombe zami (My friends – Images of me), 2021, is a self-portrait by Luyanda Zindela that celebrates the shared intimacies, fragilities and sacredness embedded in close friendship. Through a series of carefully detailed portraits, the artist compels us to consider the act of friendship as a process of collaborative witnessing. This is an open-ended, transformative engagement that involves seeing the other and seeing the self through the other person’s perspective. Friendship is an embodied act of being in the world with others, and in those relationships, one is often receptive to being drawn (directed and interpreted) by the other. Responsiveness to the other is addressed in this body of work as the artist posits the idea of close friendships as metaphorical mark-making processes. The notion of friendship as dialogical mark-making elicits the affective qualities of drawing achieved by variation in the application of line and pressure that result in a range of marks that could be deep, shallow, bold, and faint in character. In doing so, the artist exemplifies a particular type of friendship – those characterized by a shared sense of intimacy, closeness and care in this series, driven by an uncertain but profound attempt to become more himself.
As friendships unfold over time, their marks leave a series of impressions on the self and others—and can influence how the world is navigated and negotiated. This idea is particularly pertinent in the contemporary moment as forced isolation and longing for connection during the global Covid-19 pandemic showed how ordinary experiences with other people are central to what it means to be human. Through a ‘close reading’ that requires observation, expression, and vulnerability, Zindela presents the possibility that the practice of friendship could provide a framework for building community, instead of this being solely reliant on relationships of marriage/love-partnerships or concepts of neighbourhood. The word ‘friend’ [ describing a relationship that is often not professionally or sexually defined ] can fall short in terms of language when conveying the impact and significance of those close friendships . The word has become increasingly commonplace with the rise of social media, and its contemporary reading can negate the deep intimate connections and longings between people who share bonds of mutual appreciation and love.
Friendships often present themselves as sites of unlearning and as a radical practice. For Zindela, his circle of close friendships consisting almost entirely of Black womxn has led to an exploration of his understanding of what Tina Campt refers to as ‘adjacency’. According to Campt, ‘adjacency’ is recognising the disparity of power relationships and working to address it. Through his friends’ accounts, Zindela is made aware of the multiple, seemingly endless ways that womxn experience toxic masculinity endemic to South African culture. Responding to this, the artist takes cognizance of his positionality in his artistic practice, and this is intimated by his refusal to reproduce familiar (and often problematic) tropes associated with visual representations of black womxn. In practice, he focuses on snapshots of ordinary yet intimate moments with his friends that speak those relationships’ specific memories and particularities. The portraits, many of which are large-scale renderings of stored digital images on his mobile phone, are accompanied by titles such as “Ngizokuthandazela” (I will pray for you), “Cha. Qedela lokhu obufuna ukosho” (No, finish what you wanted to say) and “Ngikhathele. Ngicela ukhulume into ecacile” (I’m tired. Please say something that makes sense). The titles explore the layers of the self, other and the relationship; instead of adopting misconceptions of ‘giving voice’ or speaking for the subjects of his portraits. At times humorous, and at other times unremarkable, the titles are fragments of more extended, intimate conversations and allow us a tiny glimpse into these exchanges of mutual know-ing. At the same time, the artist leaves just enough room to invite imaginative readings of these interpersonal interactions, allowing the viewer to be drawn into private worlds that are otherwise inaccessible. The titles suggest the artist’s presence in the portraits, demonstrating the collaborative nature involved in self-reflection or in mirroring the self.
Zindela’s series of drawings are developed and moulded through the closeness of the friendships he represents; the drawings themselves are not static renderings but point to a broader context of dynamic engagement. The process of making the work - the slow progression of technically detailed layering of the acrylic marker on the board’s surface, could be thought of as a metaphor for the time put into nurturing companion friendships. Considering the possibility that long-term, close friendships sometimes comprised of periods of silence, distance, and absence, this is time given without expectations of an outcome, other than simply ‘being’ in the world with others.
Text by Greer Valley