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Circuitous trajectories in Bonolo Kavula’s Soft Landing

In her second solo exhibition with SMAC gallery, Kavula is interested in tangential experiments that came with the production of her solo exhibition at the Norval Foundation after winning the Norval Sovereign African Art Prize 2022. A contemporary art prize for artists of the African continent and its diaspora. She is the first artist to win the newly established award. “You cannot make a solo show at the Norval Foundation and your brain is not ignited by stuff’’, Kavula offers. As such, Soft Landing serves to unpack these tangential ‘stuff’ – ignited experiments – emphasising play and the circularity of ideas and memories.

 artist Lisa Steele’s 1982 video art piece Talking Tongues. We hear the repeatedrecision of her artworks with the help of an A1 green cutting mat that has a guiding grid of measurements. For example, to make Tshenelo, each thread has to have a varying length. This maintains the flowing effect of the geometrical cusp at the bottom of the threads, ensuring that each thread’s cusp do not touch. Even though the work is labour intensive, “as a process chick, I love this: figuring out how to do certain things well and repeating the process again’’, Kavula attests. “Sometimes I have to start the process all over again because there is a mistake that I usually spot very quickly with my naked eye … I am also learning what the threads can and cannot do’’, she candidly adds. There is a kind of circuitous trajectory in the process of making the work that requires power negotiations with the material. A kind of reconversion that is first generated from transforming the geometric shweshwe patterns into tiny, punctured discs that become glued onto threaded strands: an oscillatory process.

If, like me, you have been following Kavula’s work for a while, you will know that her artmaking is variegated, experimental and interdisciplinary. From comics and zines to her rap visual artist character, ‘Black Mona Lisa’ that gestures to notions of identity and Black womanhood; to her institutional critique of the ‘artworld’ in her stand-up comedy performances and her collectivist practice in the Cape Town-based artist collective that she co-formed, iQhiya. These are some of the extensions in her art practice that are itinerant in this body of work, albeit implicitly. However, the circularity of revisiting oeuvres in her earlier works is similarly contingent to a dynamic that functions as both continuity and renewal. 

In May I, Kavula circuits to the medium of video, this time making an intertextual reference to three women: her mother’s death and the heirloom of her red shweshwe dress, a Mariam Makebe interview from her visit to Finland in 1969 and Canadian artist Lisa Steele’s 1982 video art piece Talking Tongues. We hear the repeated murmur: ‘I have to say the things that I say’. The murmurings serve as a clue of linking these disparate women to a sonic sensorial interchangeability on the importance of their positional voices – both socially and politically. Voices not only annunciating victimhood, but simultaneously becoming tools of creatively responding and resisting living a life where violent death is imminent. A glimpse of the continued lineage of women’s voices subverting, rebelling and refusing to stay in their so-called proper places. May I functions as a rhetorical questioning voice that engages the sonic register of speaking out and taking up space, relational to deep listening as an ethic of forging solidarities. Insisting that the subaltern speaks.

 The intertextual connections in Soft Landing, pronounced materially and conceptually by Kavula’s abstractions and threads of memory serve as markers of time-space infinitudes. The body of work figuratively and literally glues threads of kinship  and histories. The artist considers deeply the catalyst to the work she is producing today:   the gift her great grandmother gave her – the red shweshwe dress that belonged to her late mother. A metaphorical dialectic in the oneness of embodied generational memory and literally living with allegorical social fabrics of badimo. 

In its motifs of play and experimentation, the exhibition takes me back to a particular childhood game, made entirely out of a single string where each end is tied into the other to make one continuous thread that is nestled into the pinky finger and the thumb, forming a frame in one’s hands. From there on, one zigzags all sorts of patterns, shapes and connections that geometrically fit into the frame. The more intricate the geometries, patterns and connections, the more impressive. I forget the game’s Setswana name, but a few Google searches suggests that its popularly landing on currents settled in the ebb and flow of Lewatle (2022) 2 – the expanse – of of my childhood, of play. The wanderlust of re-memory and nostalgia. The work of remembering is the work of time in circularity: past-present-future continuums. Soft Landing follows on this perpetual thread of memory-making, softly landing on currents settled in the ebb and flow of Lewatle (2022) 2 – the expanse – of the artist’s ongoing artistic practice.

1 Borrowing from feminist scholar and literary critic, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s 1988 seminal essay Can the subaltern speak? that established her voice as an intersectional feminist scholar who considers history, geography and class positionality in the quest for the liberation of women.

2 Lewatle is the title of Kavula’s solo exhibition at the Norval Foundation which is opened on 29

October 2023 and will be up until 20 March 2023. Lewatle means ocean in Setswana. In the

exhibition, Kavula uses themes invoked by the ocean to further explore the possibilities of scale,

movement, and spatial presence and aesthetics through experimentation with different methods of hanging and presenting her this body of work.

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