Commune: a collective introspection by Greer Valley

Commune: a collective introspection
Greer Valley

In March this year, the South African government imposed a nation-wide “lockdown”, in response to the global Covid-19 pandemic, placing harsh restrictions on movement and the sharing of space with others. This unprecedented moment has simultaneously presented many challenges, provided opportunities and exposed the failings of South Africa’s fragile democracy. While the economic consequences of the lockdown have negatively impacted many South Africans, research shows that the Covid-19 pandemic has disproportionately affected women, both in terms of gender-based violence and the loss of livelihoods1. South African society places enormous burdens on women, and many women face extreme levels of poverty and violence as part of their everyday lived experience. While men enjoy privileges of greater visibility, mobility and opportunities, women often carry most of the responsibilities that involve the care of family members or members of their communities, both financially and in terms of their wellbeing. August is known as “Women’s Month” in South Africa. As we remember the women activists that put their lives on the line to dismember the apartheid regime, we are cognisant of a present where we are dealing with endemic gender-based violence, now widely symbolised by Uyinene Mrwetyana, murdered in August 2019. Now, more than ever, we need to reflect on what communing as women can offer us, both in terms of providing collective support and spaces of refuge.

Despite the current restrictions on communing, those of us who are able to, continue to gather in virtual spaces. These gatherings provide an antidote to the sense of loss and disconnect experienced during the Covid-19 pandemic. Given this context, The KwaZulu-Natal Society of Arts’ (KZNSA) presents the virtual exhibition, Commune, that reflects on what it means to gather as women, particularly in the contemporary where movement and communing are restricted. To celebrate the importance of the gathering of women, the KZNSA shows the work of four emerging women artists that have lived, worked or studied in KZN at some stage in their careers. The selected artworks presented by Mandisa Buthelezi, Vuyolwethu Ndakisa, Karla Nixon and Kylie Wentzel are in conversation with the works of two women artists of an earlier generation: Maggie Laubser and Gladys Mgudlandlu who are both regarded as Modern artists of the twentieth century.

In the art world, women’s contributions have been absented from the Art History canon (in South Africa and abroad) with very few women artists represented, particularly in pre-1994 Art History. This is especially true for black women artists. Historically, black women in South Africa overcame the hardships of the oppressive apartheid system to provide for their families and make cultural contributions to society through their art, writing and activism. Gladys Mgudlandlu’s work can be read as a metaphorical reflection of the repressive nature of the apartheid system, where her paintings evoke the forced, claustrophobic experience of urban township life. Born in the Eastern Cape, Mgudlandlu later moved to the Cape Town township of Gugulethu. Critiques of her work by her peers, most famously, Bessie Head, often refer to Mgudlandlu’s paintings as being at odds with that of other black artists of her generation. Criticised as naïve and childlike, they felt that her work was devoid of political messaging, celebrated as being “authentically African” (and thus pandering to a fictitious idea of what African art should be) and was accepted by the exclusionary white art world fraternity. This was at a time when many black artists could not access opportunities to show and sell their work in galleries and museums. Mgudlandlu’s experience is in contrast to that of Maggie Laubser who grew up on a farm in the Western Cape and spent a great deal of her adult life in Europe, returning to South Africa in later life. However, while Laubser’s career blossomed in Europe, it took some time before her work received acclaim in South Africa. Both women were disregarded by their peers for some time and lived secluded, private lives. It must be noted that while Mgudlandlu and Laubser lived parallel lives, they also lived in different worlds. Laubser had privileges afforded to her simply by being white, while Mgudlandlu was subjected to severe restrictions to her personal freedom and humanity. This was the nature of apartheid South Africa. When their works are viewed in parallel, their use of colour, preference for landscape paintings and bird motifs produce interesting tensions between the real and the imagined, and notions of freedom and repression.

Similarly, the four artists that participate in Commune bring to it vastly different personal experiences as is characteristic of the stratified nature of South African society. Wentzel is interested in the juncture of the natural and built environment in Durban, and how the two are often in conflict, resulting in paintings that can feel anxious and claustrophobic, similar to those of Mgudlandlu. Through the lens of her camera, Buthelezi searches for the misrepresented, yet legendary aunt of King Shaka Zulu, Mkabayi. In documenting the communing of women in rural settings in KZN, she tells the story of Mkabayi’s feminist leadership approach and how she is ostracised for this. Two of the works on show by Nixon are in response to the Covid- 19 lockdown and while still exploring the possibilities and limitations of paper as medium, is a departure from her other work. Nixon explores notions of construction and deconstruction of public and private space in the city and the environmental impacts of the development of urban environments. Nkandisa’s mixed-media work addresses how identity is entangled with everyday objects. Exploring what is shared when women gather in the church environment, she looks at the complex private conversations brought to the fore there, highlighting that the unsolicited anti-women advice she receives brings discomfort but also often coexists with unexpected progressive sentiments.

The communing of these women, some who have not met before, is part of the work that Commune seeks to do, connecting parallel lives and narratives that may not otherwise converge.

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