You have referred to the nomadic nature of your upbringing in South Africa. Did this influence the artist you have become?
It definitely has because I don’t like to speak for one type of people. South Africa is a very diverse country. Historically we have been separated by our diversity but I try and find ways to weave us back together. There are so many similarities – similar rituals and so on – even though we come from different places.
Through the residencies programme of the Institut français at the Cité international des arts, you are in Paris developing an installation based on traditional water rituals. Can you tell us a bit about the project?
It’s an installation where I talk about the spiritual nature of water – its healing powers and how people who come from traditional African spiritual backgrounds use the water for specific rituals. It’s an ode to water, almost like a thank you or offering to the water. The sea is a place for ritual as much as recreation for black people whether they are from the continent of Africa or the diaspora. It is a place of worship, of reverence where people come to commune with their ancestors.
What was the original inspiration for the project?
It began with a memory of my grandmother, mother and myself taking bottles of water from the sea on the first day of the year and using it to cleanse our bodies. On 1st January, a lot of black people take over the beaches. They go swimming and bring picnics, but it is also to use water to wash away the darkness of the previous year and welcome the new year with light. Because of South Africa’s history whenever black bodies do this white people complain, they say the beaches are overcrowded and dirty. It becomes something very racialized. I was also interested in how some people didn’t understand that it was a ritual masked as something recreational. A lot of older people understand but some of the younger ones just think "Oh, it’s the 1st, we’re going to the beach." I found out how important it was in passing when I went to the beach with younger members of my family, but couldn’t find my Grandpa. He was very upset that he didn’t get to go. He said, "You didn’t take me, I didn’t get to wash away last year, I can’t step into the new year." But he was grateful that I’d taken the younger ones. This year of course a lot of people won’t be able to go.
How have you benefitted from your time in Paris during the residency?
I was able to focus. It helped me clarify my vision. Being in Paris has helped me think in a very formulaic and linear way and to be able to structure things in a way that makes sense for me. I’m really glad to have this time to restructure and rethink.
The project you are working on will be exhibited at the Musée d’Art Moderne de Paris as part of the Africa2020 season. Is it important for you to take part to this event?
I think every exhibition is equally important because you learn different things, you see different things and learn how different institutions operate. I think Africa 2020 is important and I’m very lucky to have been chosen to participate. But in a way I feel our artwork has been capitalized on – and I don’t have a problem with that – show the work, people need to see it – but I think it’s strange that they have to have a particular season when they could just have curators who think about adding African artists to their permanent collections. It’s reinforcing the stereotype of African Art and that can get a little tiring. African art is contemporary art.
You currently divide your time between Amsterdam and Cape Town. Do you find it stimulating as an artist to have bases on two different continents?
It’s very beneficial because there’s a way that Amsterdam makes me feel because we were colonized by the Dutch before the British and the architecture at home in South Africa is very reminiscent of Dutch architecture. When I arrived I felt like I was being tested by God to see if I could survive this mentally, because it’s traumatic. But they like to say a depressed artist is the best artist don’t they? So, I had to get used to the city. But this is the reason that I make the work that I do. I make it to remember our history so that people don’t forget – to shine a light on things that have been forgotten, mainly spirituality. I go home to Cape Town mostly because I’m working on a project and it makes sense to shoot there most of the time.
Your work uses videos and stills as a stand in for the body. In what ways do you achieve this?
If I perform something it no longer exists in that space. The photo, the still, is a stand in for an ancestor. A video is a stand in for what occurred historically on a particular site. It becomes a device that hints at something that has occurred, a presence and an absence at the same time.
As a multi-media artist do you find different mediums give you the opportunity to explore different aspects of your artistic personality?
I just do whatever I feel like doing. I think it’s important that the work speaks for itself. I feel that when I start creating a work it always begins as something kind of performative in my head and then it grows from that point on and I always try and let the work decide what it is going to be. It leads me there. I don’t automatically see it as a video or a photo. I begin touching things, looking at things, and then the idea begins to manifest itself.
What are your plans for the future once this residency has finished?
When everything has calmed down in South Africa I’m going to go and shoot a video there, and then I will finish shooting a photographic series. I want to keep a bit of mystery around that. I also have Art Brussels in February and the Casablanca Biennale in April.
In residency at the Cité internationale des arts through the residencies programme of the Institut français, Buhlebezwe Siwani will exhibit the project she is working on at the Musée d’Art Moderne de Paris as part of the Africa2020 season.
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