At the Centre of the Ripple

Dungamanzi, which means stirring waters in Vatsonga, is also the title of a groundbreaking exhibition of objects made in the Tsonga and Shangaan tradition. Robyn Sassen speaks to the team of curators about their strategy to engage art audiences

Installation view of Dungamanzi, which included examples of Tsonga-Shangaan medicine containers by Mphephu Ngobeni (foreground left) and N’wa-Hlengani Fanisa (foreground right)

Exhibitions of objects from ethnic Africa are not unusual in the west since the advent of colonialism. Dungamanzi, an exhibition curated by Nessa Leibhammer, Natalie Knight and Billy Makhubele and recently hosted by the Johannesburg Art Gallery (JAG), breaks a mould dictating that white curators speak for black crafters. Makhubele is not simply the BEE partner in the equation; he contributed in his sensitivity to and knowledge of nuances in Shangaan and Tsonga culture.

Dungamanzi also broke another restrictive mould: the works on show were not only traditional, nor were they singularly craft. The assembled pieces offered both backward and forward glances at the Shangaan and Tsonga cultures, informed by contemporary craft and fine art from practitioners like Phillip Rikhotso and Jackson Hlungwani.

Knight, a stalwart of the South African art scene, met Leibhammer in 2004 to begin negotiating the show. An avid collector and researcher of African art (since 1978), Knight previously collaborated with Suzannne Priebatsch on a project with a Ndebele focus. “In a project of this nature, you have to make choices which can be key to the readability and reception of the work by a mixed audience,” Knight explained.

Dungamanzi’s catalogue was the exhibition’s impetus. Initially the idea was to create a book, published by the JAG — Leibhammer is curator of traditional southern African Art at this institution. Collaborative in spirit and fact, this catalogue is edited by Leibhammer and contains contributions by each of the curators, as well as further pieces by Anitra Nettleton and Karel Nel, amongst others.

The exhibition’s opening event featured Tsonga and Shangaan traditional dancers, drawing an almost unprecedented crowd, according to JAG’s director Clive Kellner. It also featured Vonani Bila reading a poem about sculptor Jackson Hlungwani, whose work was also included on Africa Remix, which ran concurrently in an adjacent space. Bila is Dungamanzi’s Vatsonga editor and is as passionate about his Tsonga heritage as Makhubele is about his Shangaan roots. This balance is vital in the controversial stuff of which Tsonga-Shangaan awareness is made.

From the 18th century, the Tsonga migrated from Mozambique to South Africa. The Shangaan were of Zulu stock. They conquered the Tsonga, but were in turn conquered by Portuguese colonialists in the late 19th century. Today the two groups live side by side, predominantly north of Pretoria. Shangaan culture remains part of a litany of discrimination for some.

The work of both cultures is characterised by bright asymmetrical beadwork, minimalist headrests and medicine containers, walking sticks and pipes of wood and gourd with quirkily carved faces. They are also noted for their fertility dolls and traditions of celebrating transition into adulthood, through dance and education. Tsonga women make minceka, garments worn draped across the body and adorned with beads, embroidery or safety pins. These have become hot property for collectors; contemporary versions are heavy with narrative.

Between 1990 and 2000, the museum as a western edifice containing African art objects was a fashionable focus for a lot of academic writing and teaching. Several local exhibitions engaged with the messy contradictions in exhibiting African art in a western context, including Art and Ambiguity (1991), The Collection of WFP Burton (1992), Evocations of the Child (1998) and Engaging Modernities (2003). To Leibhammer, who worked on two of these exhibitions, it was critically important that the objects on show in Dungamanzi be accessible; the show’s layout was as important a consideration as the items selected for display.

Manjhonjho, a company named for Billy Makhubele’s grandfather and employed by JAG to offer security and guide service, blends protecting the objects on show with explaining their relevance. The theft of heritage items is a real concern, but the challenge is also to exhibit them in a user-friendly context.

“Why are we being so paternalistic?” Leibhammer pondered when questioned about this strategy. “They are things that are made to be touched. It is a value judgement to market them as precious”. In the event, the exhibition has been well received. “My sleepless nights about being accused of misrepresentation or insensitivity to the cultures whose work we display, because I have a white face, have proved unnecessary.”

In compiling this beautiful and important exhibition, the curators aimed to engage with objects not made for exhibition purposes, as well as the discrepancy between Tsonga and Shangaan. “We had to show perceptions of popular consciousness,” added Leibhammer. Makhubele agreed, commenting that the exhibition has brought unprecedented interest in both communities. Knight expressed a desire to have the book translated into Vatsonga and Machangani, which would give it relevance to an appropriate spectrum of readers. Makhubele further discussed the question of what determines an audience’s appropriateness with reference to the medicine gourds. Each contains traditional medicine — “for good luck, blood pressure, cancer and other ailments” — and originates from sangomas. Like clothing used for ritual purposes, they can only be shown if permission is gained from the ancestors.

It was Makhubele’s job to keep the project on track, focusing on community voice, while Leibhammer masterminded the formal academic side of the show, also handling the display’s design and conceptualisation as well as the bulk of the funding; Knight, who ran a commercial gallery for over 30 years, handled the marketing, catering and publicity.The uncomfortable balance between effort, time and money was unanimously disappointing, stated the curators. “We worked more than three years to raise the necessary funds”, said Leibhammer. “It’s a pity the show will only be in Johannesburg for three months”. Robyn Sassen is a freelance arts writer and contributing arts editor for the SA Jewish Report