“The work always has the full story. But I am not always able to articulate it. Or sometimes I don’t want to, because it’s too personal. My work is about my own experiences, but it also touches the lives of the people that I love.”
INTERVIEW: JAQUELINE FLINT
PHOTOGRAPHY: JACO S VENTER
Lungiswa Gqunta’s work is great for dialogue. She taps into frequencies that are thrilling to anyone interested in post-post-colonial discourse; issues around the lived black experience; spatial division; institutional decolonization; politics of the black body, especially the black female body; systemic violence… The words ‘revolutionary’, ‘unapologetic’, ‘aggressive’ spring to mind. And they are entirely relevant. The work is all of these things. It is important work that speaks significant truths about the grand scheme of things – in South Africa and more broadly in the global South.
In her solo show, Qokobe, at Whatiftheworld Gallery in Cape Town in 2016, an installation called Divider dominated. In it, a number of Black Label beer bottles – a brand which, itself, could spark whole discourses in a feminist post-colonial space – hang suspended from the ceiling via petrol-soaked, knotted fabric. The references are manifold, and the most pervasive are those that speak to revolutionary acts – the Molotov cocktail, the back-firing of the ‘dop’ system. The smell of petrol is inescapable, attacking the senses of gallery-goers, and plucking the strings of their anxiety. Thuli Gamedze, in her text that accompanies Qokobe, writes of the petrol bomb reference as calling out ‘the urgent need for the decolonization of not only institutions, but the larger landscape… [the] absolute destruction of a white-owned status quo.’
But there is more to the work than a burning call to action. The fabric emerging from the bottles is actually made of bed sheets, many of them taken from Lungiswa’s home. They are sheets that she has slept in, that her mother has slept in. Worn out from use and other things. The twisted, tense and twining appearance of the bed sheets brings to mind an umbilical cord. The very first thing that nourishes us, which also leaves a permanent scar on our bodies in the shape of the navel, the centre of a very soft part of us, and one of the most vulnerable when left exposed.
Lungiswa’s work, right from the start of her career, has touched on the idea of home, in one way or another. Home, feeling at home, the ease of being in one’s place. Moving to the city has meant for Lungiswa and many of her peers the loss of ‘at ease’ – psychologically, spatially, and physically. They are outsiders in a world that is not set up to work out for them. And this is the crux of the revolutionary cry – the desire to make you feel as a viewer, even if just for a moment, the uncomfortable, skin-crawling dis-ease that is the lived reality of black people all over the world. But it’s the quieter stuff in the work that delivers the sucker punch, right to the gut – bringing the sense of loss home again, and giving it a personal texture. It takes systemic violence and translates it into domestic violence – like the ‘dop’ system, translated into the brutal and subtle ramifications of alcoholism in the home.
Let me ease the pain uses some of the same raw materials as Divider. An old spring mattress, stripped bare, is supported by beer bottles shrouded in bed sheets. In this work, trauma is swept under the mattress. Alcohol eases the pain. Women comfort the pain, and they bear the brunt of it. The bed sheets muffle sound, swaddle hurt, or both – and it is the women who will wash the blood out of the sheets in the end, or sweep up the broken glass. In Lungiswa’s home back in Port Elizabeth, the women hold it all together. Strong women who taught her the power of the feminine position, despite the violence directed at it, from within the home and from outside. Resilient, irrepressible women – this is what power looks like, and they light the spark of rebellion for Lungiswa. The home is the woman’s domain, and she is resolute in her pursuit to claim it back. As John Berger put it, ‘it is on the site of loss that hopes are born.’
Lungiswa’s home had a red stoep. The stoep was a source of pride, and keeping it beautiful was the role of women. As a female person, she says, you knew that at some point you would have to go through the grueling three-part polishing process that kept the stoep sparkling. A teenage boy will look on as an older woman bends on her hands and knees, polishing the shit out of that red stoep until it shines bright like a diamond. The stoep features in a new work that she is busy with, towards her upcoming show at Whatiftheworld in April. The stoep has two partners: a collection of scrubbing brushes, their bristles replaced with matches. And a video work that features the same scrubbing brushes worn on Lungiswa’s feet, match heads facing down, as she swings and scrapes them on rough gravel. The work is a complex topography. On the macro level, the work gets under the viewer’s skin – at what point will the matches strike? Remember that the ground under your feet could ignite at any moment. Then it reaches backwards and inwards to childhood memories, a salute of solidarity to those women that kept pride burning. And also even further back: the vigorous rocking polishing motion reminds Lungiswa of waking someone up. In this work she is waking up the ancestors, asking them to ignite the flame of the fight that will allow her generation to re-claim their sense of home, in all spaces.
“The destructive character knows only one watchword: make room. And only one activity: clearing away…The destructive character is young and cheerful. For destroying rejuvenates…The destructive character sees nothing permanent. For this very reason [she] sees ways everywhere. Where others encounter walls or mountains, there too [she] sees a way. But because [she] sees ways everywhere, [she] has to clear things from it everywhere. Because [she] sees ways everywhere, [she] always stands at a crossroads. No moment can know what the next will bring. What exists [she] reduces to rubble – not for the sake of rubble, but for that of the way leading through it.”
Walter Benjamin, “The Destructive Character”, 1931. Text published originally in the Frankfurter Zeitung.
INFO: LUNGISWA GQUNTA- WEB