In a family photograph, four black women cavort on a beach. A carefree, joyous moment, apparently. Then you learn the context: Port Elizabeth, South Africa, the mid-1970s. The country’s apartheid regime legislated on every conceivable aspect of race relations; segregation of the beaches took time, but by the 1970s it was firmly in place.
The photograph — a trifle dog-eared from being stashed away in drawers for years — has been blown up to wall-size proportions and placed to the left of the entrance to the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds. It’s there to whet the appetite of anyone wanting to know more about Lungiswa Gqunta, the young South African artist whose work is now on show in this city in the north of England.
Sleep in Witness It consists of two installations, plus a film and a soundwork. It’s a show about sleep and dreams, water and healing, landscape, memory and history. Through its ideas and its materials, the exhibitions confronts head-on the legacies of colonialism and is the artist’s most personal show to date.
Gqunta, who was born in 1990, wrestled with the wording of the title, but the notion of sleep — informed by her Xhosa heritage — is the clear starting point. “Dreams are taken seriously — I grew up with that,” she says over Zoom from Leeds, where she is putting the finishing touches to the show. “It’s like a language and I want to open myself up to it.”
Dreams can take you places. Sometimes they force you to work so hard that you wake up exhausted, feeling you haven’t slept at all, she says. But sleep and dreams are a route to knowledge, a link to your ancestors. The content of dreams was often discussed the morning after in her township household in New Brighton, Port Elizabeth, when she was a child. She talks about a recent dream in which she was walking in the ocean between waves as solid as mountains. “I woke up amazed by the sight I saw because really it was beautiful,” she says. “I was thinking about being in two places at once — and feeling two very conflicting things.”
Gqunta took a first degree in sculpture at Nelson Mandela University, Port Elizabeth, following it with a masters in fine art at the University of Cape Town. By the time I was in Leeds to see her show, Gqunta was flying home to Cape Town, but her dream story came vividly to mind as I entered. For “Zinodaka” (2022) she has created a richly toned, wall-to-wall “landscape”, spreading a mix of terracotta clay and sand across the floor, and dotting it with rocklike sculptures made of translucent blue glass. Then comes “the sea”: “Ntabamanzi” (2022) is a monumental “drawing in space”, a delicate sculpture in the form of a huge blue wave; its color builds on that of the watery-blue “rocks” next door.
The slave trade is perhaps a reference, but the wall text highlights a less obvious point: the fact that for many black Africans, the ocean is a place of healing and cleansing — but under apartheid, black aquatic spiritual practices became crimes. Clusters of silver coins embedded in the installation symbolize a restoration, post-apartheid, of water-based rituals and, optimistically, a pathway that beckons beneath the crest of the wave. You enter at your peril, however, for the wave is made of barbed wire.
Gqunta spent seven months binding the strands of barbed wire in blue fabric so that only the little spikes remain uncovered. They glint as they catch the light. I was reminded of her earlier piece “Lawn” (2016), where she used broken bottles filled with green liquid to suggest the violent history on which the exclusive green spaces of white society rest. The beauty of such pieces draws you in, then, before you know it, you are mired in the work’s shocking message.
“Apartheid had a start and an end date,” she says. “Colonialism hides in the structures: we are still living with it.” Caught in the violence of what she was portraying, Gqunta was slow to perceive the effectiveness of the trap she was setting for viewers, but appreciates it now. “No one wants to have difficult conversations,” she says. “But we have to find a way to have them.”
Her work challenges the “don’t touch” norm of gallery spaces. “With ‘Zinodaka’, you have to walk on the clay, feel it crack beneath you, leave your footprints and perhaps take some of it with you,” says Laurence Sillars, head of the Henry Moore Institute and curator of the show. “Lungiswa wants you to feel you are entering a different territory and wonder whether you are allowed there. There is a she wants people to feel — and an awareness of what they are doing discomfort that becomes more intense with the barbed wire.”
The exhibition ends with “Gathering” (2019), a poetic 15-minute film, accompanied by a haunting soundwork, in which Gqunta evokes the domestic ritual of folding sheets remembered from her childhood. The practice will be a familiar memory for many, whether black or white, but Gqunta presents it as a special moment when, as an adult and child approach each other in the rhythm of the folding, a curious child might be able to ask a burning question, and strategies for survival in the world can be passed down the generations.
With “Gathering”, the artist reflects on her childhood, and those joyous women on the beach turn out to be her mother and aunts (all of them “mothers”, as far as Gqunta is concerned). In these pieces, the personal meets the political in a moving and thought-provoking fusion — though it wasn’t what Gqunta intended. “I’ve had a long spiritual relationship with water, but I wasn’t trying to have it in my work,” she says. “It crept its way in, as did dreams, and I thought: OK, this is where I am, I cannot deny fate.”
To October 30, henry-moore.org
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