Lhola Amira has captured the attention of people worldwide, not only for the powerful message that she embodies in her appearance, but in the very fabric of her being. She has travelled around the world, most recently in Ghana and Sweden. In a moving and candid interview, we spoke to Lhola about memory, the past, and what it means to be a woman.
When and where you born? What are some of your earliest memories?
I was born in the 80s – so I’m a 90s kid. You know that time where black people believed freedom was close? The time public schools became interracial and I found myself being only one of three black kids in a class room. The time of the release of Nelson Mandela. The time of Kwaito music defining black youth experience with the likes of Boom Shaka, Trompies, Aba Shante, Mashamplani, Skeem, Brothers of Peace, Lebo Mathosa, Thebe…
My earliest memories are of travelling back and forth from Gugulethu into the city – the montage of the landscape via public transport – you know how the architecture makes a shift and how the railway lines are the defining features of separate development? My earliest memory is when I realised I was black and what that meant – I was only in standard four then. I always look at that moment as the first time Lhola Amira was born, then I was born again when I was in standard seven. And in 2008, that’s when people started to know me by name.
How important are memories to you? Do you carry them with you and do you think they shape you? Or do choose to let go of memories and past experiences, focusing rather on the present and the now?
Memories are like time, not all of what I remember belongs to me. Some of it is inherited. My surface gives me no choice but to carry memory wherever I go – being black and womxn marks me – the colonised and enslaved bodies are marked by history even in their independence, because so much of who they are now is negotiating the undoing of what has been done. That’s over 400 years of oppression.
The present and the now is interlinked to the past. My people speak of ukuzilanda, for me to understand how I am in this present. Of course, this is not the kind of history articulated in the education system – why my name is my name. Anyway, this interlinking through time does not mean I am completely hopeless in defining my present beyond the violence of the colonial history. My existence doesn’t start there – my time (past, present, future) does not start with colonialism – so this is the self I am tracing and remembering to contextualise myself outside of the violence done to my body. Violence is not my only narrative, I am much more than that – even if the way they choose to remember and tell my story is through violent porn. This is what Nina Simone meant when she said ‘you expect me to be sad because I’m black and I’m womxn’.
I understand and live out time outside the markers of the Western/Eurocentric understanding of time as something that is linear.
Many people would consider you to be a ‘performance artist’, but you have dismissed this term in the past. Is this because what you do is more than just momentary art? Tell me more about your views on this?
I consider my practice ‘Appearance and Being Present’. The black body is in perpetual performance in its everyday state – having to perform its blackness to the world at all times. So if the normalised state of blackness is performance – what I do cannot be performance. Being black and womxn has always placed me in extremes of either being invisible or hyper-visible, this being the precarious position of being gazed upon. For example, Saartjie Baartman, an enslaved Khoikhoi woman also known as Hottentot Venus, was taken from South Africa and put on display throughout Europe during the 19th century because of her prominent sexual features. Even in death, Saartjie did not find peace. Her body was displayed publicly in a museum in France until 1976 and, finally, her remains were repatriated to South Africa in 2002 following demands by Nelson Mandela for her return. There are many such examples: Ota Benga in America was made to carry around chimpanzees and other apes in a zoo. Township tours in the current South African context – where white people and tourists are bused in to explore and examine how black people live – again are a post-colonial/post-apartheid continuation of human zoos.
It is necessary to distinguish that when I speak of performance art, I am not speaking of theatre plays or dance pieces. Here, black people exist in the double consciousness of having to perform the very thing that they are (white people perform characters, not whiteness; black people perform the black character, therefore blackness). This resonates with Frantz Fanon in Black Skin, White Masks when he says that ‘I am the slave not of the “idea: that others have of me but of my own appearance’ – the fact of his blackness. And that is probably why Frantz closes his book with an often-cited appeal: ‘Oh my body, make of me always a man who questions!’
I’d like to go on unpacking, but I’ll jump to why naming my practice Appearance – a body that Appears is imbued with power – the power to be, to protest, to act, to imagine, to dream, to subvert, to laugh, to drink wine, to self-actualise. Being Lhola Amira systematically removes the factors that withhold agency and self-hood within the traditional narrative of performance in relation to black bodies. Created here is the concept and reality of a womxn that exists separate from the pedestal, being Lhola Amira escapes the spectacle-spectator relationship and gains self-hood by taking absolute ownership of my body and the framing of my practice. There is no preconceived show to see – there are appearance and gestures. Bringing to the fore, via artistic practices, the cultural modes of being and lived experiences that were once considered backward, excess practices cannot be considered ‘performance’ – they exist in the everyday in the length and breath of the African continent. Bringing them to curious eyes is not performance but a gesture, a gesture enacted very much on the terms and parameters of the artist.
I want to ask you about Khanyisile Mbongwa and your relationship with her. How does she influence you and your work?
Khanyisile Mbongwa and I have a plural existence. A plural existence is not a performance, an alter-ego or dual reality. Our language has a sense of plurality when recognising the next person, for example when we greet an individual we say ‘sanibonani, niyaphila?’. This plural recognition is being aware of you, the physical person, present in front of me, your ancestors and those who are yet to come. Sibu Tito once said to me that I am an ancestral manifestation of Khanyisile, that my Appearance manifests the spiritual and ancestral space at a time when there’s a spiritual awakening of black kids all over the world.
She influences my work to some extent – as I emerge from her body. I exist because she does. And it has been a long journey to this point; and none of it is as defined or concrete as people would like definitions to be – but it is constantly becoming – its fluid never fixed.
Khanyisile and I have a shared memory, this also means that our plural existence is contemporaneous. Which means I am in time with Khanyisile, and that I do not die at the end of my Appearance.
Tell me about the project in Ghana. How did that come into being and did you ever imagine that the short film Looking For Ghana And The Red Suitcase (exhibited at Smac Gallery) would turn into such a beautiful and moving piece?
The Ghana project is part of the ‘looking for Africa in Africa’ project. Ghana being the first country to receive its independence from colonial rule. I wanted to see what 60 years of independence can give a country – especially at this time when there are talks of decolonising Africa; talks about its Africa’s time; talks about Afrofuturism. I wanted to see what all this means in terms of ‘doing’ – how are we living this out everyday and what it means for our lived experience.
My imagination is actually partly absorbed in the short film, it exists in the moments unseen because what is captured is what a part of Ghana offered during my walking through its streets. Now I’m more inclined to ask myself whether I imagined or merely captured parts of Ghana. It is the existence of this documentation that gives me the moment to reflect because, to some degree, I am seeing where we are now and wanting to imagine that space, to imagine myself into existence by understanding what has to be undone is not as solid but very subtle through the everyday.
The video is beautiful, yes, but it is painful too. There are many layers of conflicting emotions in it. Was it difficult capturing these nuances?
I think Wanlov understood why I needed to walk through parts of Ghana. And he was unapologetic in capturing things as there were when I walked past them. The setting of the film is not staged or manipulated to capture Ghana in a particular way – it is what was there at the time. We also spoke at length of angles and framing – and the kind of narrative that would emerge out of it was much to do with what actually is. There are always grey areas, where things overlap and this overlapping can be very violent, but to see the naunces you have to look beyond the surface of the thing – and that is not an easy thing to capture.
Would you, in your own words, tell our readers what it is you wanted to capture in this video? What are you looking for? Will you ever find it?
I was looking for Ghana. I was looking for Africa in Africa. Looking for it in this decolonial context that Africa apparently exists in. Looking for a decolonised love. I wanted to see what 60 years of independence gives a country in Africa and where the coloniser sits now. I wanted to see what other people in parts of Africa are thinking and doing to actualise themselves. We speak of decolonising Africa – but I think this is what decolonised Africa looks like, this is it. And the coloniser has his and her hands firmly on it.
Will I ever find what am looking for? No. But I will imagine and create it, alongside all the other Africans who have come to understand the necessity to imagine and are doing the work of undoing the colonial violence that marks our bodies.
A black woman: tell me what this means for you. It may be a difficult question, but I know this is an important theme in your work.
All I have ever been is black and womxn. And I have been told by the world what that means – and the depiction has not always found me favourable or desirable, to say the least… If I’m not a savage, I’m exoticised; if I’m not a savage, I’m primitive; if I’m not a slave, I’m sexualised… I could go on and on. So, naturally (not as a form of protest or resistance) my work seeks to define me as black, define me as womxn and define me as queer – this definition is a process, and its fluid because it had to be for the survival of m. It’s a definition that is becoming, a state of being, and never a definition that is resolved. Poet Nayyirah Waheed writes: ‘You do not have to be a fire for every mountain blocking you. You could be a water and soft river your way to freedom too…’ – this is what being black and womxn means to me.
Do you think there will ever be a time when woman and sociopolitics are not intricately tied together?
Well, life is political, and politics affect us all.
You worked with the talented Ghanaian photographer Francis Kokoroko to capture these beautiful images. What was it like working with him?
He understood why I was in Ghana. He captured me as I walked through the streets and as I went about my own way in the cacao fields. Not once did he ask me to rework or pause – he knew that capturing me was not a performance, it could not be stageD. He invited me to have an Appearance at TheStudioAccra, and I think we have built a long-lasting relationship together. I invited him to come to Cape Town next year.
What are some of your best experiences in Ghana? And were there any troubling experiences?
The food. I love Ghanaian food. There are no townships – that, for me, was one of the best experiences. What was troubling was seeing how the EU dumps their electronic waste in Ghana – and what does this mean in the context ‘it is Africa’s time’ – what does this mean in the decolonising process? The level of pollution was troubling.
Congratulations on your residency in Sweden – it’s really very exciting. How did it come about and what was your experience of the country? And how did people react to who you are and what it is you do?
Thank you. I was selected among other South African artist through a visit from Anna Viola Hallberg and Thomas Odrell. The residency was through Air Skövde, hosted by Skövde museum. The country has beautiful landscapes and it’s an affluent country – with very impressive social care and grant systems. It’s considered a very progressive country.
But then there is their ‘we are neutral’ stance, which they have never really been – seeing that they were the first country to colonise Ghana and only recently in 2013 did they start having talks on a scholarly/academic level about their involvement in colonialism. So because of the nature of my work, there was a level of resistance particularly from a white feminist womxn. And this part is an interview on its own – because there are many layers to it. There is a series of photographs and short films that I am working on – I’m currently busy with post-production. Sweden was not easy – I had to deal with white tears; the denial of white privilege; the denial of colonial participation to some degree.
What do you have planned for the future? Any exciting projects that you’re working on?
I am currently working on 29°06ʹS 26°13ʹE, which is a piece that researches and explores three significant past-and-present historical narratives in South Africa. From the genus of land, stems other themes such as courage, sacrifice, freedom and revolutionary love. The site chosen for the enactment of the work is Bloemfontein, due to its significance in relation to law and presumably justice. It’s also the judicial capital of the nation – where the Supreme Court of Appeal resides, and is a city encapsulates the tension.
The three historical and contemporary narratives at the centre of this work are: ‘The Cattle Killing of 1857’; ‘Ukuzika kukaMendi 1917’ and ‘University of Free State’s Shimla Park Rugby Fields Race Brawl 2016’.
I have also been doing some research, and part of it will be presented at the Vrystaat Kunstefees in July as part of PAP (Public Art Program).
Lhola shared some of the images of her travels in Sweden; we also featured her in the July edition of Marie Claire, on sale now.