Conversations We Do Not Have

  • Posted on September 4, 2012

Image credit:
Amazwi Abesifazane.
Image credit: Amazwi Abesifazane.
The Playhouse Company hosted its annual Women’s Arts Festival from 3 to 14 August this year. This annual festival celebrates women of South Africa through the arts. This year’s programme featured, for the first time, an exhibition of art works called ‘Conversations We Do Not Have’. The Amazwi Abasifazane – Voices of Women Museum presented this exhibition in partnership with the Playhouse Company in Durban. This exhibition featured a number of memory cloths by the women of Amazwi Abesifazane as well as a few art works by established contemporary artists including Mazisi Kunene, Andries Botha, Debra Bells and others.

In an interview, curator of the exhibition Coral Bijoux who is director of the Amazwi Abesifazane – Voices of Women Museum said about the exhibition and the museum: “Amazwi Abesifazane – Voices of Women is a decade-long project that began as the brainchild of Andries Botha who, after attending the Truth and Reconciliation (TRC) hearings in South Africa, developed a creative methodology as a means for women’s memory to be recounted and held in trust as part of the memory archive of South Africa for future posterity”.

She continued: “The Project has worked closely with many key stakeholders and partners and has run many workshops in different provinces throughout South Africa over this past decade. To culminate this substantial work done by amongst others, Janine Zagel, Leonard Zulu and Martha Webber and to give it a permanent home, the Amazwi Abesifazane – Voices of Women project will establish Africa’s first Women’s Museum on their donated land around the Valley of a Thousand Hills in KwaZulu Natal”.

Asked how this exhibition came about and why it was an important feature of the South African Women’s Arts Festival, Chief Executive of the Playhouse Company Linda Bukhosini said, “We wanted to showcase works that feature the experiences of South African women through the medium of exhibitions. We got in touch with Coral Bijoux of Amazwi Abesifazane – Voices of Women Museum, which houses a collection of more than 3000 memory cloths made by different women, as well as works loaned from private and corporate collections. Using the platform of artistic expression, the South African Women’s Arts Festival seeks to create dialogue about the struggles and triumphs of ordinary South African women, and these memory cloths contribute immensely to the topics of women’s issues, gender roles and equality.”

The memory cloths that form part of this exhibition are selected from those made by women all over the country working with the museum. These highlight victory as the key achievement: victory over personal loss, victory over pain and victory over the control of painful memory.

According to Bijoux, “The memory cloths are speaking to the contemporary artworks and together they have a discourse around these conversations we do not have with questions like ‘what are these issues that are highlighted and not talked about’, what are the issues that women are facing and yet are not able to speak about. They were given a cloth, a theme – ‘the day I will never forget’ – and some guidelines on how they could note this down (artistically) on the cloth.  Although the women were not asked to remember the most painful of their stories, it is evident that the most part of their memory that stands out involved a lot of pain and suffering.  They are very emotional, very powerful but they also speak of their victory in surviving the traumatic experiences they might have had.  The memory cloths and narratives open up discourse about South African women’s feminine aspect and our understanding of what that might be and altogether they make up the exhibition that you see in front of you.”

When going through these memory cloths one cannot help but imagine that in the moment of the women making these cloths, their voices were indeed actualised. These moments then became records in history preserved and presented through memory cloths.

“I have looked closely at many of the memory cloths and, I was saying through one of my articles – how do you tell the story of your rape in a very measured way because you have to select a needle, thread the needle, select a colour, you have to use a stitch and you have to use the process and you repeat. So this then becomes a healing process. Women have sawn all their lives. In traditional African communities in northern and in southern Africa women use beadwork and weaving, the same process, the mantra which brings the healing, the conversations that you don’t have to have, the symbol, the sign, the shape and colour – all of that formulate these stories which then brings about the communication and the healing. In that moment of actualizing your voice you gain your victory; you gain your voice and your new identity,” explained Bijoux.

The exhibition also had a comprehensive accompanying educational programme led by Bijoux herself and some of the student volunteers that assisted in talking about the history and methodology of the artworks to the attendants. Bukhosi said, “Although ‘Conversations We Do Not Have’ seeks to give a voice to ordinary South African women and tell their rich stories, the work speaks to all members of society, though they particularly encourage women to speak out, and address and overcome difficulties.”

This exhibition seemed to have been very well received as it also created a secure platform in which the works could be displayed and discussed. The audiences included school-going youths, youths attending tertiary institutions, residents from old age homes, and community groups. It attracted schools from throughout the Durban Metropolitan area, including KwaMashu, Newlands East, Phoenix, Lamontville and Ndwedwe. “We were also privileged to have 16 women who contributed memory cloths to the collection attend the opening function,” says Bukhosini.

For Bukhosini, the exhibition struck a chord when one of the cloths took her back to her high school days. This was the story about a scholar who had been beaten to death at the school under the name of corporal punishment. She explained the connection: “I was shocked to learn about an incident depicted in one of the memory cloths, when a fellow learner was beaten to death. I was a learner at that particular school in the same time as noted on the cloth but I had not been at that school when it happened, but I never knew about the corporal punishment incident that tragically cost the life of a learner. It is shocking and very sad.”

As for the future of the partnership between the Playhouse and Amazwi Abesifazane, Bukhosini if said, “We hope that in the near future we will continue to collaborate with Amazwi Abesifazane in highlighting their work for wider audiences. We believe that through the sharing of these experiences people are touched in different but meaningful ways, and are challenged to think differently about women’s and wider social issues, and in doing so contribute to South Africans continuing to make better lifestyle choices.”

This exhibition reminded me of the ‘Book of Life’, a Rwandan project that was initiated to provide a healing platform for women and children who were affected by the Genocide. In the project women and children meet to write letters to their loves ones who were deceased during genocide with an intention of releasing the emotional burden that can come with painful memory in the presence of other women. In another movement linked to the same project, women and children meet in the mountain with natural material that they use to create traditional drums. It is during the creative process that stories are shared, voices actualized and histories documented through creating a drum, which can be symbolic of many things. On completing these drums these women then start banging these drums as a means of breaking the silence.  Amazwi Abesifazane is in the process of establishing a link with this Rwandan project.

Some of memory cloths and stories featured on ‘Conversations We Do Not Have’ can be accessed directly from the museum’s archives via the following link: http://amazwi-voicesofwomen.com/archives. Other artworks that were featured were loaned from places like the MTN Art Collection, Phansi Museum and the Mary Stainbank Collection.

Musa Hlatshwayo is an Archival Platform correspondent based in KwaZulu Natal

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