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African girl wearing tradition clothing in front of a wall filled with graffiti, a common way Africans express their creativity.
African girl wearing tradition clothing in front of a wall filled with graffiti, a common way Africans express their creativity.
Photo by Lauren Theunissen
Career

The Rise of Buhlebezwe Siwani: Family, African Spirituality, History and Identity

In a world that is more connected than ever before through social media and the internet, we can stand in solidarity with one another on global issues such as systemic racism, police brutality, climate change and the protection of human rights. One of the most effective tools that can activate the spirit of ubuntu which can lead to activism is art. Art can empower people, engage us on social issues and evoke us to act. Art can create a social encounter that accesses creativity as a mediator to produce a shared experience between people who have radically different positionalities and worldviews. In South Africa, we have artists who are interrogating our past and current circumstances to draw our attention to searching for ways to engage in contemporary issues that we face today. 

Buhlebezwe Siwani is a world-renowned South African performance and visual artist. Buhlebezwe completed her Bachelor of Fine Arts Honours in 2011 obtained from Wits School of Arts, and she completed her Master of Fine Arts in 2015 obtained from Michaelis School of Fine Arts. She creates installations, photographic stills, sculptures and videos of some of her performances as a medium to engage audiences on her lived experiences as a Black female living in South Africa, which has nuances of ubungoma as she is a sangoma (i.e. a traditional healer). She also explores the colonial relationship between African spirituality and Christianity and interrogates the contemporary issues that South Africans face today, such as land reform, gender-based and systemic violence. Buhlebezwe also centres vernacular languages in the naming of her artistic expressions as South African indigenous languages truly capture her identity, thinking, emotions, experiences, worldview, perception and politics. She is an award-winning artist who has won the Martienssen Prize Award in 2010, the Katrine Harries Print Cabinet Purchase Award in 2015 and the Bisi Silva Prize in 2019. 

Locally, Buhlebezwe has exhibited at the Stevenson, Michaelis Galleries, Gallery Momo, WHATIFTHEWORLD and the Iziko South African National Gallery amongst other major exhibition sites. Internationally, she has exhibited her work at the LKB/G Gallery in Germany, Galeria Madragoa in Lisbon, Louis Vuitton Foundation in Paris, Kalmar Art Museum in Sweden and Curitiba Biennial in Brazil amongst other international exhibition sites. 

I spoke to Buhlebezwe about the role her family played in nurturing her creative talents, recommendations she might have about increasing access to exhibition opportunities and improving the representation of Black female South African artists and what she hopes to achieve in the future. 

 

What role did your family play in nurturing your creative talents?  

Buhlebezwe: My family has always been very supportive of my decisions, especially my mother. She understood that I was a creative child, and she fostered that in many different ways. She would send me to ballet and drawing classes and used to buy me colourful pens, and good drawing paper. 

During your childhood, you attended the FUBA School of Dramatic Visual Arts in Newtown, Johannesburg, where you received mentorship from professional visual artists. What did you learn about your creative talents back then? Also, what advice would you give to other aspiring visual artists? 

Buhlebezwe: When I attended FUBA, I was very young; I must have been around 11 or younger. I remember they told me that I had a talent for constructing things and had an interesting way of interpreting things and that I should focus on that. I suppose the advice I would share with aspiring visual artists is to find your strength and focus on it until you master it. 

You have exhibited your work around the world. How have your local and global exchanges, shaped your perceptive, feelings, ideas and knowledge about the world? 

Buhlebezwe: Exhibiting in different parts of the world has certainly exposed me to many types of people, different cultures and has shifted how I think about and view the world. It is always good to learn more about other cultures and how people operate in other parts of the world. It has also reinforced many feelings and thoughts on how I stay true to the work I make and why I create the work I do. What has indeed changed is that I believe we can all keep learning and sometimes what one thinks is a fact needs a little bit more of research, as there is always more to something than what meets the eye. One lesson I always take back is the level of professionalism that some people and institutions practice. It is an essential lesson because no one truly teaches you this in art school. 


Blue Art Piece With Pink Shoelace
Photo by Buhlebezwe Siwani

You are one the founding members of iQhiya, a collective of young Black female artists who created this initiative in response to the lack of opportunities for artists to exhibit their work and under-representation of South African Black female artists in the art industry. What recommendations would you give the Department of Sports, Arts and Culture (DSAC) to increase access to exhibition opportunities and elevate Black female artists in the South African art scene?  

Buhlebezwe: There are so many things I could say about this. First of all, why is a field which is so large and has multiple facets such as the Arts merged with Sports? How does that make sense? The Arts is a complex vector space to meander. If the DSAC intends on doing good, they first need to understand and know the artists and the art scene in the country. They cannot treat it like a throw-away; they need to treat it with as much seriousness as they do their other portfolios. So for me, that is the beginning. Then, we can begin to think of the under-representation of Black female artists in all fields of the Arts. One should note that this is not solely the responsibility of the DSAC, nor is it just due to this structure. Many structures within the Arts are responsible for this problem.  

iQhiya was intent on creating and forging its own path – we did that to a certain extent. But the institutions also need to be open to new ideas and new artists. I think we have gotten to the point where if we do not have spaces, we will create our own spaces which is also great. 

How would you describe your journey of becoming who you are today? 

Buhlebezwe: I would say my journey has been eventful. I have learnt many things by making mistakes. I am still on the journey of truly knowing who I am and how to work through some things and navigate the world. I think most importantly I have come to understand that I am a flawed human being, but it’s about how you get up and move on from that, I keep getting up, so I guess that is how I got to where I am today. 

Throughout your professional artistic career, you have intentionally engaged audiences to interrogate social issues that we face today while centring your African spirituality. So, how has ubungoma raised your consciousness? 

Buhlebezwe: I create work that is about this journey. For me, first and foremost, we must find a different way to tell stories that have shrouded the truth, to come out on the side of lightness as opposed to the darkness. I have learnt a lot about history and about the land in which we live and walk; how the past has affected us in ways that we might not even see today. I try and make sure that I place that in my work. So, I speak of double consciousness – those who have passed on and those who are living. 


lady in front on mics in red
Photo by PAC Museum

 

What lessons have you learnt about interrogating social issues in your bodies of work? 

Buhlebezwe: I have learnt to be gentle while still being firm. Meaning, it is okay to walk away if someone has a different perspective than you. Also, our country is still so divided, and we have lots of work to do that I am pretty sure I will not get to see a truly free South Africa in my lifetime. But if I can affect any change that will reap something positive in the future, then I can live with that. 

You have actively participated in several group exhibitions with talented artists. Which group exhibition stands out to you, and why?  

Buhlebezwe: Each one has been important to me. Every exhibition presents a new opportunity to meet new people and learn something different and see something new. All of them have their positive and negative elements as with any job. 

If you could collaborate with any artist(s) who would they be, and why? 

Buhlebezwe: Keli Safia Maksud, Fanyane Hlabangane and Jody Brand. Their work is so powerful in different ways, but I am so interested in how this would play itself out. 


Buhlebezwe Siwani in white writing on floor in chalk in open white room
Photo by Carlos Marzia

 

What do you hope to achieve moving forward? 

Buhlebezwe: I hope that I can continue making the type of art that I want without outside pressure; that artists can control their own output and narrative.  

 

Nqabisa served as a staff writer for the University of Cape Town (UCT) student chapter of Her Campus online publication in 2020. In her role, Nqabisa wrote original and inspiring articles on various topics. She is passionate about increasing access to mental health services. She has done this by advocating for task shifting mental health treatment to lay counsellors in the mental healthcare system to meet the mental health needs of adults and adolescents in South Africa. She has always embodied servant leadership by taking up leadership positions in student governance structures and student-run organizations at the university. She has recently obtained her Master of Arts degree in Psychological Research from UCT and is a Mastercard Foundation alumni of the university's scholars program. She has served as the treasurer in the Postgraduate Humanities Faculty Student Council and the Vice-president of the UCT student chapter: Habitat for Humanity. Additionally, she continues to gain new insights on tackling humanitarian, development and sustainability issues from programmes such as the Prague Summer School: Development, Sustainability and Globalization online course and the UCT Global Citizenship short course on Citizenship & Social Justice: Activism, Service and Social Change amongst other leadership development programmes and initiatives. Nqabisa hopes to equip herself with the necessary skills and knowledge to become an emerging African leader, humanitarian and psychologist.
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