The foundation on which Lungiswa Gqunta builds her new body of work is fractured with the cracks that rupture the underlying structure of South African society. Rather than build upon this unsound terrain, Gqunta pieces together the fragments of her lived experiences, those of her community’s collective memories, and distills them to their most essential materials; reconstructing the sociopolitical landscape. In continuation of themes expressed in her previous body of work, Poolside Conversations (2017), Gqunta highlights aspects of suburban excess, symbolically represented by the swimming pool. Through her use of rhetoric and materials, she deploys an imminent threat to privileged entitlement.
In Qwitha (2018) the parameters that secure spaces are reconsidered in the form of an illuminated bed frame filled with petrol. Here, Gqunta questions what it means to rest in the tenuous divide that separates public and private domains in South Africa, subsequently creating a ‘third space’ where the luxury of a suburb and the perceived threat of a township coincide. Never aspiring to the suburb, and refusing to romanticize the township, Gqunta declares that: “It is the existence of such places that I am opposing, both these spaces should not exist.” Accompanying the aforementioned installation is the filmic element of Qwitha. The video, Feet Under Fire, shows Gqunta’s lower legs swinging in and out of frame, wearing scrubbing brushes as shoes.
For the artist, this piece speaks to her concept of ‘home’: a space in which she knelt down and enacted ancestral and domestic childhood rituals. In recalling the flawlessly polished stoep at the home of her grandmother’s sister, Gqunta has adapted the tools of domesticity by replacing the bristles of these scrubbing brushes with matchsticks; igniting the spark which puts forth a way to “navigate freely on our land”. Intrigued by these actions – of kneeling, buffing and polishing the stoep floor – Gqunta lays bare to the audience the superficial nature of urban development; evidenced in the cosmetic “improvement” of the townships of Port Elisabeth. Such projects have lost their proverbial shine, Gqunta asserts, but the domestic drudgery on township stoeps may just be the fuel to light the fire of transformation. The video is accompanied by the sound of voices singing the childhood nursery rhyme, Umzi Watsha, which translates from isiXhosa as “The house is burning”. In the film, an echoed voice calls out: “Go look there; there is a fire, pour water!” An instruction for survival to those living in the close confines of South Africa’s informal settlements, where accidental fires unite the community to put out the flames. This element of fire is seared into Gqunta’s practice as a both a metaphor and catalyst for change. “Our house, as in our whole country, is on fire, and who is gonna put it out? We have to collectively come together to put it out, as Black people. Not even just South Africans, but the entire continent.” Elevated from kneeling this time, is this gesture enough to ignite a private and public flame?
Gqunta takes the question further, extending it onto the walls and floors, where matchstick-brushes populate as an installation. Moving from the gravel – as seen in the video – to the walls of the gallery, Gqunta plays with the dimensions of what it means to face outward. Facing away from oneself, and staring into the zone of non-being, a place that Frantz Fanon describes as the perfect climate for an authentic upheaval. Facing outward from the comfort of high walls and electric fences; broken bottles and razor wire, and facing outside of the well-polished stoep glistening in red, its scent melting into the sun. Gqunta invokes memory and the specificity of time and place through the smell of the ubiquitous red stoep polish. In conversation with this nostalgic scent are fragments of memories, of feet being under fire, the brushes like footsteps that make an urgent movement to the rhythm of black radical tradition.
In her work, Borderland , issues of access and security are brought to the forefront. Through this wall drawing sketched in razor wire, a constellation of violent and delicate sentiments are made tangible. Recalling the act of laying down laundry on the razor wire surrounding her childhood home, Gqunta’s wall installation is populated with fragments of fabric that map out memories of beds made, beds lain in and dreams yet to come to fruition. Unveiling a sense of discomfort, Gqunta contrasts her township experiences with those of the suburbs, and the objects associated with these spaces. Her intention is, “Purely to point out, to exaggerate, what is clear for me and may not be very clear for somebody else.” Demonstrating to her audience her constant reconsideration of environments she inhabits, the artist enters into the gallery aware of the spatial and racial dynamics which pervade it, and reflects on her own experiences as a means of cultural translation. This is necessary, “So that white people have a glimpse of one of the many experiences that cause us blacks discomfort.” Gqunta translates across racialized cultural systems, such that the world and all of its spaces and homes can be re-imagined as radically heterogeneous.
Problematizing the foundation of a “New” South African nationalism, Gqunta recognizes the unstable ground on which it is built, yet to be reclaimed, and feels that conversations around colonialism cannot be relegated to the past. “This is happening to you today!” is her urgent message to the viewer. As she constructs a microcosm of the spatial legacies of colonial violence, of the luxury of movement that is lost between aspirations and privilege, Gqunta performs the splitting of the self: a proclamation to remind us of the ways in which we move through contested spaces.
Qwitha is an expression and acknowledgement of female political and social agency, a contemplation of the many subtle and overt ways in which women resist, build, put out fires and spark them. “Help me ignite this flame,” she says, “I am waking you up and I am asking you to help me figure out ways that we can move forward.
– Text by Chaze Matakala