Art, Politics & Society

Channeling the Ancestors: The Spiritual Crossover in Contemporary African Art

In Africa, art and spirituality have been intrinsically linked for thousands of years. A primary example is the rock art produced by the KhoiSan culture of Southern Africa. These prehistoric paintings depicted the trance journeys, hunting practices, and initiation ceremonies on the cave walls where the San Communities dwelled. Some samples of Rock Art found in the uKhahlamba Drakensberg World Heritage Site have been carbon-dated to around 1000 years BC. Today, many contemporary African artists have tugged on their ancestral roots in order to create art embedded with spiritual significance. Buhlebezwe Siwani and Sethembile Msezane are South African female artists doing just that. Though their choices of medium differ, both artists create works that are spiritually symbolic and divinely inspired. 

"iGagasi", 2015. C-print on cotton paper, archival ink. 83 x 56 cm

Apart from being a trained artist, Buhlebezwe Siwani is also an initiated Sangoma (traditional healer) who embraces both divinity and traditionalism through her art. Siwani also works through a feminist framework, in which she explores the black female body within the context of South African patriarchy. Her enchanting work, “iGagasi” (which translates to “Wave” in IsiZulu), is a self-portrait of the artist. With her back against the crisp, tumultuous shore-break of the Western Cape, Siwani is dressed pristinely in white, traditional attire. The fluidity and purity of the water are spiritually symbolic in African rituals. By letting herself be overtaken by the crashing wave, it is as though Siwani is allowing the water to baptize her. 

"Chapungu – The Day Rhodes Fell", 2015. Performed at the University of Cape Town.

Like Buhlebezwe Siwani, Sethembile Msezane creates art that is centered around the black female body. Likewise, she is guided by supernatural forces in the process. Msezane believes that if we acknowledge our ancestors and open ourselves up for them, we can receive their messages. The artist channels celestial messages and ideas through her dreams, some of which manifest physically through her art. An illustration of such is her performance piece “Chapungu – The Day Rhodes Fell”. (Chapungu is Shona for “Great Spirit Bird.”) The piece acted as a reclamation of power and history. Msezane performed on the day the infamous statue of Cecil John Rhodes was removed from the University of Cape Town. As the statue began moving behind her, Msezane lifted her wings, signaling a rebirth and leaving their colonial past behind.

Both Buhlebezwe Siwani and Sethembile Msezane work similarly to the KhoiSan hunter-gatherers mentioned earlier. Consequently, their art acts as conduits for continuing the unique and remarkable spiritual significance of art in Africa.

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