Buhlebezwe Siwani Madragoa
Buhlebezwe SiwaniMadragoa
Buhlebezwe Siwani, OTHUNJIWEYO, installation view at Madragoa, Lisbon, 2019. Image courtesy of the artist and Madragoa, Lisbon. Credits: Bruno Lopes




On the occasion of the upcoming opening of Amanzi angena endlini, Buhlebezwe Siwani's third solo exhibition at the gallery, Madragoa is happy to present a selection of works framed by Sara de Chiara’s text Green Gestures Against Amnesia, from the recently published book Iyeza, on the occasion of the Standard Bank Prize.



The first act that Christianity imposes on its community of believers is baptism, which marks the beginning of the supremacy of the spirit over the flesh. Immersion in water, transposed on a symbolic level, corresponds to a purification of the body from its sins.

In the practice of Buhlebezwe Siwani the rite of cleansing, with its corollary of elements—water and soap, nudity, basins and bowls—, becomes an instrument of critical and political investigation into the imposition of the Christian religion on indigenous South Africans, into the relationship between white and black skin, between men’s and women’s bodies (traditionally considered “dirtier” because of menstrual blood), but also into the process of redemption from the Western sin of colonialism.


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A recurrent material used in a diversified way in the artist’s production is green soap, a well-known and everyday used product in South Africa’s rural areas by people with modest socio-economic conditions, for different purposes—either meant for the laundry, the dishes, or the body.





Instead of cleaning and purifying, in Siwani’s work soap becomes the element that dirties, leaving its traces: it becomes stains in the paintings on canvas, graffiti or scribbles in the drawings on paper, incrustations in the basins of installations. It also permeates the surrounding air with its scent. Instead of washing the body, the soap itself gives shape to the body in the series of sculptures that reproduce from a cast the figure of the artist in life size, caught in the act of performing ritual gestures, but also of washing herself. It is a fragile and ephemeral body, destined to wear out over time, but also a powerful image: the green body of the artist fills a void, the one excavated by the absence of the body of color in the history of art, of black women artists until recent times.







Buhlebezwe Siwani, INKANYAMBA, installation view at Galeria Municipal de Almada, 2020. Courtesy of the artist, Galeria Municipal de Almada and Madragoa, Lisbon. Credits: Bruno Lopes.



This reflection and the will to give voice to black women is pursued by Buhlebezwe Siwani throughout her artistic practice, which proposes in a subtle way the revenge of the body over the spirit, or rather, of a spiritual dimension that is expressed exclusively through the body, and which is nourished by her practice as a sangoma: the sacred does not dwell in heaven, but is rooted in the earth where the ancestors are buried, of whom her body becomes the bearer. The body holds the memory of the individual and their ancestors, in the genome are stored wounds that can be healed, but not forgotten nor washed away with time.





It is not only through the presence of the artist herself in her performance practice—extended to video and photography—that the body regains its own space and time, but also through its absence.

In the photograph Inkomo zika Tata (2019), the figure of Siwani, crouched in a barren South African countryside landscape and surrounded by grazing cows, has been erased through the superimposition of a natural substance with therapeutic properties, red umkhando, used by traditional healers. Her figure is turned into a phantasmagorical presence, similar to those faded portraits in old analog photographs, or the blurred way physical features persist into memory.





By obliterating herself from her fatherland, the artist evokes once again a gender issue, women who have generally been erased from history, especially black women, but also the emancipation from patriarchy, as well as a symbolic gesture that emphasizes Siwani’s personal separation from her family and native region, when she moved to the Netherlands.





Yet her practice remains strongly anchored in South Africa, the use of hand-woven ropes composed of numerous colored threads of wool materializes this connection. Worn as belts by South African Christian priests, the ropes in the environmental installation Mombathiseni (2020) are left loose: instead of embracing the waist of a single body, they are multiplied and opened to envelop the entire environment, an umbilical cord that unites a community, revealing the choral dimension of her work.





Text by Sara de Chiara, 2022.






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