In: identity

In Say Hello to English, his second exhibition at the Tyburn Gallery London, multimedia artist Moffat Takadiwa presents a compelling new series of three-dimensional wall hangings, or object sculptures, that aesthetically engage with problematics surrounding postcolonial constructions of Zimbabwean national and cultural identity.

Born in Haroi in 1983, and practicing in the capital city of Harare since graduating (B.A. Hons) from Harare’s Polytechnic University in 2008, Takadiwa has consistently devoted his work to critical explorations of how material, environmental, and social factors impact the reality of contemporary Zimbabwean daily life. In a previous exhibition entitled Across Borders (on display at the What If The World gallery in Cape Town last year), Takadiwa examined the nature of Zimbabwean-Chinese economic and trade relations, and their deleterious effects on the natural Zimbabwean environment. For that show, Takadiwa created a collection of intricate, highly textural wall sculptures using post-consumer waste materials, such as bottle caps and disused computer and laptop parts.

View of the exhibition ‘Say Hello to english’. Image courtesy of Tyburn Gallery.

In Say Hello to English, his current exhibition at the Tyburn Gallery, Takadiwa shifts his (and our) gaze to a critical reassessment of post- and neo-colonial aspects of the English language, a legacy of Zimbabwe’s colonial past as the former British Crown colony of Rhodesia. For Takadiwa, the English language is problematic because of its tendency to create class divisions (i.e., English-speaking elites) in Zimbabwean society, and its power to both shape and undermine contemporary constructions of Zimbabwean cultural identity. For Takadiwa, language and culture are inextricably intertwined –especially in the context of post-independence Zimbabwe–, and this standpoint is reflected throughout his oeuvre.

Moffat takadiwa, ‘Bantu Terminology’, 2017, computer keys, 230 x 112 x 6 cm. Image courtesy of Tyburn Gallery.

For the sculptural objects on view in Say Hello to English, Takadiwa makes use of a radically different medium to portray his ideas, namely: lettered, Roman-alphabet keys taken from post-consumer laptop and computer keyboards. These computer keys appear to have been woven together like traditional Zimbabwean textiles, but are here recast into a more contemporary, high-tech idiom. In an amusing and daring act of subversion, Takadiwa deconstructs and subverts the English language itself in these objects, by arranging the keys seemingly randomly (in effect scrambling them) so they are not legible in any way. Moreover, the artist has turned most of the lettered keys upside down, so that all viewers can see are their bottom ends, with the lettered crown rendered invisible. This aesthetic strategy powerfully conveys the struggles contemporary Zimbabweans experience with the English language, and how important it is, at least to some extent, to say “goodbye” to English in order to preserve the Bantu languages, as well as other aspects of pre-colonial Zimbabwean culture.

Moffat Takadiwa, ‘The Falling of Rhode/sia’, 2017, computer keys, 250 x 230 x 45 cm. Image courtesy of Tyburn Gallery.

Although all of the works included in the exhibition Say Hello to English deal with problematics surrounding intertextuality, language and culture, one work in particular provides a paradigmatic example of Takadiwa’s philosophy, namely “The Falling of Rhode/sia.” According to the press release issued by the Tyburn Gallery, this work takes its inspiration from the “Rhodes Must Fall” social movement that was formed to contest Western-oriented education in Africa. “The Falling of Rhode/sia” also makes direct reference to the arch-imperialist Cecil B. Rhodes, whose statue at Cape Town University was recently removed from the campus as a result of student protests. In “The Falling of Rhodes/ia,” Takadiwa essentially reimagines Rhodes as a new, post-colonial creature, whose persona is both fierce (signified by the long red tongue and bared claws) and friendly (suggested by the creature’s loose and amorphous shape). For this viewer, Takadiwa’s “fallen,” reincarnated Rhodes is a likeable, positive figure who successfully reconciles Zimbabwe’s colonial past and post-colonial present.

Say Hello to English is on view at the Tyburn Gallery, London until May 6, 2017.

Located at PIER 90 on Manhattan’s Westside, the 10th anniversary of VOLTA NY, the signature solo-focus artist show of the Armory Arts Week, featured a plethora of beautiful and thought-provoking works by artists from 39 nations that collectors and art enthusiasts alike were able to enjoy. Yet, of the 96 Galleries and artist-run spaces presenting this year, perhaps the most poignant, politically-oriented works were found in the show’s thematic Curated Section.

The timeliness of the artworks presented was undeniable, with their subject matter feeling ripped from today’s newspaper headlines. Beginning with a video wall at the entrance of Volta, the Curated Section, titled Your Body Is a Battleground, was aptly found at the heart of the show. Its deviser, New York-based writer and independent curator Wendy Vogel, drew inspiration from Barbara Kruger’s photomontage Untitled (Your Body Is a Battleground), produced for the 1989 Women’s March on Washington. “After the enormous turnout for the recent international Women’s Marches, Kruger’s work reads as a vital precedent for art that protests the erosion of civil rights,” said Vogel. “Though these artists’ works are a generation removed from Kruger’s, they continue her legacy of examining media and representation.”

Entrance to Your Body Is a Battleground, with installation by Carmen Winant, titled ‘What Would You Do If You Weren’t Afraid? (Women in the News Before November 8, 2016)’. Photo courtesy of Wendy Vogel.

Taking an intersectional feminist approach, Vogel selected eight artists from across North America and the Caribbean whose works explore, through various corporal representations, the treatment and controversy around Queer Bodies, Black Bodies, Latinx Bodies, and Women’s Bodies. “I was thinking about all the types of bodies that are in danger under the current political circumstances that we are living through”, stated the curator.

This is unsurprising as Vogel conceived the show last November shortly after the U.S. Presidential election. However, in a refreshing twist, not a single image of President Trump was presented —an intentional choice—, because “all of this work has staying power, and it’s political without feeling so tied to one particular moment in time.”

Melissa Vandenberg, ‘The Roof Is On Fire’, 2016. Match burn on Arches paper, 29.5 x 40 in.

With that said, much of the artwork showcased was created specifically for Volta. With most of her work out of the country, Melissa Vandenberg’s burn drawings, presented by Maus Contemporary | beta pictoris gallery, were made just eight weeks before the exhibition. Integrating text into the images created with matches, an outline of America with the phrase “Wish You Were Here” has an intentionally camp sensibility, while the use of matches add greater symbolic meaning, linking the work to Wiccan cleansing rituals and cremation. Vandenberg said:“A lot of the work has to do with mortality and loss, whether it is our innocence as a nation or personal, intimate loss.”

Nona Faustine, ‘Lobbying The Gods For A Miracle’, Image Courtesy of Baxter St.

In contrast to these typographic images, Nona Faustine’s striking photography was perhaps the most literally corporeal of the Section. Presented by Baxter St Camera Club of New York, many of the photographs depicted the artist partially or fully nude at historical sites where slaves lived, died, or were buried. In the photograph “Lobbying the Gods for A Miracle,” part of a Triptych from 2016, she embodies an escaping slave from the Lefferts House. Smoking gun in hand, children’s shoes around her waist, she presses her back against a tree in the woods anticipating her captors. The woods where she hides are the same that Americans fought in during the Revolutionary War, reflecting the complex relationship of being black in America. “My work is autobiographical; it’s more about how I feel in relationship to the history as a native New Yorker and as an African American,” said Faustine.

Works by Kent Monkman. Photo courtesy of Wendy Vogel.

With the Trans Rights Movement and the Dakota Access Pipeline in the background, Kent Monkman’s work takes on an additional level of intensity; Monkman is of Cree and Irish ancestry and identifies as both queer and two-spirit. His paintings, presented by Peters Projects, re-appropriate the narratives around indigenous people by utilizing the Western European tradition of historical paintings to poke subversive fun at romanticized depictions of Native Americans and colonialism. Miss Chief Eagle Testickle, Monkman’s drag alter ego, also made an appearance at Volta in the collage series “Fate is a Cruel Mistress” (2017), in which she transforms into Biblical temptresses. In the portrait Judith you see Miss Chief in a headdress looking out determinedly before she beheads an inebriated Holofernes, depicted as a white colonial man —a clear victory.

Joiri Minaya performing ‘Siboney’.

The idea of temptresses and fantasy women was also taken on by Joiri Minaya, presented by Casa Quien. Her work #dominicanwomengooglesearch (2016) features pixelated depictions of dismembered female limbs floating in space, a commentary on the exoticized representations of Dominican women. The piece alone is intriguing, but its message is strengthened by Siboney, a performance in two parts, displayed on the video wall. In her latter work, Minaya documents the painstaking process of copying a found tropical pattern into a mural (around a month of work). She then lies seductively before the floral wall and pours water over her form before rubbing herself against the mural, effacing and transforming the piece simultaneously. Intercut with words like “Islander,” the performance challenges the viewer’s vision of an idealized land and people.

Installation (detail view) of Joiri Minaya’s #dominicanwomengooglesearch, 2016-17. Photo courtesy of Wendy Vogel.

Through thoughtful analysis and exploration of the human form, Your Body Is a Battleground offered an introduction into several hot-topic issues without sacrificing aesthetics or relying exclusively on shock value. Yet, even though subject matter varies, when combined the artworks revealed a unified front against oppressors.

Other artists included in Your Body Is a Battleground were Zachary Fabri (ROCKELMANN & in collaboration with Aljira, A Center for Contemporary Art), Deborah Roberts (Art Palace), Sable Elyse Smith (The Museum of Contemporary African Diaspora Arts), Carmen Winant (Fortnight Institute), Chelsea Knight and Autumn Knight.


Volta NY 2017 took place at Pier 90 (W 50th Street at Twelfth Avenue, Manhattan) from march 1st through March 5th, 2017.

Absolutely breathtaking, powerful, beautiful, visually striking, and so utterly important in today’s milieus of self-representation and socio-cultural movements.

This week I had the greatest pleasure of attending a lecture featuring world-renowned photographer Zanele Muholi at New York University’s Gallatin Galleries. I had stumbled upon about this talk on a poster pinned up inside an academic building while waiting for class to begin. I had studied Muholi in class before and had been instantly captured by her striking images and powerful portrayal of the stories of South African women, specifically black lesbian women. The presentation had been stunning and the talk was beyond illuminating; the event was concurrent with Gallatin’s current show Zanele Muholi: Zinathi.

Bester V, Mayotte, 2015 - 9257-LR

Muholi self identifies as a black lesbian and a visual activist.

She was born in 1972 in Umlazi township in Durban, South Africa; she currently lives in Johannesburg. Before her photographic career took off she worked as a human/lesbian rights activist, as a reporter for the LGBTI website Behind the Mask, and co-founded the Forum for the Empowerment of Women (FEW) as well as Inkanyiso, an organization dedicated to queer visual arts, activism, media, and advocacy.

The lecture began with the presentation of a short film (2013) from the Human Rights Watch with whom Muholi collaborated with. The revealing film explores her work, speaks to the pressing issues surrounding homosexuality in South Africa, and marked the start of the global campaign—16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence.

Lebo Leptie Phume Daveyton Johannesburg 2013-LR

Working almost exclusively in black and white film, Muholi creates powerful images that confront the viewer and simultaneously tell a story, always seeking to educate. Gallatin’s current exhibition, entitled Zinathi, brings together new works from two series Faces and Phases and Somnyama Ngonyama. Zinathi is a Zulu expression that means “All races, nations, communities and cultures” have LGBTI individuals.

The works from Faces and Phases focus on portraits of black lesbians and trans men surrounding Muholi within her community in South Africa. This continuous series began in 2006 as a visual project and has turned into an unprecedented archive of photographs documenting the community and the country. Stretching until today, Muholi has revisited a number of these women, re-capturing them at different stages in their lives. Her intent is “to fill a gap in South Africa’s visual history that, even 10 years after the fall of apartheid, wholly excluded our very existence,” (Zanele Muholi, Faces and Phases 2006-14, 2014).

Lesedi Modise Mafikeng North West 2010-LR

These women stand proud and defiant in front of the camera. Most are portraits and the rest are shot from the waist up. Muholi made a point throughout her lecture to mention that she made sure that all of these women “looked good,” as in clean, put together, with fresh haircuts—because she is tired of seeing the same images of Africans perpetuated throughout the media. These are ones of poverty, sickness, uncleanliness, and extreme desperation, ones that provoke pity. However, these archetypes are not her or her community’s reality. She wishes to uplift these women and present them as members of society worthy to be celebrated, respected, and documented within history. Each woman stands in front of a different background and has a unique way of interacting with the camera, of interacting with Muholi. She has developed relationships with almost all of these women; they trust her and have shared their stories with her. Many of these narratives revolve around the unrelenting hardship of living as a lesbian woman in South Africa as well as other countries where African leaders have criminalized homosexuality and publicly projected hate speech while doing very little to prevent violent hate crimes.

{ In 2006, with the Civil Union Act, South Africa became the first country in Africa to legalize same sex marriage and the 5th country in the world. The legislation includes same sex marriage under common-law definition and legally gives gay couples the same rights as heterosexual couples. }

Her second series displayed, Somnyama Ngonyama, translates to “Hail, the Dark Lioness” and confronts the politics of race and pigment in the photographic archive, while commenting on specific events in South Africa’s political history. Here, Muholi turns the camera on herself and shows a series of self-portraits where she takes on different characters and archetypes while referencing traditions of portraiture and fashion photography.

“The black face and its details become the focal point, forcing the viewer to question their desire to gaze at images of my black figure. By exaggerating the darkness of my skin tone, I’m reclaiming my blackness from the privileged gaze.”

 I cannot play down the importance of Zanele Muholi as an artist, as a photographer, as an activist, and as a deeply impassioned [gay female] human being.

Zanele Muholi: Zinathi is on view at NYU’s Gallatin Galleries until February 26th.