Mlango wa Navushiku, a solo exhibition, Circle Art Gallery 30 March – 18 April 2017

Mlango wa Navushiku (Navushiku’s Lineage)

Text by Rehema Chachage

“There is a continuity between art and ritual. Ritual and art are essentially connected, and art plays a similar function today to that which ritual played in the past”

(Cynthia Freeland, 2001)

In her book But is it Art? An Introduction to Art Theory, Cynthia Freeland (2001) suggests that there is a theory of art called the ritual theory. It is derived from thinking about the relationship between tribal rituals and what we today call fine art. Weighed against each other, there are indeed many similarities and differences between these two practices, and there seem to have also been a revival of interest in ritual in the art world since the 1970s. Contemporary art (and especially performance art), arguably, gets us back in some way to tribal rituals and many feminist artists have, for instance, been interested in rituals and have used ritual-like imageries, actions and performances in their art.

This exhibition Mlango wa Navushiku makes use of the motif of ritual performances to explore the nuances in gender, generation, and sexuality. My curiosity with this motif is inspired by a personal interest in historical ([her]storical rather) narratives that started with personal stories of my mother, grandmother, and great grandmother – generations of hardship due to discriminatory social, economic, and political systems. They used cultural and spiritual rituals and performances such as rites of passage—birth, marriage, death, etc. as mediums for molding, resisting and subverting the status quo. This body of work is inspired by a passage that caught my attention during my visit to Goree (slave) Island in Senegal in 2012, the year that this project was birthed. This passage captured a moment in history with a special significance to black female identity. It is written in French, but the English translation reads;

‘When one of these unfortunate was pregnant, wrote Schoelcher,” a hole was dug in the ground to accommodate her pregnancy while she was receiving 29 lashes regulatory that tore her flesh” ‘

Mlango wa Navushiku, which translates as Navushiku’s Lineage, is developed as the first chapter to a much bigger and ongoing project which is currently entitled 29 Lashes. The project explores rituals from the ‘traditional’ patriarchal social sphere, including what became ‘traditional’ as an experience of cultural conquest of the African people through slavery, colonialism and neo colonialism and the impact that has had on the female body, identity and emancipation. One can easily look for clues in ritual performances, where factors such as class, generation, gender construction and other identity formations are inscribed and demonstrated. Essentially, at the end of this project, I will visually explore 29 different ritual performances.

History depends on sources and their interpretations, and in the study of Africa, there are limited written sources from pre-colonial times. Because of this, the growth of historical research methods to include other sources such as oral traditions is proving beneficial, although there is, of course, a need to take in consideration different interpretations of the research to be credible. With this in mind, 29 Lashes, will base its research on both written (researched) and unwritten historical narratives (that I will gather through verbal storytelling).

This particular chapter, Mlango wa Navushiku, uses verbal storytelling as a research medium, and traces history (or rather [her]story) from my matrilineal line, exploring rituals tied to stories about some decendants of Navushiku, my matrilineal ancestor. Intergenerational dialogue is integral to my process of working and for obtaining the stories explored in this body of work. I have found myself collaborating, in the majority of the works, with my Mother, Demere Kitunga, a poet and an author who has created text in response to my visuals.

The telling of (Her)story
The works of Rehema Chachage (2012 – 2017)

Text by Asteria Malinzi (curator)

Photography has been used throughout history and into the present day as a tool for science and exploration; as a means of documenting people, places and events; of telling stories and recording histories; and as a mode of communication and critique in our increasingly visual culture. The medium is being continually reinvented and rethought, shaped as much by technological advances as it is by the ever-changing dialogues surrounding photography’s use.

– MoMA (Photography)

It was at the Circle Art Gallery booth in the Tomorrow’s and Today section at the 2016 Cape Town Art Fair that I had my first time encounter with Rehema Chachage’s work. The familiar image of a woman wrapping a khanga around her waist drew me into the booth. There, on one wall hung a series of photographs of a woman dressed in black standing in front of black drop with a blue khanga, wrapping it around her waist in each frame. In those images I saw myself. I saw my sister, my mother, my aunt and my grandmother. I saw home. On the opposite wall was a video screening of a woman in a red skirt spinning continuously across a wooden floor. The booth was a solo presentation of Rehema Chachage’s two works Mshanga/Orupa Mchikirwa and Untitled (Whirl), which she had produced during a residency in Japan. This was the first time I was seeing works by a fellow Tanzanian artist at an international art fair. For the next three days that I would work at the art fair, I would pass by the booth and couldn’t help but feel excited, proud and optimistic about the future of the Tanzanian art scene. One could easily confuse this for feeling patriotic. Rehema’s work was reassurance that there was a small existing art scene in Tanzania.

We live in a time where the visuals that, we as Africans, encounter are more often of a western construct of beauty, culture and aesthetics. We see western and western-like images in our schoolbooks, on our billboards and on our television screens. Throughout history and to this day, images of Africa and “African life” have been produced by those with access to the technology and equipment. As Wambui Mwangi and Keguro Macharia (2010) put it in what a book or essay?:

“In the twenty-first century, images of Africa remain stubbornly anachronistic, testifying if not to the complete absence of modernity, then to an always attenuated one that has not yet caught up to an idealized western modernity. A side-by-side comparison of images taken in the late nineteenth century and early twenty first too-frequently suggests that while the photographic techniques might have improved, the subjects profiled remains stuck in time.”

Rehema’s work is a breathe of fresh air. It stands to defy and transform the glance on the Tanzanian cultures and traditions. She offers a perspective that shows a positive, loving and supportive aspect to the traditions and the ritualistic practices. Using the media of photography, video, sound and performance, she turns the lens to look from within. She gives a visual representation to the verbal storytelling culture of many African societies. Telling the stories and histories of her people.
The work acts as a record of practices that have not been documented by re-staging stories that have not yet been captured due to the lack of availability of equipment and skill in Tanzania through time.

In Mlango Wa Navushiku, Rehema performs and records, with the added literature from her collaboration with her mother, Demere Kitunga, the narratives of the women from her maternal line. Rehema shares a rare and honest glance into intimate settings and traditions of the Pare people of Tanzania. Working with verbal story telling as a means of research, with stories dating back to 1917, she attempts to recapture history.

Mshanga/Orupa Mchikirwa tells the story of sacrifice and survival. It tells the story of Orupa Mchikirwa, her great grandmother, who raised many of the children in her family (including Rehema’s mother). She had many mouths to feed and often would sacrifice the food that she had to the children and there was little food left for her to eat leaving her hungry. To distract her self from this hunger and continue to farm for more food, she would tie a mshanga (the Pare people’s term for a cutout from an old rug and then a khanga/leso that women would tie tightly around their waist). Using a series of photographic prints she creates a sense of motion and continuality of time similar to moving film to demonstrate how a mshanga is tied.

In contrast to the dark background of Mshanga, Letters To… tells the story of the support and restoration women give to each other. The video component of the installation shows a performance of the intimate ritual of Kukandwa (hot water massages), a widely practiced Tanzanian ritual. Done to a new mother after childbirth daily for one to two weeks, the ritual acts as a way to restore the new mother back to health. Believing that the new mother’s body undergoes a trauma during childbirth, she is scheduled to receive hot water massages and oiling daily. The new mother’s mother or grandmother carries out this practice. In response to the video work, Demere Kitunga writes intimate text consisting of two letters, one to her other, who? and the other to her grandmother, Orupa Mchikirwa.

The Flower tells the story of loneliness that comes with a new marriage using the henna ritual as a motif. She uses video to tell the story of a woman in a white dress veiled with white fabric in front of her, as the video progresses a henna design forms invading the frame. For the sound, a woman wails a Mwambao chant that tells the tale of a woman whois giving birth alone and is crying out for her mother’s support.

In the works Untitled (whirl) and Nankondo Part III, Rehema tells the story of meditation, spirituality and self-denial. Untitled (whirl) consists of a video of a woman in isolation whirling continuously in the frame. Sufism, a mystical branch of Islam that is based on the belief of whirling as a form of devotion, dance and worship, inspired the video. Rehema performs the whirling motion as a form of meditation and portrays her great grandmother, Orupa Mchikirwa as she would have done when she needed to meditate and gain strength during hard times. Demere Kitunga responses to the video with a text titled my legend dancer, which tells the story of how Orupa Mchikirwa loved to dance her traditional dance of ngasu, which when it was forbidden by Christianity stopped her from ever dancing it again because of her new belief.

Nankondo Part III is the story of Nankondo, a bar maiden and Rehema’s great grandmother, who disappeared a long time ago and is believed to have been captured into slavery. Village religious fanatics believed that she was to blame for her captivity as she had low morals and worked in a bar. Nankondo Part III marks the end of the first chapter of Rehema’s on going project, 29 Lashes. Mlango Wa Navushiku consisting of work spanning from 2012 to 2017.

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