Sithembiso Promise Xaba spoke to Khehla Chepape Makgato about his most recent solo show, ‘Mephaso – The Rituals,’ which deals with issues surrounding the infamous Marikana Massacre of 2012, how Africans have been affected by the events and the significance of tradition and ritual.
When blood is shed and souls are ripped from the hearts of the brave, there is a pain usually felt by those rested beneath the fertile grounds. You won’t hear the cries that scrape through the dirt and congested plains but you’ll feel the loss as if your very own being was taken from you. The very people who’ve lost the thread that ties their broken families are but forgotten and left unconsolidated.
You see, the events of Marikana may have occurred three years ago; but the fatherless children and mourning wives will recall the pain and scars left by the fearless heroes who never returned home. If they chose to, the mourners could wait by their doors and peer through their windows; pull over the curtains of faith and pray harder. But they don’t. Instead, they wrap themselves in traditional mourners’ garments as a reminder of who they can’t have back – even though they never wished them away.
Khehla Chepape Makgato is a fine artist who delves deep into the issues often shied away from by the people who should be most concerned. They do care – about profits and exchange rates that fail to embrace and keep them warm when the world seems scariest. Yet, they continue to bury the tragedy and try to wish it away with more desperate employees and hungrier stomachs.
To dig a little deeper into the inspiration and drive behind the mighty third solo exhibition, ‘Mephaso – The Rituals,’ Makgato revealed the significance of the series and why Africans are most affected by the events and our sacred twisted traditions.
‘Mephaso – The Rituals’ is quite a striking and provoking title. How did you come with the name for the series?
Immediately after the opening of my second solo exhibition my mind told me that it would be injustice not to look at the ritual element of the Marikana aftermath. Rituals were performed at the actual place where mineworkers and policemen were killed in the crossfire. So I decided to have that element in my portfolio of works that pay homage to Marikana incident.
How different is your third solo exhibition from the last two previous shows and how did you prepare differently for this one?
I have learned a lot from my previous exhibitions in terms of presentation; production, curation, and doing the PR work prior to the opening show. The most important part is that it was not sponsored as I worked straight from my pocket. It was challenging to put it together as it meant that I had to work on the pieces over the weekends and some nights because I work during the week.
Does ‘Mephaso – The Rituals’ relate to your views about the current state of African cultures and how you chose to express your feelings through the pieces?
Most people do not perform rituals simply because they do not know about this practice. Or Western influence has made them frown upon it and declare it as uncivilised or demonic. We seem to have embraced the Western cultures so readily that we neglect ours. Mephaso is one of my other means of rediscovering the cultural practices performed by generations that walked this planet before us.
How long did you work on each artwork? Which of these did you find the most difficult to finish?
I’ve been working on the pieces for almost a year to pull together this particular show. The piece I found hard to complete and the most time-consuming is called Marikana Memoria I, II and II because I had to scoop or carve each of the 45 A-sized Linocut plates individually before piecing them together. This piece is a panel dedicated to the 34 mineworkers who died on the 16th of June 2012 and the other 10 who died in the build-up to this event. This is the one piece which amounts to 45, a solid piece that represents me as a narrator of this tribute.
Did you have difficulty finishing any of the pieces?
Yes I did, sometimes and more especially when a piece communicated with me abstractly.
From observing and relating to the cultural dynamics you focused on in the Mephaso series, tradition and its origins are evidently important to you. Was your original aim intended to persuade African people to dig a little deeper into their history, even though we may seem to have some idea of it?
Yes, my fascination was to make people think about the cultural dynamics and to go even further and deeper in searching and researching about our cultural historical significances. It is equally enriching to try and find out more about where we come from as a people and what has brought us to be where we are now. Art, like ancient oral history, has a capacity to preserve and educate us about our African traditional history and belief systems.
Who invests the most in the artworks; the artist who creates or the audience that relates to the ideas and the pieces?
Obviously artists invest more in the artworks because they go through trials and errors. They endure the pains, sweats and tears before the final piece is produced. The audience observes and take in the ideas and the intensions of the artist. You can’t have on without the other; both are dependant to each other.
What’s the relationship between the first two exhibitions you hosted previously and how has it stretched into and influenced the third show?
The common thread in all my solo exhibitions is that they are based on Marikana and are only communicating various sub-themes and topics around the event.
How did you come to choose to pay tribute to the fallen workers that died during the Marikana Massacre that occurred in 2012? How is this significant to African traditional ceremonies?
I chose to pay homage to the fallen workers because it is my obligation as an active citizen to raise the voice for the voiceless in condemning the ills and injustices experienced by our brothers. This speaks for both the mineworkers and the policemen who died as a result of the wage dispute strikes. African traditional ceremonies are always known to maintain peace and stability among people. Our spiritual connection grows deeper when we value and appreciate where we are from.
Your metaphorical use of the river plants where the blood of the miners was shed is quite powerful and may be unsettling to the families that are still processing the pain of their loss. What’s the underlying message here?
The message is for us to rally behind the families in making sure that they are compensated by the government and the company in question. The river plants in this exhibition represent growth and transformation, thereby purging the injustice of being left alone and making the families deal with the burden of having to continue with their lives as if nothing has happened. Children left behind must be afforded an opportunity for good health and decent education like many children in the country. Campaigns must be created in establishing educational or trust funds for them to continue with education. To have a community agricultural project also be established for the widows to carry on with their lives as their husbands died on duty is also necessary.
How then should we gain back our African pride and show appreciation and respect to the befallen culture and heroes?
We can only gain back our African pride through respecting every human’ s life and supporting each other as a one people.
And the dignity and power, can those be resurrected?
If the company in question, the government and the public ensure that education is a priority for the children of the deceased then the power and dignity may be resurrected.
What response are you anticipating to create from this series and how would you like to influence the audience?
This body of work should take ordinary people into the library and gallery which they could otherwise not enjoy or have this privilege because commercial galleries are too intimidating by their nature of walls.
What’s your favourite piece from the series? Why?
Every piece in this exhibition is my favourite because they have endured all my efforts and energy and time in equal measure.
How long will your series be on show and what response are you anticipating from your audience? Do you expect the show to be a success?
The exhibition will be up till end of September and I can only hope to learn and growth from this exhibition going forward – that is one major success I anticipate. Also, because we’ll be having panel discussions and walkabout as part of the exhibition, I hope that more and more people will flock into the Johannesburg City Library to make this dialogue a possibility and to gain momentum of change in thinking and looking at the Marikana Massacre differently with a sense of enlightenment.
Sithembiso Promise Xaba is a blogger, a contributing writer at Flat Base Decoded and a Boston Media House Graduate.