Yonela Makoba’s debut exhibition is an introduction to Tangerine Water who, through this body of work, prays for kwantlandlolo – a clean slate. Nickita Maesela explores the process that brought to life this deeply empowering imagery centring identities that have been placed in a state of fear by society
At the top of a flight of stairs, inside a freshly painted building on Cape Town’s sometimes very touristy Roeland Street, my attention is caught by a circle of portraits hanging from the ceiling. The portraits feature Yonela Makoba, who is the artist and the sole feature in the work. The portraits exude a rare power that guides you into this solo exhibition titled Kwantlandlolo: Tangerine Prays for Tabula Rasa.
At the centre of the tenacious yet gentle visual storm of floating portraits is a sculpture made from resin. The almost translucent artwork shaped like a torso has a container with impepho in it – sitting at its base. It acts as a site for centring yourself in the work as the audience. “The resin was the alternative to glass which was what I originally wanted to use but this worked out better,” says Makoba. “It gives it a stained-glass feeling with the light shining through it, reminding the audience that they are in a building that used to be a church. “The art was curated to form circles in the space as a critique of how the church organises itself, which is very structured. I feel like the traditional set up of the pastor on stage and the followers below is wild. I think people are better off connecting and gathering in circles. “So I thought about how we could make this very rectangular rigid church setting feel more familial.”
There’s a poignant divinity that comes from the captured moments of the black femme form, which in this case is portrayed in so many ways in the work that is co-curated by Anelisa Mangcu. Makoba, who also goes by the name Tangerine Water, beat hundreds of talented entrants when they were announced as the winner of the Orms Circle Mentorship and Residency programme last year. After months of preparation, they have made their artistic debut in which they explore the idea of renewal and rebirth. Makoba walked me through the opening procession of the exhibition that has been a three-month journey towards sharing parts of their existence through art with the world.
It’s a journey that was filled with so much from metamorphosis to conquering fears. Three years ago when the young artist started bringing to life their artistry, they would never have imagined a solo exhibition in South Africa’s Mother City as a reality. They grew up in the small town of Mthatha in the Eastern Cape and graduated with a Bachelor of Science in environmental and geographical sciences at the University of Cape Town, later going on to pursue a career in the arts. This has helped Makoba to confront and explore different sides of themself, reads a statement by Orms Circle.
“In the performance I took some leftover plaster that was used in the photographs, mixed it with water and began by rubbing it all over my body for about 30 minutes before the exhibition officially opened.” Makoba was then ushered up the stairs of the space by two people, with the audience following, singing Imimangaliso – both a religious hymn and a motivational song meaning miracles. “It’s a song we used to sing when we were younger and it’s a song that kept recurring throughout the process,” says Makoba.
The performance included butoh, a form of Japanese dance theatre created in the late 1950s. It encompasses a diverse range of activities, techniques and motivations for dance, performance or movement. Makoba started this dance at the top of the stairs: “It was basically a provocation for people to be thankful and for people to thank the Lord for the things they have. “This was also for me to acknowledge that I am here because of my hard work which is unreal for me. I think about how I got here. I didn’t study art. I think I always wanted to do this but I thought it was too far out of reach for me.”
The connection between the spiritual and physical world are explored throughout the images, with the importance of identity being projected across the work. The images were taken using film cameras. “I like film for the magic that it adds because there are so many things that are beyond your control. I like the interaction between the photographer and the person being captured.
“And there’s no way of knowing what the outcome will be until the photos are developed. So it’s a craft that involves trust of what you’re doing.” Makoba says they were learning this trust and patience a lot through this three-month process. It was out of their hands once the work had been done – how the work would be received and engaged with in the exhibition. The images play a lot with contrast, which traverses time and place, emphasising the theme of connection. Makoba’s mother did the official welcome as a prayer at the opening after her daughter performed. “It was so powerful because her prayer resonated with the audience which I felt with the collective Amen that was said by the room at the end.
“My mother and I have been going through so much during the process of creating this exhibition as she sees that I’m placing myself and my body on a very public and exposed platform. So she was worried, she doesn’t want anything with bad intentions to come to me because of this exposure.” Claiming space through projecting their multitudinous identities in the sociopolitical context of this country, that has placed womxn and femme bodies in constant danger, was clear to see in Makoba’s work. She plays with symbolism of power, spirituality, eroticism and ritual.
“During this process there was one day that I had the feeling that I needed to go out and practise butoh at night during load shedding. I was embarking on a mission to conquer fear. “We [womxn] are dying every day and it was scary. I know I wasn’t supposed to be out but I did it. I told myself I was going to go and practise and at the same time I would be beating the fear. “I’ve been doing these little exercises of conquering fear throughout this process. I had to develop that bravery.”
Conquering the small fears to be able to take on the big one is what they are aiming for. This was Makoba’s entire journey as they had never performed before. This was their first time having to do something so public – a fear they eventually conquered.
. Kwantlandlolo: Tangerine Prays for Tabula Rasa is open until February 22 at FORM, 56 Roeland Street in Cape Town