Welcome to Confluences, a weekly column on art, kinship and life. Each week we approach one of the themes of the magazine’s current print issue by looking at a creative event, endeavour, or body of work that links to that theme and taps into a larger conversation with the world around us.
In considering our current theme, rights, it is undeniably clear that issues of land rights and justice are heavily intersectional and intertwined with political and social systems of oppression. “Audre Lorde put it best,” says ornithologist, conservationist, and land justice activist Nadia Shaikh in Issue #13’s The Colour of Transformation. “‘The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,’ [says Lorde]. The way that we’re trying to save nature is by using the same tools, doing the same kind of activities that are destroying it in the first place. Nature conservation is often about taking land and protecting it from people rather than recognising that people need to be in nature as much as possible. Only then will we ever truly be able to save it.”
I’m reminded of Shaikh’s words - and the inimitable Lorde’s - when I encounter South African sculptor Lungiswa Gqunta’s body of work, Tending to the Harvest of Dreams, which responds to South Africa’s Natives Land Act of 1913, which saw the government allocating just 7% of the country’s productive land to the Black majority population, instead relegating them to “native reserves.” In the nearly three decades since the inception of democracy in South Africa, land ownership continues to be unequal - in many cases, still following the geospatial contours of apartheid-era urban planning - and a pressing societal issue. As the project’s press release puts it: “How can one pick up the thread of one’s own relationship to nature, the centuries-old traditions and knowledge that lie within one but speak to one only in dreams?” How can one find and carry on one’s identity, of which one was robbed bit by bit, also through land seizure?”
Dreams are central to Gqunta’s work - as a space of expansive spirituality and possibilities that contrasts with an often stratified, structurally violent reality. As Nkgopoleng Moloi writes for Art News: "Caring for land can result in abundant harvests. But when human connections to the land get severed—whether by ecological disaster or colonialism—harvest time can exist only in dreams.” Tending incorporates recordings of Gqunta’s voice reciting her dreams in her native tongue, isiXhosa. Even to listeners proficient in the language, these retellings are deliberately fragmented and opaque, the core of her spiritual practice remaining private to the artist herself.
Elsewhere, barbed wire is bound in fabric and sculpted into sprawling plantlike shapes, the fabric failing to fully conceal the spikiness of the wire underneath it. Barbed wire is an intentional choice here, with its long history of colonial use in South Africa to enforce ethnic and racial segregation: from military use by the British during the Second Boer War to the enforcement of apartheid policies to the manipulation of landscapes and flora in parks and gardens to this day. Gqunta’s use of the material reflects her preoccupation with spatial exclusion and the right to access various environments: evoking and responding to the social imbalances that continue to linger as a result of colonialism and systemic oppression.
“It may seem crazy, but this green grass really becomes a physical manifestation of how people are treated and how an area is treated because of the people who live in it,” Gqunta explains. “Being in spaces where you’re made to feel as if you don’t belong always brought up a specific reaction in me: I own the space in the way that I move across it, and I walk as if this were mine. I move with the thought that this is my inheritance, not to feel small or to constantly be faced with all the politics about that particular space.”
It’s here - from the vantage point of Gqunta’s engagement with issues of land rights and spatial justice - that I return to artist Bryony Benge-Abbott’s words about her documentary, The Colour of Transformation: “The journey to creating the world we want to live in begins inside each of us, in the dreams and the stories we tell ourselves, and while the film was created by and for those whose voices and perspectives are largely marginalised in policy discussions and decision-making, it is also a call for everyone to recognise the truth that we belong in the natural world as much as anyone else. Othering is an illusion.”
Confluences: On Lungiswa Gqunta