Go Bipa Mpa
Ka Mabele

Oberlindau 7, Frankfurt

3 March - 9 April 2022

Book Appointment to Visit


Sakhile&Me is pleased to present Go Bipa Mpa Ka Mabele, Mbali Dhlamini's first solo exhibition in Germany. The title makes reference to a saying in Setswana, which loosely translates to "conceal" or "shroud in secrecy" and is a nod to Dhlamini's keen interest and explorative sensibility to revealing knowledge about very particular cultural practices and indigenous knowledge that may otherwise not be readily visible, in both the material and immaterial forms. The exhibition runs from 3 March until 9 April, 2022.

Go Bipa Mpa Ka Mabele opens with a research room on Indigo practice where the audience is met with one of Dlhamini's photographs from her Look Into series, drawings the artist made during her 2021 residency at Kehinde Wiley's Black Rock residency in Dakar (Senegal) and a zine with documents and images of her community-based research during her travels in Senegal. The main exhibition room shows five photographs depicting the artist herself dressed in a see-through dress that both materially and temporally references dresses in Southern African churches that incorporate indigenous practice and beliefs into their Christian practice, at times signified by color symbolism but in the case of the clear dresses placing emphasis on what is revealed and yet remains concealed by the translucent material. The photographs draw from a meditative video piece which plays on a loop in the last room, the artist's voice lightly traveling through the space all the way to the indigo research portal in the first room.

Mbali Dhlamini
© Mbali Dhlamini

Mbali Dhlamini (b. 1990)

Based in Johannesburg, South Africa

Master of Arts, University of the Witwatersrand (2015)

Instagram: @imbalidhlamini


Dhlamini's work is rooted in research and employs visual, tactile and sonic elements to investigate current indigenous cultural practices. In the case of the Look Into series, which followed the artist's research work during her residency at RAW Material in Dakar back in 2017, she is looking at the relationship between the environment, culture and people by investigating the cultural significance of the indigo plant. She returned to Dakar as a resident at Kehinde Wiley's Black Rock Senegal in 2021 to continue her indigo research and create a site-specific mural out of indigo pigment as a place of discourse as well as small drawings, two of which are shown in the exhibition.

This process of revealing things that would otherwise remain concealed, but also highlighting through obscuring, is on display through the blurred or receded faces in the Look Into drawings and photographs and it is mirrored in the see-through dresses in both the photographs and the film that are part of Go Bipa Mpa Ka Mabele. In other words, concealing ("go bipa") is sometimes done intentionally to protect or fend off unwanted prying eyes. Although the dresses in the film and corresponding photographs are made with a see-through material, the way the artist moves her body and is captured in the still images blurs details of her body, simultaneously revealing and yet concealing parts of what is seen.

Dhlamini trained as a printmaker at Artist Proof Studio in Johannesburg from 2008 to 2009 and received a National Diploma and Bachelor of Technology in Visual Arts from the University of Johannesburg in 2013 and 2014, respectively. While working towards a Master of Arts at the University of the Witwatersrand between 2014 and 2015, Dhlamini explored faith and spirituality through the use of color in Apostolic and Zionist movements. In 2015, her graduate solo exhibition "Non-Promised Land: Bana Ba Thari Entsho" was hosted at Constitutional Hill in Johannesburg.

Dhlamini is also co-facilitator of Preempt Group Collective, alongside Phumulani Ntuli, and their collective was awarded the 2021/2022 Visionary Award by Javett Art Centre (University of Pretoria) in partnership with Tim Hetherington Trust. The Preempt Group Collective is a multidisciplinary collective that works within the intersection of archives, trans-media and open source technologies from where they engage in the translation of research through film and hypermedia, often reflecting on analogue and technological image-making. Also in 2021, Dhlamini completed a research residency at Kehinde Wiley's Black Rock in Dakar (Senegal) and The Ecumenical Centre Archive in Geneva (Switzerland), where the artist explored the archives of the Swiss missionaries who were sent to South Africa to establish churches before staging a series of engagements and creating a dialogue by hosting night vigils ("Imilindelo") and inviting the public to observe ("Lindela") with her.

Mbali Dhlamini has participated in art exhibitions in South Africa and abroad, including at the Washington Printmakers Gallery in 2014, the Beijing Biennale in 2015 and the European Cultural Center during the Venice Biennale in 2019. In 2012, Dhlamini's work was selected for the Rea Vaya Bus Rapid Transit System (BRT) public art commission. She is currently based in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Portraits of Absentees: Mbali Dhlamini and the Aesthetics of Withdrawal

by Nadine Isabelle Henrich

In her artistic practice Mbali Dhlamini embarks herself in an ongoing search for points of contact with pre-colonial identities and spirits. Her search manifests in a spectrum of ex-periences in painting, photography, video, and installation. A monochrome-black pictorial background that absorbs the gaze is her signature motif, consistently appearing in her work since 2013. Dhlamini's portraits, in contrast to genre's definition, persist without a physical presence. Clothes, like empty shells, hint at the former existence of historical protagonists. Dhlamini works with an aesthetic of withdrawal. Her works attest to an on-going, internal conversation with past and present visual landscapes and archives. Her imagery revolves around the question of self, revealed beneath layers of imposed "Western" religion, Christian garments, and attempts to emancipate the black female body from the colonial gaze.

The solo exhibition "Mbali Dhlamini: Go Bipa Mpa Ka Mabele" provides insight into four different groups of works and traces her preoccupation with processes of decolonization and African identity formation. The show departs from the photographic series Look Into, which the artist began researching in 2017 during an artist residency in Senegal. The titles of the large-scale photographic prints "Untitled - Afrique Occidentale, Fille Ouolof" and "Untitled - Dakar, Femme Sénégalaise" reveal geographical, ethnographic and cultural modes of attribution as they were used for photography in the context of anthropology in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Almost like figures of abstracted icon paintings, these women of indigenous West African communities appear in their traditional indigo-colored robes.

During the colonial period in Senegal, French, presumably white, photographers took the portraits that form the source material for Dhlamini's works. The beginnings of French colonization of Senegal date back to the mid-17th century, the time of the founding of the capital Saint-Louis, although official colonial policy through the annexation of Senegalese kingdoms is dated in the 19th century.¹ The women, submerged in the unrecognizability of historical spaces, lead us to see the racist penetration of photographic technologies. White skin was elevated as the standard of imaging technology, and the tonalities of black skins were rendered less precisely. In this way, the void of bodies could be read in terms of media reflexivity as well as colonial history.

Mbali Dhlamini: Untitled - Afrique Occidentale, Fille Oulouf
Untitled - Afrique Occidentale, Fille Oulouf © Mbali Dhlamini

There is a third possible reading concerning the viewing experience of the edited photographic prints. The artist has digitally reworked the scanned photographs: People and background intertwine to form a black color surface. The portrayed elude the eyes. Only the fabric covering their bodies mark their presence in the black background. The viewer experiences a loss of control. The omission of the human bodies that once filled these fabrics activates the imagination and transforms the act of looking into a process of projection, accompanied by the impression of being secretly observed oneself. The artist's withdrawal of the faces and bodies creates a new situation for the viewer. Looking at photographic portraits is usually linked to a voyeuristic experience, a hierarchical structure that characterizes photographic representations of the female body in particular, and structures the photographic dispositive as an instrument of 'othering' and collecting in the context of (neo-) colonial narratives.² In Dhlamini's works this power relationship is rearranged. The original distribution of roles between the viewed 'object' and the viewing 'subject' is destabilized. Through her reworking of the photographs, Dhlamini revises mechanisms inscribed in the photographs, the colonial gaze and the exhibiting of black female bodies, and shifts attention to the brightly patterned garments that mediated social codes and held cultural meanings in indigenous communities. In Look Into, as often in Dhlamaini's work, a process of unlearning and relearning takes place in order to question supposedly established knowledge and make visual representations readable in a different way than their historical contexts intended.

The monochrome black background runs as a motif through all the photography-based works as well as the drawings in the solo exhibition "Mbali Dhlamini: Go Bipa Mpa Ka Mabele." In the first room, the female body remains consistently withdrawn from view in the described series Look Into (2017-2021) as well as the two drawings "Untitled" (2021) with wax and synthetic indigo on paper. Like a blank space, an unplayed stage, the individual woman remains a projection. The works activate inner images of the viewer's imagination of the hidden "femme sénégalaise." Thereby they critically evoke the preconception of West African women formed by anthropology and colonial photography in the imagination of white, Central European viewers.

In the exhibition, large-format photographs follow, introducing the color red alongside the presence of the artist herself. In varying poses, the artist sits in profile and is wrapped by a dress of transparent foil. The costume recalls the reconstructed transparent foil dresses that were a leitmotif of her early installation "Bomme Ba Seaparo," from 2013. This work, which she showed at the University of Johannesburg at the time, already marked an artistic exploration of the relationship between the pre-colonial body and the motif of "seaparo" (Engl. christian church vestments). In the work, another semi-transparent figure is superimposed over the outline of the wide foil costume, like a red silhouette. Sometimes the pose of the red form is coherent with the artist's posture, while at other times it is bent down, thus superimposing different moments of a movement. In addition to a sequence of her own postures, the form can be read as a temporal trace of past instances to which the artist relates her present. The specific dress, the "Holy Bible" in the artist's hand, as well as her gaze and body language evoke historical events, such as the forced, missionary Christianization of young women in West and South Africa, among other places. But beyond this colonial instrumentalization of Christian faith, with a view to the history of South Africa, the role of African free churches, as places of cohesion between black communities and the organization and support of resistance against the apartheid regime, must also be pointed out.³

Artist talk with Mbali Dhlamini, Athi Joja, Nadine Henrich & Sakhile Matlhare

Here, too, a reflexive reading on media-history is possible: photographs were often distributed not only as black-and-white silver gelatin prints, but also as hand- or machine-colored prints and postcards. Photographs from colonial contexts were used for a wide variety of functions, from racist propaganda, to anthropology, ethnology, and historiography, to entertain a white audience through the construction of the "foreign" and the "exotic." the red stencil-like form can be related to those historical reproduction and colorization processes. The uses of photography in conjunction with political, economic and colonial power relations, and as an instrument of "othering," inextricably interweave developments in the history of media and technology with historical, economic, and social dimensions, that resonate in Dhlamini's work.

The video work "ukuhlamba" (2021), whose title in Xhosa can be translated as "to bathe oneself" or "to clean oneself," enhances the sculptural quality of the artist's use of plastic foil. Created in stop motion from individual photographs, the video begins with the artist lying down, largely hidden under her wide foil dress and bonnet. In front of a black background, slow, ritualistic movements take place to an intense rhythmic sound that resembles stroking and rubbing on smooth stone. In the process of the video, a slow, heavy breathing also becomes a central sound motif of the work. As the artist slowly rises to a seated position facing forward under the crunching, rubbing material sounds of her robe, ritualistically cleansing herself, the soundscape mixes with a gospel chant. "Imikhuba yobumyama" (engl. "the way of darkness"), sang by a women's choir. Over the duration of the over four minute long video, the artist's body moves drawing an arc. After the singing and the breathing have faded away and only the stroking and rubbing can be heard, the artist's body returns to its original position, which now appears to be mirrored to the right. The performative enacting of past existences and rituals can be experienced here both dreamlike and contemplative.

Dhlamini's artistic practice is one of transformative appropriation and thereby reorganizes the power relations inscribed in historic material. Using the aesthetics of erasure and transparency she destabilizes the sense of neutrality attributed to photography, particularly in the realm of "documentation" for Ethnology or Anthropology.

Dhlamini's interventions activate the images by "making the portrayed leave the frames" and create a sense of ghostly autonomy of the historic material. From being passive historic archive material the photographs reach a condition of agency and open up to new meanings.

¹ See Ute Gierczynski-Bocandé. "Senegal – a mosaic of peoples. Historical and current foundations of an African integration country." KAS foreign information. Konrad-Adenauer-Foundation (02/2012): pp. 6-28, here: p. 7.

² The term 'othering' arose in the context of postcolonial theory and describes a permanent act of drawing boundaries, categorizing and constructing "the other" as opposed to a "we." The term was coined by authors such as Edward Said and Gayatri C. Spivak and is also important for curatorial practice and theory.

³ Dube & Molise, "The church and its contributions to the struggle to liberate the Free State," in Journal for Contemporary History, 43, 2018, p.160-177.

Mbali Dhlamini: Bugubedu I

Bugubedu I

Photograph

2020

Digital Print on Textured FineArt Rag

100 x 70 cm

39 3/8 x 27 3/5 in

Edition of 5 + 2 AP

Download High-Resolution Image

© Mbali Dhlamini


Mbali Dhlamini: Bugubedu II

Bugubedu II

Photograph

2020

Digital Print on Textured FineArt Rag

100 x 70 cm

39 3/8 x 27 3/5 in

Edition of 5 + 2 AP

Download High-Resolution Image

© Mbali Dhlamini


Mbali Dhlamini: Ya fanang ka seatla se bulehileng otla hlonolofatswa

Ya fanang ka seatla se bulehileng otla hlonolofatswa

Photograph

2020

Digital Print on Textured FineArt Rag

100 x 70 cm

39 3/8 x 27 3/5 in

Edition of 5 + 2 AP

Download High-Resolution Image

© Mbali Dhlamini


Mbali Dhlamini: Meetlo

Meetlo

Photograph

2020

Digital Print on Textured FineArt Rag

70 x 101 cm

27 3/5 x 39 3/4 in

Edition of 5 + 2 AP

Download High-Resolution Image

© Mbali Dhlamini


Mbali Dhlamini: An Ode to ukuhlamba I

An Ode to ukuhlamba I

Photograph

2021

Digital Print on Textured FineArt Rag

70 x 110 cm

27 3/5 x 43 3/10 in

Edition of 5 + 2 AP

Download High-Resolution Image

© Mbali Dhlamini


Mbali Dhlamini: An Ode to ukuhlamba II

An Ode to ukuhlamba II

Photograph

2020

Digital print on archival Tecco BTT270 paper

101,2 x 67,5 cm

39 8/10 x 26 6/10 in

Edition of 8 + 2 AP

Download High-Resolution Image

© Mbali Dhlamini


Mbali Dhlamini: Ukuhlamba

Ukuhlamba

Video

2020

Stop motion film

04:35 min

Edition of 5 + 2 AP

View Video

© Mbali Dhlamini


Mbali Dhlamini: Untitled - Dakar, Femme Sénégalaise

Untitled - Dakar, Femme Sénégalaise

Photograph

2017

Digital Print on Textured FineArt Rag

100 x 71 cm

39 3/8 x 28 in

Edition of 5 + 1 AP

Download High-Resolution Image

© Mbali Dhlamini


Mbali Dhlamini: Untitled

Untitled

Drawing

2021

Wax and synthetic indigo on paper

29,7 x 21 cm

11 7/10 x 8 1/4 in

Download High-Resolution Image

© Mbali Dhlamini


Mbali Dhlamini: Untitled

Untitled

Drawing

2021

Wax and synthetic indigo on paper

21 x 29,7 cm

8 1/4 x 11 7/10 in

Download High-Resolution Image

© Mbali Dhlamini