Lungiswa Gqunta at the Henry Moore Institute – subtly shocking sculptures

In a family photo, four black women cavort on a beach. Obviously a carefree, happy moment. Then you get to know the context: Port Elizabeth, South Africa, in the mid-1970s. The country’s apartheid regime legislated on every imaginable aspect of race relations; Separating the beaches took time, but by the 1970s it was firmly established.

The photo – a little dog-eared for years sitting in drawers – has been enlarged to wall size and placed to the left of the entrance to the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds. It’s designed to whet the appetite of those wanting to learn more about Lungiswa Gqunta, the young South African artist whose work is now on display in this northern England town.

Sleep in the witness consists of two installations, a film and a sound work. It’s a show about sleep and dreams, water and healing, landscape, memory and history. With its ideas and materials, the exhibition deals directly with the legacies of colonialism and is the artist’s most personal show to date.

A wider view of ‘Ntabamanzi’ from 2022 shows its wavy shape filling an entire room © Rob Harris

Gqunta, who was born in 1990, struggled with wording the title, but the term sleep – coined by her Xhosa heritage – is the clear starting point. “Dreams are taken seriously – that’s what I grew up with,” she says via Zoom from Leeds, where she is putting the finishing touches on the show. “It’s like a language and I want to open myself to it.”

Dreams can take you places. Sometimes they force you to work so hard that you wake up exhausted and feel like you haven’t slept at all, she says. But sleep and dreams are a path to knowledge, a connection to your ancestors. When she was a child, the content of dreams was often discussed the morning after in her township household in New Brighton, Port Elizabeth. She talks about a recent dream in which she was walking in the ocean between waves as solid as mountains. “I woke up amazed at the sight I saw because it was really beautiful,” she says. “I thought about being in two places at once — and feeling two very contradictory things.”

Gqunta earned an undergraduate degree in Sculpture from Nelson Mandela University, Port Elizabeth, followed by a Masters in Fine Arts from the University of Cape Town. When I was in Leeds to see her show, Gqunta flew home to Cape Town, but her dream story came vividly to mind as I entered. For Zinodaka (2022) she created a richly toned, wall-to-wall “landscape” by spreading a mixture of terracotta clay and sand on the floor and dotting it with stone-like sculptures made of translucent blue glass. Then comes “the sea”: “Ntabamanzi” (2022) is a monumental “spatial drawing”, a filigree sculpture in the form of a huge blue wave; its color is based on the watery-blue “rocks” next door.

An art installation consisting of a cracked clay surface dotted with stone-like objects

Lungiswa Gqunta’s 2022 work “Zinodaka” at the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds

Upon closer inspection, the stone-like objects are small sculptures made of bluish glass

A detail of the glass mini-sculptures from “Zinodaka” (2022) © Rob Harris (2)

The slave trade is perhaps a clue, but the wall text highlights a less obvious point: the fact that the ocean is a place of healing and cleansing for many black Africans — but under apartheid, black spiritual practices became crimes. Clusters of silver coins embedded in the installation symbolize a restoration, post-apartheid, water-based rituals, and optimistically beckoning a path beneath the crest of the wave. However, you enter at your own risk, because the wave is made of barbed wire.

Gqunta spent seven months tying the strands of barbed wire in blue cloth, leaving only the small spikes uncovered. They glitter as they catch the light. I was reminded of her earlier piece Lawn (2016), where she used broken bottles of green liquid to suggest the violent history behind white society’s exclusive green spaces. The beauty of such pieces draws you in, and before you know it, you’ll be immersed in the work’s shocking message.

An art installation consisting of several broken bottles filled with a green liquid
A detail from Gqunta’s 2016 installation Lawn © Courtesy the artist/Whatiftheworld gallery

“Apartheid had a start date and an end date,” she says. “Colonialism hides in the structures: we still live with it.” Caught in the violence of what she portrayed, Gqunta was slow to see the effectiveness of the trap she set for viewers, but now appreciates it. “No one wants to have difficult conversations,” she says. “But we have to find a way to get them.”

Her work challenges the “don’t touch” norm of gallery spaces. “With ‘Zinodaka’ you have to walk on the clay, feel it collapse, leave your footprints and maybe take some of that with you,” says Laurence Sillars, director of the Henry Moore Institute and curator of the exhibition. “Lungiswa wants you to feel like you’re stepping into another territory and wonder if you’re allowed there. She wants people to feel a sense of uneasiness – and an awareness of what they are doing that will intensify with the barbed wire.”

A work of art made from barbed wire and found fabrics

Gqunta’s “Benisiya Ndawoni” (2018)

A close-up detail shows the barbs of barbed wire next to a floral fabric

A close-up from “Benisiya Ndawoni” showing the barbs of the barbed wire © Courtesy the artist/Whatiftheworld gallery (2)

The exhibition closes with Gathering (2019), a poetic 15-minute film accompanied by a haunting soundwork in which Gqunta evokes the domestic ritual of folding sheets she remembers from her childhood. The practice will be a familiar memory for many, black and white, but Gqunta depicts it as a special moment when, as adults and children draw closer to the rhythm of the fold, a curious child can perhaps ask a burning question, and strategies for survival in the world can be passed down through generations.

With Gathering, the artist reflects on her childhood, and these happy women on the beach turn out to be her mother and aunts (all “mothers” as far as Gqunta is concerned). In these pieces, the personal meets the political in a moving and thought-provoking fusion – although it wasn’t what Gqunta intended. “I’ve had a long spiritual relationship with water, but I haven’t tried to incorporate it into my work,” she says. “It crept in, as do dreams, and I was like, okay, here I am, I can’t deny fate.”

Until October 30th,

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