Phumzile Khanyile’s Elusive Dream Paintings

The artist describes her exhibition Sabela Uyabizwa (translated from isiXhosa as Respond, You Are Being Called) as a shift in her practice

Phumzile Khanyile, Ukubona II (To See II), 2021–22, giclée on Hahnemühle photo rag, 59 × 65 cm. © the artist. Courtesy the artist and Blank Projects, Cape Town

Dreams and visions are deeply ingrained in southern African culture. From San rock paintings, to the prophetess Nongqawuse’s visions of the ancestors driving the colonials into the sea, to the writer Olive Schreiner’s book of feminist allegories Dreams (1890): visions of a transcendental world have played a pervasive role in social, religious and cultural life. They still do. Phumzile Khanyile, we’re told, started work on this, her latest body of work, by trying to write her dreams down, but found the method elusive. Instead she began to draw them on her computer.

Plastic Crowns, a 2016 series of photographic self-portraits, had a focus on the self, on identity, with hints of personal excess and anxiety, shar- ing the feel of early Tracey Emin works. But as is suggested in the title of her latest show, Sabela Uyabizwa (translated from isiXhosa as Respond, You Are Being Called), something has shifted in her practice. Khanyile talks in her artist statement of this as a ‘tower moment’, a dramatic shift in life. The drawings of her dreams, some superimposed on photo negatives, have the quality of pared-down Neo-Expressionism.

The first work in the exhibition, Ukubona I (To See I, all works 2021–22), offers an interpretive entry. A childlike drawing of a female figure holds onto the wire of an old portable TV aerial. This sense of dreams, of accessing the visions of another paradigm via a terrestrial transmitter, runs through the exhibition. But the image also contains another sense of multiple worlds. The ‘bunny ears’ of the television aerial are a marker of the distinction between the haves and the have- nots in South African society: those who can access, via satellite dish, the subscription- television channels, and those who have only an aerial, for local terrestrial stations. This motif, of objects of the excluded, appears in many of Khanyile’s Untitled works: the blurred and refracted images of old computer monitors, rough, iron tables and metal gates. These are familiar objects to those economically segregated in one of the most unequal societies in the world.

Throughout the exhibition, there is at play a sense of two worlds: of real world and dreamworld of blurred figures and animals, of privileged world and the excluded world, of Western and African cultures. This is not to suggest that the works address them as binary. In Ukubona II, a lionlike figure appears behind a Panasonic computer monitor. The suggestion seems to be that these worlds (the world of dreams and the material world) are, in some manner, all part of a broader reality. In several of them, the drawn female figure appears as something like Dante’s Beatrice, acting as a guide or witness for these inconclusive and inchoate visions. In Bafikile, the witness stands before a horned animal that reminds one of the mythical animals of San rock paintings. In other images, figures of people are gathered in circles – perhaps gatherings of the ancestors.

There is nothing overly prescriptive about these works; no formalised message or clear narrative sits at the surface of any of the indi- vidual works. The marks and rendering of the images offer no clear answer to the viewer as to what exactly these images are and what story they tell. There is the aura of something ancient in these images, something that is embedded in Khanyile’s cultural specificity, the herme- neutics of which sets a challenge for Western contemporary art discourse. They hold a psychological complexity of being between overlapping worlds, the multiple worlds that are the southern African experience.

Sabela Uyabizwa at Blank Projects, Cape Town, 31 August–14 October

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