CityLife Arts

Are you who you think you are?

Sifiso Mkhabela’s first solo exhibition at Gallery Fanon deals with the question of identity (24 September – 25 October 2020)

 By Edward Tsumele

Life like they say, is complex. It is not always straight forward. For example, can you imagine growing up thinking you are somebody in relation to your identity, only for the real truth of your identity to be revealed to you when you are in your first year at university? However way you look at it,that is bound to unsettle you. Right?

That is what happened to multi-media artist Sifiso Mkhabela who got to know that he is not who he thought he was all his life until the truth was told to him while he was in first year at Tshwane University of Technology in 2013. He was told by his own father that although both of them are South African born and bred, in fact they have roots in Mozambique.

Even Though I Said Nothing She Still felt Judged – SM015
Sifiso Mkhabela
Wood burning and acrylic on wood panel 137.5 x 183.5 x 0.7 cm (UF)2020

What happened is, his father was born of a Mozambican father and a South African mother who never bothered to tell Sifiso’s father that they had roots in Mozambique until her last days on earth were approaching due to old age. Then she opened up and revealed the complete identity of Sifiso’s father’s dual roots of having a Mozambican father that he never knew as he believed his step father was his real father all his life. He then had the responsibility to tell his own children about this dual identity. It is then that Sifiso got to know about his own identity.

“My art trajectory changed and I realized immediately that I was now a new person and not the person that I thought all these years I was. I never knew I have family in Mozambique until that moment. In fact even my father never knew the whole of his life until in 2013, when his mother, who is my grandmother, broke the news to him when she was on her death bed,” the multi-media artist said.

In an interview with CityLife Arts, the artist, one of the freshest voices on the visual arts scene in Johannesburg, specialising in sculpture, drawing and painting, explained that the issue of identity drove his art practice in a completely different direction from that time onwards.

“For one, I started getting interested in African post colonialism and its effects on the once colonized. I delved deeply into the theory of post colonialism in Africa to try and understand how this has affected many people and their identities altered in different ways, such as what happened to my family,” he says.

I Thought It Was My Fault – SM015Sifiso Mkhabela
Acrylic, glue, mixed media on canvas 148 x 90cm 2019

That in fact happened when his own father took his son and siblings to their roots in Mozambique in 2914, where Sifiso for the first time met an aunt her never knew she existed, and that that is his father’s step sister.

It is then that his father and he underwent the rites of passage as per their cultural practice, to reintroduce them to their ancestors and not the Swazi ancestors from KaBokweni outside Nelspruit in Mpumalanga that they both thought they belonged to all their lives.  That rite of passage included that an incision is made on one’s skin and a certain dark substance is deposited on the open wound. That incision is represented by a dark patch in both is paintings on wood in this exhibition at Gallery Fanon.

The rite of passage that he had to undergo to be reintroduced to his ancestors in Mozambique clearly unsettled the young artist. A cultural shock ensued as all his life as Sifiso never knew about such cultural practices growing up in South Africa, and that in fact was the genesis of his new direction in art that he has since pursued since from that time.

That included creating a series of sculptures called Hybrids by Gods, some of which he has shown in group shows such as at annual Nirox Sculpture Park Exhibition and at the annual Sculpt X at Melrose Ark.

It is some of these works together with new works in the mediums of painting and drawing that he is taking to his first solo exhibition titled The Mirror Has Many Faces: Reimagining the Cognitive Power of Culture, to open a new gallery, in Maboneng, Gallery Fanon, opening on September 24, formerly known as Moad (see separate article in this edition) at the Anthill building repurposed as an art and lifestyle hub.
“It is a very important exhibition for me at different levels. Firstly it is my first solo exhibition, as I have only exhibited in group exhibitions since I graduated from university in 2016. Coincidentally, secondly, the exhibition is opening on my birthday, and thirdly it is an opportunity for me to completely explore the issue of identity,” he tells me in an interview.

Sifiso is talking about his evolution and growth as an artist since he rediscovered himself I 2014, including losing his assumed identity growing up believing that he was Swati, when in fact he was Tsonga, whose language he never bothered to learn growing up in Mpumalanga as a Swati. He is now dealing with the issue of that identity crisis and confusion with the tools that he has as an artist, instead of despairing.

With a B-tech degree in hand, the direction in his art practice has become the issue of identity within a broad, universalist framework. In fat it has become an obsession in his art, through the mediums of sculptures, painting and drawings. His solo exhibition at Gallery Fanon deals with the issue of identity, using his personal circumstances to draw from. But his works deal broadly with a broad universalist issue of identity, although they are premised on his own personal circumstances.

The exhibition forces a viewer to also revisit their own idea of who they are. The body of work that is part of his first ever solo exhibition to officially open Gallery Fanon in Maboneng confronts you as a viewer to ask very introspective questions about yourself. Are you who you think you are or you are someone else?

result of having to participate in the right of passage when he met his Mozambican family for the first time.

The rite of passage that Sifiso and his father underwent in Mozambique in 2014 is very much present in this exhibition as the curatorial note accompanying this exhibition explains, and quite interestingly, probably for the first time in recent history of exhibitions in South Africa, both in English and xiTsonga.

“The ceremonial process of Ukugcatjwa is normally performed by a healer or a Sangoma, who makes two incisions on the skin with a razor blade laced with a black powdered mixture of medicine. Similarly, Mkhabela‘s drawings have a texture that is similar to the scars one receives as a result of the ceremonial practice. The markings are black as an expression of the culture shock and are used as a visual metaphor for the Artist’s experience of cultural displacement. The female figures that Sifiso incorporates in the works represent the “unknown” and “faceless” female healer that performed his ceremony. Movement conveyed in the figures and their relation to one another symbolise his journey and cultural initiation as a Mozambican located within South Africa.

The Inaugural solo  exhibition by Sisifo Mkhabela  titled The Mirror Has Many Faces: Reimagining the Cognitive Power of Culture, in Gallery Fanon at The Anthill (formerly Moad) will open to the public on Heritage Day, 24 September from 10:00 – 18:00.

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