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Dreams, Wishes and Expectations

The MTN SA Foundation, in partnership with Durban-based non-profit organisation: Amazwi Abesifazane – Voices of Women Museum (VoWM), hosted an art exhibition dubbed Dreams, Wishes and Expectations, as part of its community outreach programme and contribution to social dialogue.

This programme is another product of the MTN SA Foundation’s Art Collection Partnership programme although the partnership with the Voices of Women Museum itself stretches over five years. The VoWM curates and holds in trust, the stories and artworks told and created by ordinary South African women. It also shares issues for discussion pertaining to women through art making (hand-stitched embroideries) exhibitions and social outreach programmes. The Dreams, Wishes and Expectations exhibition is curated by artist and activist, Coral Bijoux, and has evolved from her preceding exhibition known as the Conversations We Do Not Have. This exhibition involved the combined art collections of MTN and the VoWM and has, for the last five years, been on show at venues such as the Playhouse Theatre Company in Durban, the Old Fort on Constitutional Hill in Johannesburg, The William Humphreys Art Gallery in Kimberley and the NWU Gallery in Potchefstroom. The curator has again selected work belonging to women who have recently added their story to the Voices of Women Collection. These women have engaged with Voices of Women facilitators who demonstrate contexts where other stories from the Collection have been exhibited, giving participants a clear idea of what happens to their work once it forms part of the archive. They present the conditions of participation and the responsibilities of the participant/s, facilitator/s and the Voices of Women Museum. These narratives were selected in this exhibition for their content. Some of these narratives are exhibited for the first time, others we have seen before.

Alien, Minette Vari, 1998. Video stills. MTN Art Collection

Selected stories on the upper level include references to house and home; to exclusion and separation (as with stories from political and social refugees) and stories of personal encounter that unpack our own prejudices and insecurities. Behind it all, we hear and can only imagine the desire for peace, for a home and for a better life. It is what we all recognise not only in the narrative but in ourselves. Dreams, Wishes and Expectations refer to these desires as well as to the expectations we have of ourselves and each other. Promises kept and broken; desires unfulfilled and wishes that may be impacted on by powers unknown or beyond our control. ‘This body of work is an evolution from the five Conversations We Do Not Have exhibitions that I have curated these past few years. These exhibitions have essentially looked at the Voices of Women Collection and it’s where I have tried to gain a deeper understanding of the scope and authenticity of these intimately embroidered works. The inclusion of selected works by other South African and African artists from the MTN Art Collection sets up an interesting interface within the context of a South African art historical discourse. At the centre of this discussion are women or issues that affect women as well as the curatorial eye (me) as I respond and reflect and reframe these multiple conversations. They refer to our multi-layered political and social discourse,’ says Coral Bijoux.

My focus is an interrogation of the dynamics of power – women are framed by the larger debates around gender and identity

‘My focus is an interrogation of the dynamics of power – women are framed by the larger debates around gender and identity. I have been particularly interested in the notion of an “ordinary” person, framed within the larger debate of where power resides. This installation affirms a claim and a re-assertion of “rite of passage” and an assertion of personal power. Re-powered. It serves as a metaphorical reminder of an ever-present threat to our comfortable ambivalence – one that we have created ourselves. The snake metaphor, which I quietly embed in many of my exhibitions, lies as a metaphor at the heart of the gender divide. The mythological negative referencing of “snake” is a convenient curatorial device that frames the disempowered threat to the feminine. These metaphors have clear and obvious precedence in the many religious and cultural narratives that permeate the social, cultural and political arenas.’ Plastic in the Dreams, Wishes and Expectations installation piece – a material of choice? The installation piece by Bijoux makes use of recycled plastic. This material serves as a metaphor as well as reminders of concern. The plastic is embroidered in much the same way as many of the story cloths on exhibition. ‘Plastic, in this instance, was the material of choice as it is reminiscent of the materials many women have used or use in their homes,’ says Bijoux. ‘The women I refer to are often from working-class families who surround themselves with aspirational replicas such as plastic tablecloths that tote flowers, fruit, landscapes and dreamscapes. Plastic flowers and ornaments meant that they would “keep”, could be re-used or could keep a place looking beautiful without fading unless over an extended period. They could be wiped and still look good. They could cheer up a dull interior.

Detail from Dreams, Wishes & Expectations installation, Coral Bijoux, 2017. Plastic, embroidery, etched drawings / painting on wall

‘I have worked with the Voices of Women Collection story cloths and narratives of many women (including my own) and am conscious of the way in which we live and the way in which my mother and hers before her lived. These women have been considered “ordinary”. I use the word ordinary therefore deliberately. I look at what ordinary people surround themselves with. I have been part of that ordinary group of people. As such, I investigate that word and realise that nothing about the perceived ordinariness of our lives, is in fact, ordinary. Why then is that word so effective in “keeping us in our place”? ‘The installation includes many domestic objects rendered in packaging tape and recycled plastic. These serve as reminders of the lives of many women who straddle roles of professional; domestic and sometimes a studious and academic life that may add value and depth to our lives. It is that which I have sought most of my life. ‘I am not alone in this search.’ The ‘cords’ evident in the installation are sometimes rendered in almost invisible links of fish gut or are deliberately obvious as umbilical cords that permeate the installation. These cords link objects and imagery, symbol and space making meaning by their connection. There are many metaphors here that vie for your attention. Much like our lives as people who try to negotiate multiple roles daily, particularly working mothers, we are surrounded by so much, inundated by so much and yet must make sense of it all. Here, the fly-away plastics which have been embroidered, are consciously connected to fly at us, or away from us – the viewer. They appear random, but each has been deliberately placed. The chaos of the space is unmistakable, yet those who have walked inside of it have spoken about its dream-like quality.

Art has played a crucial role as the vehicle of resistance to institutionalised segregation in the past, and we believe that it has a role to play as a conduit for social cohesion and community upliftment

The snake sculpture by Esrael Thavana, titled Snake, from the MTN Art Collection has been installed on a special floor created for this exhibition. It forms part of the discourse on the feminine – sexuality and fear. The work lies beneath the installation on dreams, wishes and expectations and can be viewed through the installation – and from a ‘safe’ distance. Again here, space, access are used as metaphors. The snake metaphor permeates the exhibition and includes other works from the MTN Art Collection such as the Mami Wata mask; the Adam and Eve sculpture by Esrael Thavana and two pieces from the Voices of Women Collection. Other works that significantly speak to the notion of being viewed as ‘different’ and ‘separate’ are works recently added to the Voices of Women Collection by refugee, Afrikaner, San-Bushman and Indian women. These works are in conversation with MTN’s digital piece, Alien by Minnette Vári. Again, we consider that women from different walks of life have often similar Dreams, Wishes and Expectations… the desire to be whole, to be respected, to be peaceful and to have a quality life. The Voices of Women Museum is a non-profit organisation which began as a project of the Create South Africa Organisation early in 2001. Since then, the collection of embroideries generated and artworks collected through the project has grown to almost 3 000 pieces, which now forms the cornerstone of the Voices of Women Museum and is shared within a public forum through exhibitions and educational programmes. The VoWM is situated in the heart of Durban’s CBD at 168 Palmer Street. It’s in an old building, situated in a male-dominated environment, which was initially built in the 1970s as accommodation for labourers who worked in the textile factory next door. Over time, while in the possession of the artist and founder of the Amazwi Abesifazane-Voices of Women Project, Andries Botha, it was home to Create South Africa workshops for people engaged in creative projects, entrepreneurial endeavours and social development work such as HIV/Aids workshops and support.

Snake, Esrael Thavana, c. 2003. Carved wood. MTN Art Collection

More recently, the space was occupied by young people who were art students and by a family who did not have a home. The roof leaked, the floorboards needed replacing, bore ate through the woodwork, but still, the Voices of Women came into being. ‘The entire Museum that frames this exhibition problematises and interrogates the neutrality of the “white cube” of many of our cultural spaces. The sensuality and warmth of this Museum interior space is also a critique of this predominant European and Colonial preconception,’ says Bijoux. As testament to the Foundation’s commitment of empowering the women of South Africa, MTN Foundation will continue its relationship with the Amazwi Abesifazane Voices of Women Museum by lending a selection of artworks from the MTN Collection for its exhibitions and providing sponsorship for its outreach programmes. Says Kusile Mthunzi-Hairwadzi, General Manager of MTN SA Foundation: ‘We are proud of our long-standing partnership with Amazwi Abesifazane and believe that working as a collective we can unlock entrepreneurial potential in the province, while giving women the platform to document their stories.’ Mthunzi-Hairwadzi adds, ‘We are excited to [have sponsored] this important exhibition which gives women a platform to tell their stories and contribute to social discourse. Art has played a crucial role as the vehicle of resistance to institutionalised segregation in the past, and we believe that it has a role to play as a conduit for social cohesion and community upliftment.’

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