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Listen to the sweet sound of the shadows

Els van Mourik, senior curator at Berman Contemporary and a visual storyteller at African Art Stories, gives insight into Daniel Stompie Selibe’s recent exhibition at the gallery. 

Daniel Stompie Selibe Candice Berman Contemporary
Daniel Stompie Selibe, I lie here thinking of you, 2019

Preparing Daniel Stompie Selibe’s solo exhibition and looking at my pictures and notes, I asked myself what this exhibition is about. My immediate response was that, of course, it’s about the sweet sound of the shadows. I then asked myself what this phrase actually means; it seems to be a key that repeatedly opens the door in conversations with Selibe, when he is trying to conceptualise aspects of his paintings. The process of listening to his associations and asking questions about his moods while painting made me a witness to things that were deeply puzzling him in his personal life.
     Stompie Selibe’s new works are the wordless accounts of this period of emotional turbulence and inner preoccupations with his struggles of fear, anger, sadness, frustration, hope and desire. Since we are both trained art therapists, we are well aware of the ‘Unthought Known’, a phrase coined by Christopher Bollas in his book The Shadow of the Object in 1987. The Unthought Known is mostly experienced through the senses or emotions and is a visceral memory which is stored in the nervous system throughout the body, often without accompanying words or thoughts. We are all steeped in powerful responses in relation to our first environment – it shapes who we are. Stompie Selibe’s works are essentially an exploration of those memories that we all hold; it is innately familiar to us and we can feel it in our bones, but we can’t ‘think’ about it. Sometimes, there are no words.

Daniel Stompie Selibe Candice Berman Contemporary
Daniel Stompie Selibe, End in the darkness, 2019

The exhibition was opened with a sound and movement performance by Stompie Selibe, Ndaya Lunga and Concord Nkabinde. Rough salt was spread over the floor to remove negativity and cleanse and purify the space. The sound of salt hitting the floor let us slow down and experience the sensations and emotions that rose up in our bodies in response to Lunga’s movements, Nkabinde’s voice and the calling of the flute that Selibe was playing. Performance art has the potential to unfold stories and let us uncover phenomena that seem to determine the way we are in the world. This performance gave us, as viewers and listeners, time and space to breathe after a week of gender-based violence and xenophobic attacks in South Africa.

Daniel Stompie Selibe Candice Berman Contemporary
Daniel Stompie Selibe, In a silent way, 2019

The creation of the exhibition started around the five mixed-media artworks on paper, Passion & Partner (2019) or, as Selibe and I called them in our conversations, The Shadows. They needed some frame into which Selibe could place the significance of his transformational experience and, at the same time, continue the ‘relationship’ with his works that signifies his experience. Making or listening to music has always helped him to carry the shadows of his life. Instead of recreating the same experience, I asked him to use his voice as a personal expression of the struggles with his own shadows. During our conversations in his studio, I had seen glimpses of the unopened box of his process of imagining and reflection; I asked him to lift the lid of this box and unpack it at the end of the performance. His talk generated hope: once we’ve gone through the process of imagining, once we’ve seen ourselves in a different light, some part of us is forever changed and expanded. This journey inwards – and back out – is not a one-time project. It’s a lifelong exploration of unfolding ourselves.

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