The solo exhibition by Lerato Lodi, curated by Amohelang Mohajane, draws parallels between the surreal experiences within African spirituality and Christianity.
The time is 11am and I make my way to another exhibition at the North West University (NWU) gallery. This time around, the showcase is for an artist named Lerato Lodi, a Fine Art student at the Tshwane University of Technology. Like those before it, this exhibition is not buzzing with dialogue and the fresh circulations of inspiration often enjoyed by those attending an exhibition opening. Since the beginning of the year, most exhibitions are only attended by a few. Only student assistants to the gallery and media house representatives ready to report on upcoming talents are present. This scant attendance has become the new norm during exhibitions, and while there are many disadvantages to an exhibition opening during a global pandemic, the message of Morapedi: One Who Prays is somewhat heightened by the absence of bodies.
Walking through the exhibition is exhilarating. I find myself moving through a multi-faceted presentation of worship spaces in both the Christ Methodist Church and African Spiritual faith. This presentation includes items used in practices involving connection and communication to one’s ancestry and God. A featured church bench titled: A conversation between Thalita and Wilhemina (church service notes), reveals the intimacy of sharing in worship between women of the faith. An often-familiar site, most of the elements the artist includes in the exhibition are utilised for personal spiritual fulfilment, while also necessitating social cohesion and engagement through community. Community is just as ancient as the theism in Western and African belief systems, and Lodi draws these similarities out of perceived difference, by featuring items such as the bench on one end and ‘Sebaka Sa Badimo’ (a shrine dedicated to speaking to the Ancestors) on another.
The artist introduces a blend, a focus on the spiritual from merging the experiences of often polarised ideas on how to connect with God and higher powers. Being inspired by her own spiritual roots, Lodi cites her maternal grandmother in the work and title of Morapedi. For many young black people in South Africa, grandmothers play the role of defining and guiding one’s spirituality. While having a much-critiqued history with deep ties to colonial conquest, Christianity is often introduced and forwarded by the matriarchs in our homes. Grandmothers make it a staple to go to church in our formative years, showing pride at Sunday School attendance and graduation, and teaching us how to recite ‘Our Father, Who Art In Heaven’.
Similarly, actor and director Mmabatho Montsho also recites her upbringing within the Methodist church through her paintings of prayer worshippers adorned in their white hats and bright red blouses. She too explains these images as visions of her grandmother during prayer worship of the African Manyano Women’s union within the church. This familiarity from Morapedi is clear in the intimacy communicated in Lodi’s work, using her grandmother’s actual instruments in pieces like the Belongings tsa Winnie Lodi VI. Herein, the artist displays the actual enamel bowls filled with water and aloe vera which are often used for handwashing and cleansing of energy during times of funerals or arriving from a visit to the graveyard. Following these ceremonies many black South Africans know of the standard of cleansing one’s hands at the gate before entering the yard – these are teachings and lessons also passed down from our grandparents.
Lerato Lodi, Sebaka Sa Badimo, 2021 PHOTO Zoey Rose
The telling of this personal experience for Lerato Lodi supersedes her own reach, as it is an experience known by many who grew up in African homes. The feeling of being in the space revolutionised my own thinking about what art exists for. I found my understanding of the consumption of art in contemporary life as an activity of aesthetic pleasure and appreciation of beauty that leads heavily into escapism.
This exhibition, however, put that into question for me as I began to understand art as confrontation and the incitement of conversation which, at times, can be uncomfortable. The historical relationship that young South Africans have with their African spiritual roots is one of detachment and dissociation. The apartheid government played a huge part in stigmatising African traditional spiritual practices with laws like the 1957 Witchcraft Suppression Act, which outlawed any African spiritual practice and considered it witchcraft. Generations later, many with these same ancestral gifts turn away from them. This occurs either for their fealty to the Christian faith and how ancestral practice is labelled as paganism and idol-worship, or for the lack of understanding that these gifts are a source of power and stability in interrogating one’s spiritual compass. Seeing an artist introduce this difficult and underrepresented conversation was empowering for me, however confrontational and personal it felt.
Lerato Lodi’s Morapedi: One Who Prays sparks a deep resonance with her story, understanding the chasm in which she creates from, and appreciating the conversation she introduces. This is crucial, as the older and more experienced we become, our spiritual roots continue to form the centre of our ideals, outlook on the world and all things non-physical. Art that sparks these conversations brings hope for a future where young people can engage in discussions of faith and spirituality with openness and conviction.