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‘Against the Grain’ re-thinks identity through migrant work, land, and home

By Siphumelele Gumede

Artist Setlamorago Mashilo delves into the spiritual dimensions of land ownership and connection in South Africa in his recent exhibition.

Against The Grain is a recent exhibition at Everard Read Johannesburg, and the man behind it is multidisciplinary artist Setlamorago Mashilo. This multifaceted show is a series of landscape monotype prints, drawings in ink, charcoal, and collage accompanied by bronze sculptures. It employs what the artist refers to as ‘dika le diema’, which are Sepedi stories and idioms Mashilo inherited from his upbringing in rural Limpopo.

Mashilo’s research into his family and their history with land ownership deeply informs the works on display in Against the Grain. At the same time, it also draws on the larger socio-political implications that access to land, or the lack thereof, have on identity and belonging. While Mashilo grapples with his own spiritual ties to the Limpopo homelands he grew up in, he prompts viewers to think about the dynamics of space and its ownership in South Africa.

Mashilo’s work is sensitive to the turbulent political atmosphere in this country. The artist professes to have been deeply moved and influenced by the recent political upheavals that this country has seen – the burning of libraries and roads, the closure of public cultural institutions as well as the lack of educational and employment opportunities for the youth.

Fire – and the rebuilding that comes after it – is a dominant metaphor throughout Against The Grain. The artist has highlighted similarities between the political and destructive fires happening in urban streets with the destructive fires in the homelands. From the Knysna fires he witnessed while making the works in this show, to the fire that destroyed the homestead of his own grandparents in Limpopo, he has explored this theme and asks the viewer to think about how we can collectively build a better future from the ashes of the destruction.

Mourning stands out as a motif in the works, and is inferred by the stylistic bleeding of ink and charcoal with water across the blank landscape of the page and the canvas. Mashilo creates these bleeds to signify the ancestors weeping because of the displacement of people from their home and lands. In the series, ‘Old tears’, the emptiness of the homelands is visualised in vast and vacant landscapes.

These landscapes are often filled with a sense of journeying and meaning-making through travelling. Mashilo’s life has been nomadic – he was born in Pretoria, raised in Limpopo and now works in Johannesburg. He describes this migration as a part of his life; as a generational thread connecting him to his grandfather, who also migrated across South Africa. Constant travelling is what stimulates Mashilo’s questions about land and identity. In the Bafaladi series, ‘bafaladi’ means migrants and the artwork explores the implications of migrancy and displacement on identity.

The emptiness in Mashilo’s landscapes intentionally probes the viewer to wonder about where people in rural homesteads are, and what their lives may look like. In this way, Mashilo also asks those who have left their homesteads to think about their connection to land as a part of their identity.

As a young person, Mashilo’s own identity was informed by a keen awareness of community activism. He refers to inspirational resistance movements in mid-1950s Limpopo that consisted of artists and politicians. For Mashilo, this type of united resistance is exactly what is lacking in contemporary South Africa; a united uprising against a corrupt government.

Mashilo has been asking questions about land and identity throughout his career. His 2013 show, The Land will Decide, was a fierce questioning of the changes in land discourse exactly when South Africa saw the centenary of the Native Land Act. In Against The Grain, Mashilo’s questions are less forceful although still rooted in this political reality. This body of work is more mournful and delves deeper into our spiritual connection to land.

Against The Grain is also an exploration of poverty and simplicity. The bronze sculptures included in this show are cast from found objects, some found in the ashes of fires. This choice of materials tries to bring attention to a simple life and making do with what one has. But at the same time, the artist is not romanticising poverty. He, instead, uses these materials to bring attention to poverty in our country and the consequences of socio-economic inequalities.

The beauty in Mashilo’s work is that he does not present issues of land and ownership in unproductive ways. He foregrounds land issues so that we, especially young people in this country, can start having conversations about being a better generation that will take care of the resources of our country. He poignantly states that what takes place in his work is a ‘… strange monologue – recited, sung – scenes and acts that are eerily fateful and transcendent, stories that resonate individually and collectively about our sense of loss, nostalgia and inherited memories and the future.’

Siphumelele Gumede filmed South African artist Setlamorago Mashilo’s recent exhibition titled Against the Grain.

Ultimately, what is at play in Against the Grain is more than just land politics; it is an exploration of our spiritual ties to land and the need for us to see it with a renewed vision. This body of work successfully manages to simultaneously mourn the destruction that is born from post-apartheid frustrations, while also seeing hope that this destruction can be a catalyst for change and rebuilding.

Siphumelele Gumede is an honours graduate in Fine Arts, English Literature, and Visual Culture Studies from the University of Pretoria. Simply put, she loves art and writing, and the conflation of the two is her absolute passion. She enjoys everything that is art; from the visual arts, to film, music, theatre, as well as fashion. She loves reading art and discussing its multifaceted meanings, and truly believes that life and art are inseparable: art is made from life and art informs all life. Gumede is currently working as an Intern at David Krut Projects situated in Arts on Main in Johannesburg.

This review was published as part of the Creative Feel My Art Radar project which was made possible by the National Arts Council’s PESP programme.

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