The Voices of Women Museum (VoWM) launched its first virtual exhibition earlier this year, titled There is no silence here. The exhibition, in a specially designed virtual gallery from Ikonospace, and supported by the MTN SA Foundation, captures conversations between women of their lives and experiences, in stitched fabric story cloths.
We spoke with director of the VoWM and curator of the exhibition, Coral Bijoux, about the process of curating the virtual exhibition, notions of power embedded in the works, and the tactile nature of the works and words on show.
Hi Coral. To begin, can you tell us a bit about the process of putting together the There is no silence here exhibition? What informed the way you went about curating and thinking through the various works in this show?
I have curated exhibitions for Voices of Women Museum since its inception in 2012 as a way for conversations to emerge about what this was/is. Taking on the responsibility for a Collection of contemporary narratives and story cloths was a daunting task: issues of representation; ethical considerations about living heritage; and placing this body of work into the transformative context of South Africa is not a comfortable, neat and tidy endeavor. The exhibitions series, Conversations We Do Not Have engaged the uncomfortable questions and Dreams, Wishes and Expectations considered new ways of looking – rather than looking at (i.e. the gaze) to looking with – a collaboration of sorts between story teller and ‘story listener’ (i.e. the audience/viewer). That exhibition series encouraged a contemplation about what lie behind an experience recounted that could speak to us about the importance of individual contributions to a larger narrative, but equally stimulate the possibility of ‘what if’ – what if my house burnt down and I could build a new, stronger one for instance – the dream or wish behind recounting a difficult or sad experience, and the expectation that something about a life that could change or that there was a freedom or release from having shared an experience.
This exhibition, There is No Silence Here, is virtual, which was as a response to the challenge of maintaining an old building with very few resources other than our resourcefulness and desire to hold onto an idea. Then came the pandemic, which made it easy enough to make the decision to transfer these efforts online. It seemed a simple enough idea, but the enactment of it was very challenging as it was the first time we attempted something like this – again, learning while doing.
In this instance, I thought that I could extend these conversations by inviting a few writers to respond to a story cloth as one would to one of the contributors. For instance, Deidre Prins, writer, academic and poet created a visual poem in response to Judy Page’s visual narrative and story cloth. Pralini Naidoo wrote a combined letter to Gaithree Buchichand from Pietermartitzburg and Leocardie Sinzotuma from the Congo. She also contributed a poem, My Body Parts. Linda Sonaba wrote to Joslyne Jantjies form the Northern Cape and Malika Ndlovu wrote to a number of contributors from the Sarah Baartman Centre in Cape Town, while Philile Langa from KwaZulu Natal references her own and (late) Florence Mdlolo’s memories in a letter she writes. Tyna Charter wrote to Marthie Bothma from the North West Province and Agatha Stepien from Poland wrote to Cecilia Dala from Platfontein, both ‘speaking’ to us in unfamiliar languages. I responded to Amanda Plaatjies, from North West Province who remembers an experience as a young girl of eight years. Her story cloth, a dynamic rendition of a windy day and the feeling of freedom she experienced. [Fig: 01] As Malika chants in her poem, Cross Stitch, as a reference to some of the narratives she responded to,
“This cross-stitch I choose to undo for you
Will you hold this thread?
This moment, for and with me
Black, purple, yellow, pink, orange, green
Be with me in the middle of it all…”
While this exhibition engaged a new platform or space as a pilot, it continued the legacy of conversation, a sharing between people, between women across language barrier, across spaces and places, one stitch, one contemplation and release, one word at a time.
This exhibition also marks a move away from the physical building that VoWM occupied in Durban and sees the exhibition taking place online, with the help of the MTNSA Foundation. How has this move to the virtual influenced the exhibition? Are there any notable elements that are gained, or perhaps even lost, when hosting an exhibition in the virtual realm?
The virtual space offers a democratic possibility where almost anyone can access to the exhibition – they just need data of course, or to be in an area with free WiFi. That said, it freed us from the limitations of restricted numbers at openings, limited to the city or province we were in at the time. It also allowed me to play a bit with scale – for instance the piece [Fig: 02] by Johnel Fortuin is a wonderfully textured interpretation of the ‘heart’ – she did not write anything and so I took the liberty of enlarging the image of her work filling the wall so that it could speak loudly. The online space allowed for that. I would probably have exhibited it differently in the physical space.
The use of technology allowed for embedded information which you can access by clicking on the – i – to the right of each work, all from the comfort of your couch.
The limitation, of course is that you do not get to experience its physicality, the visceral nature of the embroidered cloth. I suppose there are pros and cons to each; challenges of curating a show online are different and have their own sets of frustrations and quirks as do physical spaces.
There is no silence here is an exhibition that has an explicit tactility to it. Embroidery and beadwork characterise much of the work on show and you also cite the Sankofa principle in your curatorial statement – how reclaiming the past is necessary in order to move forward. Can we also view the material nature of these works as a means of rendering visible the embodied experiences of women?
Yes, I believe that this medium and process offers enriched canvasses of experience, of emotion, of remembering and of sharing the experience. Stiches like brush strokes or lines convey meaning in their deliberate placing – the cross stitch, edging with blanket stitch, layered straight stitches conveying aggression, anger, pain, hurt, joy. The choice of colour, the choice of stitches; the number of threads to use in each stitch. [Fig: 03] The process is a contemplation. Embroidery was the confine of women’s art; stitches learnt at school perhaps or from mothers, grandmothers or older sisters – function and art. Memory and archiving the remembering.
Similarly, the exhibition prizes text and language. How do these elements factor into the overall exhibition, both through the woven words in the artworks themselves, and the accompanying poetry and texts on exhibition?
There is No Silence Here does this, as did the others before which are much like conversations. The Collection includes many languages, numerous ways of speaking and many possibilities of remembering. The use of text, symbol, line, colour, audio, cloth as language echoes the many ways in which we communicate. Text also becomes (and is) a visual symbol. Deidre’s visual poem, Thread, can unravel down the wall and so too can a stich.
Can you tell us a bit about the workshops that were held and the role they ultimately played in this exhibition?
The workshops were held in different contexts and places. Since 2012, while we tried to keep the format of the previously held workshops, we endeavoured to deepen the experience of the workshop participants and tried to share with contributor’s examples of exhibitions held as well as the implications of sharing a personal experience and/or event. Reaching out, we attempted to address ‘gaps’ in the Collection particularly if it could represent a cross spectrum of South Africa. This therefore encouraged a diversity in representation enabling a much richer perspective of our collective voices. Issues of race, culture, class, language and so forth are typical factors when dealing with issues of representation. The interesting thing is that while privilege and lack are a consequence of our past (and present), we often share many similar desires – to have our basic needs met, to be able to dream; to be able to walk freely down the street without being accosted; to be able to open the tap in the kitchen or bathroom without having to walk distances to collect water. These discussions reveal what is our reality and at times, reveal the common thread – to be able to live with dignity. I think underlining this exhibition is a sense of an equal space, yet it also reveals that our lives are not that equal.
Finally, embedded in this exhibition is a layered conversation about power – historical, institutional, and otherwise. Beyond this theme being unpacked and grappled with through the works, do you feel that the virtual format of this exhibition, away from physical structures and institutions, speaks back to that relationship of power in any way?
It does and it does not. I often say space equals place equals ownership and where there is ownership, there is power. While the nature of the virtual space seems accessible broadly, we know that while we take an online experience for granted, there are many people who do not have the same access. Yes, that is changing slowly, but as with all things that require some degree of economic input, the power still lies with those who have access and is limited for others who do not. There are plans to conduct walkabouts of this exhibition for contributors to address the issue of access, but that of course is a broader issue.