The Standard Bank Gallery is currently exhibiting iYeza, a solo exhibition of recent work by Buhlebezwe Siwani. First exhibited in Makhanda, as part of the National Arts Festival, the exhibition now moves to Johannesburg in celebration of a significant milestone – the artist’s selection as the Standard Bank Young Artist for Visual Art 2021.
As a multidisciplinary artist, Siwani demonstrates profound range. Working across embodied performance, installation, video, photography, works on paper and sculpture, she creates art that is a continued meditation on the intersections of spirituality, indigenous practices, culture, history, and religion through centring the black female body and lens.
Through a wide range of materials – including soap, wool, and her own body – Siwani’s oeuvre pulses with her belief in the performative possibilities of the everyday, and demonstrates a vocational practice, unconstrained by mode and medium. Her body of work interrogates the patriarchal framing of the black female body and black female experience within the South African context.
Land and water as sites of healing
Negotiating our contemporary reality, iYeza draws on Siwani’s memories, journey and practice as an initiated traditional healer. Named for the isiXhosa word for (usually plant-derived) medicine, it is also a broader reference to “a substance that is meant to ward off dark spiritual energy” and call in the good.
As the artist explains, “These spiritual energies are intrinsic to my work and form the central ideas around the exhibition pieces, how our bodies and spirits are tied to the earth and waters on and in which we are born and raised. The land and water is healing on its own, it is medicine, it breeds medicine.”
With iYeza, Siwani interrogates the many forms and uses of plants in “traditional medicines, rituals and daily life.” With reverence, she considers the evolution of their meaning – understood, misunderstood, suppressed by colonial power and still enduring – and the ways in which they sustain us.
The life force of the exhibition, by leaning into this multiform and dynamic questioning, is the symbiotic relationship to and with plants, their meaning and our history. Through video and sculpture, Siwani physically places the flora of the show’s title in the exhibition – using wood, imphepho, eucalyptus tree stumps, grass, alongside imbola, umkhando and soil as part of the materials that create these works.
On healing as labour
Thematically, she considers the intersection of the physical and spiritual, women’s labour, ecological warfare, and codified African spiritual practices in an expansive consideration of the power and potential of plants, all while gesturing towards healing. As Siwani states, the exhibition is “a way to reset thinking about ourselves as indigenous people and our plants which have been sought after for years. This is about healing our spirits, the spirits of our ancestors and recognising the power in what our land has gifted to us so that we can heal.”
The exhibition demonstrates the ways in which Siwani’s art is both a cultural politic and an emotional invocation, rooted in her belief in the importance of artists engaging with the socio-political environment.
Speaking on the exhibition, Standard Bank Gallery says that it’s “proud to provide a platform for this significant work, as part of a continued, 40-year-long legacy in nurturing and promoting young artistic talent, and belief in the profound power of the arts.”
iYeza runs from 24 February to 8 April 2023. The Standard Bank Gallery is located on the corner of Simmonds and Frederick streets in central Johannesburg, and offers free, safe undercover parking on the corner of Harrison and Frederick streets.