Artist Buhlebezwe Siwani is a millennial sangoma for the 21st century
Lwandile Fikeni meets young artist and sangoma Buhlebezwe SiwanBuhlebezwe Siwani is in good spirits. There is not a cloud in the Cape Town sky, and the Michaelis School of Fine Art has awarded her its Katrine Harries postgraduate prize for "an outstanding body of work" for her Master's graduate show, titled Imfihlo (the secret) .Now she's ready to slip into her career as a professional artist, outside the safe space of university.How is she handling the change?"You're out!" she proclaims. "It's such a breath of fresh air, but it's not an easy transition and you are never prepared."story_article_left1But Siwani did attend a "professional practice" course at the Wits School of Arts. "The first thing they tell you is that only, like, one in 20 of you are actually going to be artists. The rest of you, what are you going to do? So, you keep pushing to be that one. I didn't push in my first three years but in my last year I was like, fuck this, I need to have my thinking game on. So I started pushing firsts and began getting As for my work because I was no longer about being a borderline."When we meet at the Hiddingh campus she's in denim summer shorts and a plain white T-shirt. Her purple, bobbed 'fro is in a bun, with a doek. She is a picture of postgraduate catharsis; relief written all over her body.We get into her life as an artist who is a practising sangoma."I'm not first a sangoma and I'm not first an artist," she says."Those things happen harmoniously and they happen together. In my art I speak about iSangoma and I speak about my journey to become a sangoma. My journey is my work and my work is my journey. Ubungoma [being a sangoma] manifests itself in my work, so there are no conflicts. The only conflict and conflict resolution I have in negotiating this [art] space is concealing and revealing."How much of what I've been taught [as a sangoma] do I not show other people? Do I keep it hidden or do I let people into it so they can decide by themselves?"History informs me and history informs my decisions. So, I'm in harmony with my spirits and my work."Does she practise as a sangoma?"Yeah, I consult. I don't necessarily like it, because a lot of people think I'm younger than I am and they think, 'Is this the child we are coming to see?'"People who refer me are much older; but they know where I learned my trade and they've seen what I can do, so they are always referring people to come see me, with a disclaimer that the person who is coming to see me mustn't be surprised by how I look. No one is expecting a sangoma with purple hair and a fade." It is this paradox that nuances her work - this idea of occupying two spaces at once, the old world of ancestors, customs and tradition and the new one. It is this porous, complex harmony of being an ancestor and a medium through whom ancestors commune with the world, and being an urban black woman, and an artist to boot, that infuses her work with a deep humanity."The people I talk to are people who were alive in the 1800s and before. People who were alive during our Great Wars. So I have to constantly think back about those people ... who think like this and who live like this - and me, now, a woman who lives like this. I also have to say, 'I'm here now and you chose me to do this kind of work, so we have to have this relationship between the two of us so that we both come to an understanding.'"It's not just me and them but it's 'us'; this is where we need to come to an understanding that our vessel lives like this, in this ever-changing landscape which is still going to change some more," she says.story_article_right2"So we need to negotiate. There are times when I have to say, 'boGogo [elders], no, I need space; I'm going to party. Let us not have these conversations about people. Say now I touch someone and then next thing there is, you know ...'"She refrains from telling it. This is what it is like trying to get Siwani to speak about being a sangoma and it is these fragments that refuse to give a full picture that define Imfihlo. The show is about the modulations of revelation and secrecy. It is a shockingly strong body of work.We speak about her Master's thesis in Zulu - and about the difficulty of articulating some concepts in English."There are certain things in this book [the Imfihlo catalogue] that can't be said in any other way," she says."Countless people have written about this, but black academics need to lose their penises in order to write critically, without ego; people need to lose gender to write critically and engage critically about history. Otherwise they hold on to patriarchy, hold on to the female form being constantly violated ..."When you enter someone's house, in Xhosa you say molweni, which is plural, even if there is only one old person in the house. There's this plurality that we always engage with because we know there are ancestors who reside here."We exist as 'we'."