Artists show the true colours of black women who reigned supreme

Carla Fonseca and Nthato Mokgata celebrate magnificent figures who've have been written out of history in 'Again She Reigns'

29 November 2020 - 00:01 By Sandiso Ngubane
Carla Fonseca and Nthato Mokgata.
Carla Fonseca and Nthato Mokgata.
Image: Delwyn Verasamy

History has not been kind to black people. Black women, specifically.

Often, through their work, artists try to correct the reductive narratives of black history written in aid of efforts to erase, remove or replace black triumph for the benefit of the colonial project or other causes, including religion and the attainment of power.

The aim is to expose and celebrate the incredible figures misrepresented by narratives like these.

The latest multidisciplinary project from artist duo Carla Fonseca and Nthato Mokgata addresses this.

Combining a series of painted portraits with music, Fonseca and Mokgata recently debuted the work in the form of a dance music album and an art exhibition called Again She Reigns.

Says Fonseca: "The project is about retelling stories that were taken, removed or replaced. When you conduct research on African history, there are so many roadblocks and rabbit holes. Mostly white Europeans write it. Even thinking back to school, I feel robbed because we were taught so many things that are not relevant to who we are. We don't know a lot of the history of our own people."

Had she been taught about this history in school, Fonseca says it would have contributed positively to her own self-image and confidence as a black woman, and this alone makes the work worth sharing with the world.

With titles like Rainha Makeda, Josina Hoje and Fezekile Khwezi, the tracks released as the duo's music project, Batuk, landed in the form of an 8-track EP on streaming services at the end of last month, shortly after the pair showcased their portraits at 99 Loop Gallery in Cape Town.

Like the artwork, the music pays homage to women who "have been persecuted for telling their truth". 

They include:

  • Negesta Saba Makeda, the Queen of Sheba whose existence is disputed among historians but who is held in high regard in Ethiopian legend as a figure central to the genesis of its ancient kingdom;
  • Hypatia of Alexandria, who is remembered more for her violent death at the hands of Christian zealots than for her work in mathematics, astronomy and philosophy;
  • Josina Muthemba Machel, a late combatant for the Front for the Liberation of Mozambique, largely absent from historical accounts of the country's revolution;
  • The Ahosi of Dahomey, a military corps of Amazonian women appointed to serve in battle in the 18th century; and
  • Muthoni wa Kirima, the Kenyan fighter in the Mau Mau colonial-era revolt credited as the beginning of the end of the British empire.

Recognisable to South Africans, Sibongile Promise Khumalo went into exile as a teenager to train with the Azanian People's Liberation Army, the military wing of the Pan Africanist Congress, only to experience abuse, as many women silently did, in exile.

Another more recent figure is the late Fezekile Kuzwayo, former president Jacob Zuma's rape accuser. The Aids activist, who was HIV-positive, sought asylum in the Netherlands following the acquittal and subsequent presidency of Zuma, having experienced threats and the burning down of her home in the aftermath of the rape case.

'Fezekile Khwezi Kuzwayo' by Carla Fonseca and Nthato Mokgata.
'Fezekile Khwezi Kuzwayo' by Carla Fonseca and Nthato Mokgata.
Image: Delwyn Verasamy
'Perpetua & Felicity' by Carla Fonseca and Nthato Mokgata.
'Perpetua & Felicity' by Carla Fonseca and Nthato Mokgata.
Image: Delwyn Verasamy

"There were a lot of historical figures we wanted to represent in the series but we had to narrow it down to a few," Fonseca says, adding that the music was recorded first, almost two years ago, before she and Mokgata began working on the paintings, utilising their various combined skills in different artistic mediums.

Mokgata, who is also known as the artist Spoek Mathambo, is a graphic designer. The portraits were created digitally, then projected onto canvas and painted by hand.

A fan of galleries and museums, Fonseca says it was an exciting process for them to be contributing to black portraiture. "All you ever see in these spaces are white faces. I also want to see black people being regal and interesting."

'Hypatia's Theory' by Carla Fonseca and Nthato Mokgata.
'Hypatia's Theory' by Carla Fonseca and Nthato Mokgata.
Image: Delwyn Verasamy

This is their first art project of this nature and Fonseca says that friends in the art establishment advised them that, while their concepts were strong, their use of exuberant colours needed "refinement".

This is something they chose to ignore. "Again, who's calling the shots?" she asks, echoing something previously raised by artist Laura "Lady Skollie" Windvogel, who said in a recent interview that black artists are often advised against using bright colours in their work. "We've been told we'd be shooting ourselves in the foot by doing that."

The duo eventually decided to put the work out independently. "What I can tell you for sure is that this does make it difficult to get the attention of people in the art world."

Another stumbling block is the fact that they work as a duo, something that's frowned upon because the norm is having a single artist's name on any work.

Plans to exhibit the work alongside the music in an immersive exhibition didn't come to fruition thanks to the lockdown. In the meantime, plans are afoot to offer prints of the various paintings, but as things stand the work is only available directly from the visual art duo and on artsy.net.