A room to gather, participate and share
with Khanya Mashabela
The living room. A fridge. Taxi ranks. Books in a library. Highways. Air, water and light. The literal earth. This week’s ______Of Interest considers the curatorial sensibilities Mashabela applied to acknowledge neglected forms of organising in the group exhibition Common.
Although it’s difficult for Khanya Mashabela to say that she has a particular ethos governing her practice, ultimately, the curator wants to make exhibitions that work in ideas but are not excessively intellectual. “I want to make exhibitions that feel relatable. Exhibitions that people can emotionally connect to,” she explains. Enter Common, a show at A4 Arts Foundation, curated by Mashabela. When compared to previously encountered spaces, Common lives somewhere between a boardroom, the common room of a shared digs, a family dining room, the noisier part of a library and a communal washing line on a Saturday morning. Both an exhibition to encounter and a space to actively share in, Common does well in its attempt to “explore how people perceive themselves within these structures, and how we can better prioritise trust, reciprocity, and sociability.”
Before Common there was a story. Authored by multidisciplinary artist, Unathi Mkonto and passed to curator Khanya Mashabela, the story was set at a funeral. Due to limited space in this bereaved home, half of the marquee lived inside the yard while the other half offered shelter to those on the outside. Although all sheltered , the wall between them signified a hierarchy: those close to the catering versus those whose access came with barriers. “The people outside had to navigate asking people on the inside to hand over food or drinks or whatever. I took that energy of something that’s like very everyday, straight forward and tried to apply that to something that might come across very academic,” explains Mashabela. An obstacle to shared space, the story sent Mashabela conceptualising the exhibition Common.
Acknowledging the role that barriers to access have on generating collective action, Common presents an opportunity to examine the maintenance and development of contemporary art as a form of organising. To this end, Mashabela remembers an earlier time in her and her peers’ careers where there were few exhibiting and curating opportunities available for novice practitioners. “There was a lot of self-organising on our part. That period where young artists and curators were banding together with very little resources and making things happen for themselves is really part of the reason I became a curator and I wanted to highlight that,” she explains. “There’s a sense that when there’s a roadmap or a history and a culture of organising yourself and doing a particular thing, it takes some of the pressure and fear away.”
Thriving for a layered exhibition that speaks to varying and unrelated examples of organising, Common’s range spans from family all the way to economist studies . Beginning with the photo series The Last Supper at Manley Villa by Sue Williamson’s, Common acknowledges the home as a central influence in the sensibilities guiding how many of us gather. Located in District Six, where A4 Arts Foundation is, this series along with a street view of the area in the Gerard Sekoto painting titled The Milkman gives the exhibition a tangible air of specificity that continues to ground the audience throughout the show.
Beyond its function to display thoughts and tensions around shared resources, contributions and ways of taking care of each other, it was important to Mashabela that the show enacted these very ideas. “I always say Simon Nkoli is my intersectional icon who I admire but unfortunately learned about late in life, probably after university,” says Mashabela. “I think that sort of queer history should play a more prominent role in how we think about struggle movements in Africa and so I thought he would be the perfect person to put on a t-shirt.” To commemorate him, Mashabela approached artist Brett Seiler to make a portrait of Nkoli that could live on a t-shirt. Then, behind the t-shirt lives a phrase referencing a t-shirt from the Gay and Lesbian Archive (GALA) that reads “closets are for clothes”. An intergenerational queer organising that crosses disciplines, the proceeds for the t-shirts go towards the Pride Shelter Trust which is one of the only trans protecting shelters in South Africa. “It feels like the show ends up enacting what it expresses.”