Through her eyes

Our eye on the ground Zanele Kumalo takes us on a visit to the Norval Foundation and muses on the idea of the gaze – that of the artist, the subject, and the viewer

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Zanele Muholi's Balindile I, The Square, Cape Town and Funeka II, Park Hotel, Amsterdam (2017)

Stepping off the plane in Cape Town I still feel disorientated. I’d flown in from Joburg with little fanfare, yet the world had changed dramatically since I was here last. It was the end of September 2020. Our mouths and noses had to be covered – still have to be – leaving only our eyes for communication. It’s altered the way we look at one another, searching intrusively at times for cues. We’re seeking something familiar, I think, to make sense of this strange year.

One of the only things I am compelled to do while I’m in the Mother City is visit the Norval Foundation to see Athi-Patra Ruga’s iiNyanga Zonyaka – The Lunar Story Book (2020). Appearing like a blown-up stain-glass window, the large-scale vinyl artwork is affixed to a window atop doors that open out to the picturesque sculpture garden. The translucent technicolour avatars look down at me and it’s impossible not to meet their stained-glass gazes in a scene that reminds me of a shattered and fractured rainbow nation. An all-too real metaphor for a divided country navigating a pandemic. 

I sense they have a message they want to convey as they hover and float.

Athi-Patra Ruga's iiNyanga Zonyaka - The Lunar Story Book (2020)

I learn that the central figure, Nomalizo Khwezi, references two women: Noni Jabavu, one of the first Black women in South Africa to pursue a successful literary career, who published autobiographical works and, amongst them, her first memoir in 1960; and Fezekile Ntsukela Kuzwayo, a human rights activist who was given the alias ‘Khwezi’ to protect her as she pursued rape charges against former South African president Jacob Zuma.

Both endured exile. Noni, a peripatetic writer and journalist who spent time in Mozambique, Uganda, the UK and Zimbabwe. Fezekile, first uprooted with her parents in childhood to Swaziland and Zimbabwe, and later as an adult to Amsterdam following the trial. Two remarkable women and a subtext of the different ways they were allowed to control their narratives.

In the next room is Zanele Muholi’s And Then You See Yourself. A big grid of eyes stare and blink from a video entitled ‘EyeMe’ (2012). I stand in front of them, staring and blinking back, seeing and being seen.

There is one particular set of eyes mine keep moving back to.

There’s pain in their weary gaze. The loop of flickering eyelashes becomes confrontational and challenges me to think about Marikana and its victims and others lost in violence. I don’t know this is the intention when I first walk towards the work, which “highlights the tension between personal vision, legislative witnessing and systemic blind spots”. It was made in the same year as the massacre.

Zanele Muholi's 'EyeMe' (2012)

Zanele’s own eyes follow you around the white cube as you swap one self-portrait for the next. The subject may be the same, but no two looks are the same – and it’s not about the change of costume in each silver gelatin print. In some her gaze is accusing or displeased; in others vulnerable. But those are just my subjective assumptions – perhaps my reflection? – of these monographs from Somnyama Ngonyama – Hail, The Dark Lioness (2012–2018) series.

“We can never look at things or each other in the same way again after this year. Our viewpoints have been challenged…”

I’m reminded of one of Zanele’s large works I posed in front of at the FNB Art Joburg in 2019 with my younger sister and two nieces – the viewers becoming subjects in a life-meets-art moment to be memorialised. It is not lost on me that before Apartheid was abolished, black South Africans were barred from entering museums and galleries and so to see work by these artists whose muses, inspirations and subjects are, or could be, my own is a triumph.

Lunga Ntila is a bright emerging female artist who uses the eye as a powerful device to explore new perspectives in identity and awareness. She cuts out lips, noses and eyes and collages them back together to create distorted worlds of exaggerated features. She describes her digital collages as the “visual act of collecting discarded parts of myself and imagining the various forms that they can take on”.

Lunga Ntila's N-Side 2 and Something Keeps Calling (2019)

Even more fragmented, Lunga plays with mirrors too, which puts the viewer into the artwork, allowing you to engage with the mirror, the artist and her environment, within your environment. ‘Something Keeps Calling Me’ (2019) is the work I’m most familiar with. One edition hangs on the same sister’s bedroom wall.

Viewing Lunga’s Instagram feed it strikes me that the breakdown of ‘parts’ of herself has, since lockdown, become even more frenetic – it was her face at first, and now full bodies and limbs are spliced with blurred eyes. The reassembly is an act of healing that also, according the artist, “protects the sitter from the unwanted gaze – a tactic that speaks to the nervous conditions that South African women are subject to navigating in the country”.

For South African women, lockdown has made us face ourselves in ways we never could have imagined, while simultaneously – and perhaps predictably – creating the perfect storm to fuel the rise in gender-based violence.

As artists like Yolanda Mazwana, who paints distorted bodies with eyes that are closed, contorted or displaced, reflect themselves back to us, we turn our gaze from their work back onto ourselves: A piece of public art received in a wholly subjective way.

Yolanda Mazwana's Hard to Look Away and detail of artwork

I look for stories that make sense of my own reality.

While it is a comfort for those who were and still are marginalised to be able to not only tell their stories, but to also be seen, it becomes just as important who does the seeing and who determines what gets seen.

We can never look at things or each other in the same way again after this year. Our viewpoints have been challenged, whose gaze counts has been questioned and many things have been turned upside down and inside out. Coincidentally I’ve had to start to wear reading glasses and have also never looked to certain artists more to help me make sense of what I think I’m seeing.


Zanele Kumalo is a writer, editor, entrepreneur, speaker and DJ. She founded whatzandidnext, a content studio focused on content creation and strategy, project management and consulting. With an interest in beauty and wellness, design, fashion, food, music, travel and art, she hosted a virtual walkabout of the 2020 RMB Turbine Art Fair. Find her on Instagram @whatzandidinext.