The question in these textures is not ‘How did we get here?’ but ‘How will we survive here?’. ‘Here’ as in now, tomorrow, after, freedom – how will we be? We have all known to look to tomorrow in the pit of night before dawn breaks the sky’s surface. Abanye baye ngale, abanye ba wele – but today these textures ask: ‘So far, dear traveller, how have you found your way? How does it feel to be here, how will we know when we get there?’ – Julie Nxadi
Southern Guild is pleased to present An Order of Being, the gallery’s first solo exhibition by South African artist Manyaku Mashilo, opening 23 November 2023 (until 25 January 2024). The new body of figurative paintings navigate and construct an imaginative future realm. This abstracted plane – expansive in its capacity to heal, liberate and reinvent – is occupied by a collective of fluid, dreamlike figures.
Mashilo’s practice acts as a vehicle for sense-making; her canvases stand as liminal spaces for synthesising elements of her religious upbringing, ancestral heritage, both real and invented myth, folklore, science fiction, music and sourced archival photographic images. An Order of Being is a gentle confrontation with the multiplicity of the artist’s past, present and future facets of selfhood.
Though her work is rooted in the historically charged mode of portraiture, Mashilo regards her paintings as abstractions. Ethnographic photography from the 19th and early 20th centuries disseminated distorted representations of the depicted bodies, with each subject diminished through the colonial eye of Eurocentricism. Mashilo’s figures have been crafted anew, free of projection or historical reduction. “I invent characters,” she states, “I have had to create these subjects from scratch – make skin tones, plan similarities, consider race, exaggerate features – blank my slate while contending with the reality that I cannot unsee or un-know.”
These subjects hold a self-actualised power. Their gaze pierces through the onlooker, defiantly seeking some future horizon line. Their bodies have been transformed into genderless, undefined vessels. They are uncontained, able to expand and disintegrate. Each figure blooms forth from an abstracted liminality, their forms migrating through and beyond lines that appear to contour and cloak a celestial landscape.
Music is a vital means to the languaging of Mashilo’s practice. The making of the exhibition’s works was deeply informed by the undulating frequencies of Blues, African gospel, spoken word and free jazz. These sounds invite ritual and a meditative space for free movement. It is this somatic experience, in its spontaneity and distinct capacity to change course, that inspires the flowing contours of Mashilo’s repeated line work. Multiple readings of these contour patterns are possible: the spiralling patterns of human fingerprints, ripples emanating from a central impact point, and the structural co-ordinates of yet-to-be-discovered clusters of stars.
“There are other worlds they have not told you of” has become a welcome mantra for the artist. The phrase was spoken by American composer, musician and poet Sun Ra (1914-1993), who recounted an epiphanic encounter with otherworldly beings following a space journey he said took place in Alabama in 1936. His resulting life-long catalogue of music – a joyful, cosmic cacophony of electronic jazz – would retrospectively be defined as a pioneering influence of Afrofuturism. Akin to the Astro-Black mythology of Sun Ra’s musical language, Mashilo’s paintings traverse a peripheral alternate space, blending the real and unreal, correcting the burdensome weight of historical injustices with the lightness and hope of what may still be yet to come.
The exhibition presents a new multi-panelled triptych, comprising three large-scale arch-shaped canvases. Beyond its associations with religious architecture, the arch becomes a visual metaphor for liminal movement: a simultaneous conduit for exiting and entering. The recurring use of red ochre in this body of work connotes clay, blood and the traditional ointment of “imbola”, a thick paste of burnt earth pigment applied to the faces of Xhosa women and newly initiated youth.
An Order of Being resists singular compartmentalisation of the self and the cultural practices that have come to define and inform Mashilo’s unfolding sense of the world. Her subjects shapeshift between hybridised identities to welcome an alternative understanding of how a person comes into being. This future world does not repress or shame this complexity; it welcomes and holds expansive space for an evolving and indefinable multiplicity.