Folklore as material and conceptual praxis

The beautiful queen of the Wakambi, the peerless Marimba, was walking through the forest with her handmaidens on her way to the riverside to bathe her body in the cool waters. Birds sang in the trees overhead and the forest was heavy with the scent of thousands of flowering shrubs. Myriads of butterflies and colourful insects were fluttering in clouds of white, blue and brown among the wild flowers and the buzzing song of nyoshi, the bee, was clearly heard in the blinding sunlight. Timid hares galloped through the long grass and the cooing voice of le-iba, the turtle dove, added yet more enchantment to an already enchanting day.
The sky was the purest of blue. Only a few clouds were to be seen in the eternal expanse of the heavens and those were as soft as wool and as delicate as the body of a Sun-maiden.

As the queen went through the forest, her great eyes were as alive as moon crystal. From the enchanting woodland scene she drank in inspiration as the grateful grass drinks the morning dew. Where the ordinary man sees only the trees, she saw them in their dignity and superb beauty; and where the ordinary man hears only the rustling of the breeze through the branches of the trees, and the senseless twittering of the numerous birds, she heard the soul-stirring verses of the Song of Creation.

From Indaba, My Children by Credo Vusamazulu Mutwa (1998) 1

The above enchanted scene from a fable in Credo Vusamazulu Mutwa’s tale, could well be the coming alive of Mmakgabo Mmapula Mmankgato Helen Sebidi’s painting Receiving her Daughters (2013-14). Sunlight radiates golden through the painted clouds, onto the skins and adornment of the statuesque figures of the mother and her daughters, who could well be the goddess and her handmaidens. They are not surrounded by fluttering insects, and the sturdy build of the ‘daughters’ and the figure that receives them, are rooted in the white, brown and blue, which is both their skin and environment. The image of their alluring and dynamic physicality, bodies echoing the colouring of the universe they inhabit, with feet sunk in the earth, hands held in greeting, alludes to a tale as old as it is current. Curving lines further merge the ripples of the earth, and the distant mountains with the flowing drapes of their garments.

Folklore is a powerful material and intellectual concept that belongs to those who inherit it, but belongs especially to those who foster and generate folklore in practice 2. The juxtaposition between Sebidi and Mutwa is superficial: while both might draw upon recurring, enduring motifs of indigenous folklore, Mutwa is the self-appointed representative of African indigenous religion, while Sebidi makes no such claim. Mutwa’s writings are compelling and engaging works of literary invention. Interspersed with recognisable folktales, his self-narration as the holder of traditional knowledge with an unmediated access to ‘primordial’ truth, erases the entangled details of his history in the interest of isolating himself as the living embodiment of an eternal, timeless ‘Zulu’ tradition 3. Problematically, folklore and folktales in Kwazulu Natal lend themselves to nationalistic tendencies, which were exploited and exacerbated by the strategies of the apartheid regime.

My reading of Helen Sebidi’s paintings is that of works which advocate folklore as an adaptive strategy for dealing with modern life. Sebidi’s practice problematises traditional culture – and its patriarchal, hierarchical social order – as an area also heavily manipulated by the colonial state in the interests of capitalism. For example, the works touch on how capitalist systems and wage employment have destroyed the traditional social infrastructure, and dragged all communities into the dominant capitalist system, displacing families through migrant labour without ever taking a representative approach. Even though painting as a medium presents an image frozen in time, Sebidi’s paintings go beyond the purist and romantic tendencies commonly found in sentiments drawn from un-interrogated traditional practices and lore.

Looking at Sebidi’s paintings from a psychoanalytic framework, the present is offered as made up of memories and perceptions from the past. Linda Tuhiwai Smith, in Decolonising Methodologies, sees part of the exercise of recovering stories of the past as being inextricably bound to a recovery of language and epistemological foundations 4. It is also about reconciling and reprioritising what is really important about the past, with what is important about the present. Sebidi’s work tries soulfully not to lose its integrity. It holds out for aesthetic integrity over mere rhetoric, active passion over passive submission, and fits firmly within a tradition where visual culture becomes “the place where battles are fought and the strategies of resistance negotiated” 5. These issues raise significant questions for people who are engaged in, or beginning to, fight back against the constructed invisibility of black women, whether in academic or artistic communities.

A dominant view is that the past is ambiguous, as historical material is always over-determined and multi-layered. Within this viewpoint the past always adds to the present, and the opposite process is simultaneously in operation as, in going over the past, new events and/or mental states are recollected, so that the past becomes a kind of layering of narratives, each ordering the revival of the past in different ways with different intentions 6. Sebidi’s practice defies simple categorisations that present woman as the site of cultural interiority and ethnic artistic sensibility, which project woman as the bearer of authentic heritage.

Helen Sebidi is an interesting figure in that she has defied conventional notions associated with black womanhood of her era 7. She embodies instead a radical black female subjectivity, unencumbered by the effects of enforced domesticity. She inhabits the world as an artist, remaining unmarried in a societal context wherein the “enactment of masculine entitlement and privilege, women are subject to spectacles” that “starkly create the most crude and debased imagining of patriarchal control over women” 8. Conceptually, her works reveal stories bound to deterioration and change, providing a provocation. Her paintings, and their allusions to an indigeneity freighted with assumptions from specific moral traditions that enjoys a proximity with modernism, provides an excellent analyses of the destruction of the social fabric of rural communities, from her vantage point.

Seen through this lens, Sebidi’s work mirrors the ways in which originary and traditionalist histories have been constructed, then recounted, analysed, dissected, measured, torn apart and distorted, into the bastardised manifestations of domesticity and patriarchy that we encounter. Vitally, she eloquently captures how “women continue to struggle for their emancipation”, whether through their work or writings, to challenge “the seven mountains of colonialism, neo-colonialism, and patriarchy, and … despite the efforts of colonizers”, to disrupt ‘localised’ social practices 9.


1 Mutwa, Credo Vusamazulu, Indaba, My Children: African Tribal History, Legends, Customs and Religious Beliefs, Payback Press: Edinburgh, 1998, p. 104

2 Marzolph, Ulrich, What is Folklore Good for? On dealing with undesirable cultural expression, in Journal of Folklore Research 35 (1), (Jan – Apr. 1998), Indiana University Press: Bloomington, Indiana, pp. 5-16

3 Chidester, David, Credo Mutwa, Zulu Shaman: The Invention and Appropriation of Indigenous Authenticity in African Folk Religion, in Journal for the Study of Religion, 15 (2), 2002, African Association for the Study of Religions: Harare, pp. 65-85

4 Tihuwai-Smith, Linda, Decolonizing Methodologies: Research And Indigenous Peoples, London: Zed Books, 1999

5 Chow, Rey. Writing Diaspora: Tactics of Intervention, in Contemporary Cultural Studies, Indiana University Press: Bloomington, Indiana, 1995, p. 29

6 Kabesh, Amal Treacher, On being haunted by the present, in Borderlands Online Journal, 10 (2), 2011, p. 3. www.borderlands.net.au

7 Fall, N’Goné, Providing a Space of Freedom: Women Artists from Africa, in Global Feminisms: New Directions in Contemporary Art, Merrell; Brooklyn Museum: New York, 2007

8 Lewis, Desiree, Embodied Powers and Resistance, in PASS-AGES: REFERENCES & FOOTNOTES, Centre for Historical Reenactments: Johannesburg, 2010, pp. 5-9

9 Ogundipe-Leslie, Molara, Recreating Ourselves: African Women and Critical Transformations, Africa World Press: Trenton, New Jersey, 1994, p. 28

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