Curators talk about an artwork that is important to them and their work:
Gabi Ngcobo on Mmakgabo Helen Sebidi’s Tears of Africa (1987–88)
The distortion of senses is unmistakably clear. A person trying to listen in vain. Shocked numbness. Covered eyes. Two entangled faces. Lost gazes. An animal baring its teeth. European colonialism’s project of dehumanisation and psychic subjection is central to Tears of Africa by Mmakgabo Helen Sebidi (*1943), which speaks to the ongoing drama of the global African diaspora. This large charcoal collage on paper embodies the continuing realities of lives characterised by racialised exploitation until this day. Sebidi takes them from her home surroundings in South Africa and reveals the experiences of the larger Diasporic community worldwide. Her work has the power to function as a means to come to terms with the aftermath of European colonialism, both within and outside the continent.
With Tears of Africa, Sebidi addresses the historical amnesia present in many societies when it comes to the legacy of slavery and colonialism. In a world facing collective madness, from nationalist and white supremacist movements to refugee crises, the work remains a timeless protest. Its visual language incorporates political forces that have been witnessed and felt, whose neurotic realities remain both present and almost impossible to grasp.
Sebidi’s oeuvre exemplifies the importance of excavating histories that have been repressed and intentionally forgotten. This is what allows for reconciliation. She confronts the complex and hideous mechanisms of colonial regimes to reveal how they affect not only the single body but also larger bodies of cultures and communities. I believe her art shows what historically necessary epistemology can look like. It exudes a conscience that allows its viewer to confront themes of self-positioning, power, responsibility and healing. She does this by depicting the messy and often uneasy program of decolonising, to which end she has developed a visual language that allows us to feel things, to get our own hands dirty – scratching, digging, uncovering, erasing, dismantling and even perhaps dedicating our own lives to the cause.
The great power of art is its capacity to call into question the status quo of monolithic or one-sided historical narratives and the parameters that determine them. What happens when we break with such conventions? Who and what will emerge in these innovative spaces? But also, what is threatened by such experiments?
"In a world facing collective madness, from nationalist and white supremacist movements to refugee crises, the work remains a timeless protest"
Artists like Sebidi help me understand the challenges faced by contemporary curators. In a rapidly changing world, with millions of dispossessed people looking for a better life, predominantly in the West, art seems to be one of the last places people can project their hopes and dreams onto. Therefore it is crucial to open up art spaces to allow for a multitude of voices and expressions that can help us negotiate complex narratives and realities in ways that can make the future livable for the majority and not just the privileged few. Art also offers us the privilege of experimentation, which means it gives us the right to fail and learn from mistakes.
In Tears of Africa, Sebidi hauntingly presents viewers with the detrimental effects of colonialism and racism on the human psyche and body, patiently guiding us towards a clearer sense of who we are and a hopeful vision of what we can choose to strive for in the future. The work has no beginning or end. It does not tell the full story but is rather a glimpse into a universe caught in a complex spiral of repetition. Sebidi shows us that tears do not hold the same meaning in all times and all places, but have their own nuances and histories that demand attention.
GABI NGCOBO is the curator of the next Berlin Biennale.