Faceless, unforgettable women of Africa


MY queen: a work by Chepape Makgato.

AS YOU REACH the second landing of the staircase at the Market Theatre, something red grabs your eye: it’s a corner of one of the portraits by Khehla Chepape Makgato and you’re swept up the rest of the stairs on the momentum of this curious thing you see which you can’t quite fathom from your vantage point.

A series of portraits that speak with grand exuberance and the uncontained languages of colour, texture and the complicated ethos of a persona, Makgato’s Heroines of Southern Africa, his fourth solo exhibition, was initially mounted to correspond with the September season of the new Sesotho play  Mosali Eo U ’Neileng Eena, written by Ntšeliseng ’Masechele Khaketla. The play’s moved on to a season at the Soweto Theatre, but the exhibition’s season has been extended by a month.

Focusing on historical, mythical, legendary women within the artist’s ken, history and upbringing, this is no conventional show of pictures that kowtows to that rubric that has rendered Women’s Day in August a kind of pseudo Mother’s Day. Rather, demonstrating a brazen and bold understanding of transience and waste, like the American abstract expressionist Lee Krasner, Makgato shows in this guttural exploration of women – such as Modjadji, the rain queen; Nandi, mother of Shaka, and Batlokwa warrior queen Mantatisi – that he is not afraid to tear up his earlier work and reuse it.

These collages have a dynamism to them that is like a pent-up coil. While the compositions humbly and respectfully bow to the formal structure of the portrait, it is the energy within the work that casts you hither and yon, as emotional flesh of his legendary sitters takes the floor, almost as though he has stripped their faces of features, exposing only the raw complicated stuff that makes them who they are.

And in many respects, over and above the use of patterning and texture, as you stand in front of these extraordinary pieces, you find yourself celebrating an understanding of ethos rather than features. It’s a mature approach to the idea of a heroine. She faceless and yet has a more complex face than any individual sitter could have.

You may not know of the legendary women Makgato celebrates here. You may not respond to the words that appear on the works’ labels, with recognition or context. And while you may lose something by not knowing these women or what they mean in the broader unfurling of social and historical values, as you stand in front of these candid works, you are sucked into an image that will stay with you, unbidden.

It’s a curious thing. There’s an initiative at play in several local theatres where theatrical languages other than English are being used as medium. Admittedly experimental on several levels as they confront and pierce the comfort zones of established audiences used to seeing plays in English, there’s an edge here to artmaking that is coming into its own as truly and unapologetically African. Sifiso Zimba’s work Apple did this. On another level, Chepape Makgato does this. And in doing so, he haunts and taunts you.

  • The Heroines of Southern Africa by Chepape Makgato, is in the Barney Simon foyer, upstairs at the Market Theatre until October 31. 011 832 1641.

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