Award-winning performance artist, Wezile Mgibe’s work investigates the politics of displacement and memory and the paradox of navigating spaces.
By: Thanduolo “Thandz” Buti
Wezile Mgibe was the 2019 recipient of the David Koloane Award (Bag Factory). The interdisciplinary artist’s practice encompasses performance, installation and film, and reflects the politics of human behaviour in efforts to spark self-reflection and social change. His work has been showcased at FNB Art Fair (JHB), Centre For Applied Human Rights (UK), Hanger (Portugal), and it’s currently part of the Latitudes Art Fair (SA).
View Wezile’s exhibition on Latitudesartfair.com
“I look at my work as (some form of) a memory – good or bad,” he tells Blacklight. “The work (also) projects the views of the people – it reflects human behaviour.
“The bandage in itself reflects some sort of memory. When you look at someone with a bandage, you know you need to exercise precaution – [When dealing with the subject] you first compassionately position yourself. It also forces one to self-evaluate and reimagine (objects can be broken but we can find a way of reimagining those experiences). My work is a system or bridge to project all of those voices.”
With the world currently grappling with the Covid-19 pandemic, we are forced to negotiate space and to reimagine new ways of being. As we struggle to exist in the so-called new normal, Wezile’s work has found resonance. While it was created before the Covid-19, he agrees that it’s evolved to find a new context in these “social distancing” times.
He says the idea of exploring the “Politics of Displacement” first took shape last year, after his residency at Bag Factory, Johannesburg, as part of being the recipient of the David Koloane Award.
This year, he spent four weeks in Harare, Zimbabwe, doing more research for the work. “Zimbabwe holds a deep history of displacement, and I felt like there, I would be able to get both the political and domestic displacement for my research – and I did,” he explains.
“As soon as I came home, the lockdown was already looming, which is another sort of displacement, because you have to negotiate space with your loved ones and there might be things they don’t know about you or that makes them uncomfortable about you. You might also be in a space where you are also not welcomed, but you are there, and now, you are in a position where you are constantly restructuring yourself.
“I was quite intrigued by the concept and I had to adapt it to a short film due to the lockdown, but the actual performance might still happen next year.”
He continues: “Before even this pandemic, I was addressing different kinds of pandemics that are affecting us as people. But the thing about inequality is if it doesn’t affect you then it does not mean anything. Because now, there is a sense of urgency, everyone is projecting fear, but we have been surviving (as the human race). We have been constantly performing our lives on a daily basis.”
With his work, the artist not only forces us to look outward but also inward. As a musical theatre practitioner stepping into the performance art space, he says his main aim was to change the way we view the medium. “When people come to watch a performance piece they have certain expectations,” he explains.
“I wanted to challenge those expectations and force people to come with a blank page. (And of course) my performances are a reflection of human behaviour, which most times one may recognise because it’s a reflection of us and our surroundings. People can also react the way they want to – they can either engage or pass.”
During his tenure as a musical theatre performer, Wezile not only worked with dance companies and some of the most affluent directors, he also further trained in contemporary dance and movement. After deciding to explore the “solo performance artist” route, he had to find new ways of presenting his artistic voice.
“With being a solo [independent] artist, it’s all about understanding yourself, first – the kind of work you want to do – because if you don’t know who you are and why you are doing what you are doing, along the way you are going to be distracted and depend on people’s perceptions,” he says.
“Here [in SA] we believe that popularity means the work is good. That is a big problem, because that results in artists spending less time in the studio and more time on social media, trying to gain an audience. I believe we (artists) should be spending more time creating quality work so that when the opportunity comes to present it, we produce quality work – work that has substance.”
Being a black performance artist in predominantly white space – the art world – Wezile says that he constantly has to negotiate space and find ways to reclaim his voice. “Sometimes we negotiate spaces we don’t belong in, but we have to be there because we have to make our voices heard. But I have found that it’s easier to negotiate space if you know who you are and where you belong; that is why the concept of belonging is quite important.”
The artist shares that over the years he also had to unlearn the idea of having preconceived notions about audience reactions. He says, now, he is more interested in what the performances trigger in other people, rather their reactions to him. “Reactions vary, it’s like a buffet. People always react in different ways for different reasons; you just have to be certain about what you do.”
“Now I can make the work more than just about me. However, you cannot talk about healing if you have not gone through self-healing. You cannot talk about social change, if you are not transformed by the work, first.”