Desire Marea, Isende Lendlela 2024
Desire Marea, Isende Lendlela 2024
Image: Supplied

As the Heat Winter Arts Festival prepares to take over Cape Town from July 11-21, the city is buzzing with anticipation. The 10-day event includes 14 art exhibitions complemented by theatre, jazz, opera, dance performances and discussions. Among the festival’s highlights is Desire Marea’s debut solo exhibition, “The Baddies of Isandlwana” at Eclectica Contemporary — a profound reimagining of Zulu queerness that challenges colonial and cis-heteronormative narratives.

Following the exhibition opening on July 5, Marea’s sense of accomplishment is palpable. “I’m feeling really happy [and] proud for being courageous more than anything,” Marea said, radiating contentment. As a multidisciplinary artist based in KwaZulu-Natal, Marea is known for pushing boundaries in work that redefines notions of identity, resistance and love.

The series is rooted in the 1879 Battle of Isandlwana, where Zulu warriors defeated the British army under King Cetshwayo. Yet, it’s Marea’s personal experiences and the stories of peers who are black, queer and Zulu that shape the work’s focus on resistance.

“There’s a connection between the resistance then and now,” Marea reflects. This exhibition resonates now especially as queer people spearhead resistance against escalating anti-LGBTQIA+ legislation in countries across Africa, including Uganda, Ghana and Nigeria.

Eclectica Contemporary director Shamiela Tyer explains that Marea’s work warranted a solo show following strong responses during the “Figures (in)Flux” group exhibition in March. It “captivated my senses and drew me in”, she said. “The Baddies of Isandlwana” consists of eight paintings of Zulu warriors that explore timeless themes of love, grief and loss. Starting with small-scale acrylic works in January, Marea gradually scaled up to larger pieces using acrylics and oils. The series vividly portrays intimacy and eroticism, echoing a sense of vulnerability within the bonds of brotherhood.

While the artworks may evoke thoughts of sexuality, Marea clarifies that they transcend lust. “Eroticism gives us clues as to what the soul really desires,” Marea said. The exhibition prompts viewers to explore the deeper connections between desire, identity and cultural heritage. The artist says that hough the reception of the series may be met with controversy, “the story belongs within Zulu culture. It’s not in conflict with it.”

Cueing off of the battle premise, the work carries the spirit of defending family and the sanctity of black life and evolution. “It looks at how we function within our families and how we break certain notions about where queer people are welcomed within the family structure, especially ritualistically,” Marea said. This introspection led him to explore historical narratives not typically associated with queerness, such as the Zulu warrior archetype, synonymous with cisgender hyper-masculinity. “It came from seeing how modern-day queer Zulu people live as manifestations of those who likely existed before”.

As a traditional healer, Marea has encountered ancestors who are open-minded and eager to reimagine a more inclusive Zulu culture. For Marea, Zulu queerness signifies a heroic figure, a conqueror, and a harbinger of good fortune, respected and not mystified. “My message is to inspire us to imagine a culture that truly loves us,” said Marea.  

The Baddies of Isandlwana at Eclectica Contemporary
The Baddies of Isandlwana at Eclectica Contemporary
Image: Supplied

Living and working in Amandawe, KwaZulu-Natal, where the paintings were created, is a challenge and a privilege for Marea. “It’s difficult sometimes but it keeps me connected to my roots. Home inspires me visually and sonically”.

Marea merges multiple forms of expression. “The challenge is balance,” he says, “but being multidisciplinary is a gift, I get to elaborate on ideas and tell stories from different angles.” “The Baddies of Isandlwana” series is an extension of Marea’s EP of the same name released in November 2023. Inspired by Amandawe nightlife, the EP reflects the artist’s experiences of being queer in that setting.

He hopes for a more nuanced representation of black queer people in art that delves deeply into personal experiences and can be explored using African vernacular. “The Baddies of Isandlwana” is a step towards this. While the explicit elements can be striking, Marea says he attempted to tell a complex story that anyone can recognise. “If you are black and queer, I hope you see yourself and if you are not, I hope you can see humanity.”

“The Baddies of Isandlwana” is on at Eclectica Contemporary until July 31. 

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