'Lembras daquele dia em Zavala' (Do you remember that day in Zavala) by Vanessa Tembane
'Lembras daquele dia em Zavala' (Do you remember that day in Zavala) by Vanessa Tembane
Image: Supplied

Happy is the person who can confidently affirm that the place and time in which they find themselves is, truly, home.

For most of us, home is elsewhere or else-when. This can be nostalgia — the ache for a “home” that is far away or that has receded into the past. It can also be what John Koenig, in his Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows (which coins new words for phenomena without an existing name) calls anemoia: nostalgia for a place or time that one has never known.

There is something of this feeling in “What Is Home To You?”, a group exhibition on display at the Firestation in Rosebank. Curator Teresa Lizamore has placed in conversation three artists whose work shares a key component in the creative process: the use of old family photographs. It is fascinating to compare the ends to which Vanessa Tembane, Mashudu Nevhutalu and Rick Baloyi put this source material.

Tembane’s mother moved from Mozambique to SA in 1992, three years before she was born. The artist grew up listening to stories about her mother’s former life — stories that were “often exciting, but they had undertones of sadness and a longing for the world that my mother had chosen to give up”. Tembane was raised as an isiZulu speaker because it was the closest SA language to the Mozambican language Chopi (her mother did this “because of her fear of xenophobia and the need to give me a sense of belonging”).

The figures in Tembane’s digital collages gaze at seascapes as if looking at another world. They sit on benches and swings amid lush tropical vegetation — gardens or forests of memory and dreams. These are locations at once familiar and foreign, uncanny or unheimlich, as Freud called it (that is, somewhere “unhomely”). The evocative palette of blues, violets and purples conveys this mood very effectively.

Merging elements from her own photos, taken in SA, and images shared by her relatives in Mozambique, Tembane has produced “haunting, hybridised composites”. This fusion is complicated by the addition of crochet textures inspired by the patterns of the capulana cloths worn by Mozambican women; the artist has been given a number of these cloths by relatives during visits to see her mother’s family.

These composite images facilitate an “emotional reckoning” for Tembane, enabling her to share her mother’s “sense of loss of her birthplace and markers of her Chopi identity” but also to “imagine new memories” for herself, identifying with “what could have been” and “the childhood she might have experienced”. They are powerful, mournful, restorative works.

Nevhutalu’s oil paintings, by contrast, have a very different affective register. The artist employs bright oranges, yellows and reds to evoke a response of “euphoria” — rather than a painful longing for the past, they instead seem to celebrate halcyon moments conjured, or recreated, in memory. The subjects are “matriarchs”: aunts, grandmothers or older siblings who nurtured the artist.

Individual figures or groups of women are caught in moments of stillness or leisure. While their settings may be plain or even nondescript, the colouration suggests something close to the sublime. They are, an accompanying note tells us, “enjoying a moment when nothing else around them seems more important than being present”.

Baloyi also pays tribute to specific, well-remembered and much-loved family and friends in his photorealistic pastel drawings. “Home is not a place,” he insists, “it’s the people in that place.” The artist is careful to warn us against the assumption that these individuals are merely representative or symbolic. Instead, their depiction in his work is an act of resistance against marginalisation and forgetting: “Their existence is as important as any other person in this world, whether short lived or not, whether famous or not.”

Captured eating and drinking, joking or musing, Baloyi’s subjects have something they want to tell us. The large work From Classmates to Old Friends shows a teacher and his pupils gathered in front of a chalkboard for a group portrait. Some of the students are earnest, some playful. Each of them carries the promise of an unknown future. Where, we wonder, do they call home now?

This column originally appeared in Business Day. 

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