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Ubungoma and South African Art

Updated: Mar 31, 2022

The Power of My Hands. Africa(s): Women Artists

Installation view at Musée d’Art Moderne de Paris, Paris, France

January 22nd - August 22nd, 2021

Ubungoma iconography is prevalent in South African culture. The practitioners of African spirituality are often called caretakers of culture. Traditional healers undergo strict training and learn many skills, including how to use objects, performance, song, dreams, and herbs for healing.

South African artists such as Buhlebezwe Siwani, Sethembile Msezane, Khanyisile Mbongwa otherwise known as Lhola Amira not only use ubungoma iconography in their work but have themselves been initiated as traditional healers. Painter Mmakgabo Mmapula Helen Sebidi who was born in 1943 in the Northern Transvaal says maternal ancestral beings are the instigators of her canonical paintings. In Sebidi’s words: “I get dreams and visions from my ancestors who guide me with each painting I create. Their spirit has always been with me”.

Artists like George Pemba, Gerard Bengu, and Sibusiso Duma further demonstrate the prevalence of ubungoma in the context of post-apartheid South Africa. Trevor Makhoba’s work tackled the practice of witchcraft and sorcery − including the partial killing of a human victim before her transformation into umkhovu. With the subtext of spirituality, he portrayed urban influences on rural life, and the degrading experiences caused by poor economic conditions.

These artists are well established and have been recognized in the South African art canon through combinations of accolades, opportunities, and exposure to the global market. The success of their careers signifies the critical potential of ubungoma in contemporary art spaces.

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