Cape Town

Khanyisile Mawhayi, Xibelani na Micheka 2021, soft pastel on canvas, 39 3⁄8 × 28 5⁄8".

Khanyisile Mawhayi, Xibelani na Micheka 2021, soft pastel on canvas, 39 3⁄8 × 28 5⁄8".

Khanyisile Mawhayi

Approaching the most recent exhibition by Johannesburg-based artist Khanyisile Mawhayi, one expected to be overwhelmed by blocks of bright color—the audacious blues, yellows, and pinks associated with her father’s people, the Tsonga of southern Africa. Instead, audiences were politely greeted by hues that, while bright, bold, and vivid, were nonetheless tamer than anticipated. In the spirit of reclamation, the artist deliberately uses the bright colors that are often a source of ridicule directed at the Tsonga; in so doing, she seeks to dissolve and obscure the stereotypical and often derogatory associations of one of the most ostracized and maligned ethnic groups in South Africa.

Through a series of pastel-on-canvas works titled “Soshangane/Shiyangane/Shangaan,” 2021—Soshangane was the ruler of the Shangaan people; Shiyangane means “leave the child,” in reference to a narrative about the forming of the Shangaan kingdom—Mawhayi explores the shame that Tsonga youth, especially those who grow up in the company of other ethnic groups in South Africa’s cities, have been made to feel about their identity. She has even taken the titling of the works as an opportunity to learn her father’s language. Dyambu, Ngati, Mati, 2021, refers to day/sun, blood, and water, whose colors of yellow, red, and blue influence her palette. Hi Hlavha ti Hlampfhi, 2021, which loosely translates to “We stab the fish,” teaches her that she is not allowed to eat fish because it is her family’s totem animal.

The confident and unapologetic display of bright colors offered me a chance to engage with the Tsonga identity that I share and that—aside from figures such as Jackson Hlungwani and Salphina Maluleke—has rarely been manifest in art. Drawings such as Xibelani na Micheka, 2021, reveal an artist who reservedly grapples with her background, questioning whether she can claim a culture and language with which she did not grow up. As a result, Mawhayi’s representation of the Tsonga ornamental dance skirt, xibelani, is timid and withdrawn, offering only glimpses of this voluptuous, voluminous, and vibrant garment. What hangs in the air are residues and mere suggestions of the skirt, draped with the accompanying ncheka—a kind of colorful and sometimes florally decorated cloth more prominently represented in Mawhayi’s Lwandle, 2021. This refusal of illustration is intensified by the absence of the body that would usually be adorned by this outfit. Here Mawhayi struggles to fully embrace this estranged culture without fetishizing and exoticizing it. In an interview, she has said that an inclusion of her own body might be perceived by the Tsonga as a form of appropriation because she was not raised in the culture. The idea of including a body that was not hers but belonged to any other member of the Tsonga group felt similarly dubious to her.

Mawhayi’s process is laborious: The pastel is fragile on the canvas and impossible to remove, requiring painstaking and repetitive gestures. Depicting xibelani—which wearers move with skill and energy in their dancing—as still and not in motion, Mawhayi reasserts the tensions of her insider/outsider status, presenting the skirt as a kind of object of investigation and a site for contemplation.

Mawhayi’s efforts to connect with her heritage are also echoed in “The Ambivalent Blueprint,” 2020, a series of cyanotypes that explores the outline of her identity, her relationship with her parents, and their relationship with each other. The images evoke South African writer Can Themba’s short story “The Suit” (1963) through pictures of jackets perched on two wooden chairs to represent her mother and father. The artist poses behind the furniture in I’ve got your back mama and I’ve got your back papa; sits on one of the chairs in Katekile; and lies across both of them in Embraced between a rock and a hard place (self portrait), as if nestling in the arms and essences of her parents.