Cape Town

Rita Ngcobo, Veld Fires at Night, ca. 1969, mixed media, 31 5⁄8 × 20". From “When Rain Clouds Gather: Black South African Women Artists, 1940–2000.”

Rita Ngcobo, Veld Fires at Night, ca. 1969, mixed media, 31 5⁄8 × 20". From “When Rain Clouds Gather: Black South African Women Artists, 1940–2000.”

“When Rain Clouds Gather: Black South African Women Artists, 1940–2000”

Bessie Head published her first novel, When Rain Clouds Gather, while exiled in Botswana in 1968. Following the journey of its protagonist, Makhaya, an escapee from apartheid South Africa, the novel is a poignant exploration of hope in the midst of despair. Taking their title from Head’s novel, South African curators Portia Malatjie and Nontobeko Ntombela have meticulously woven together a survey of important works in “When Rain Clouds Gather: Black South African Women Artists, 1940–2000”—part research study and part commemoration. “When Rain Clouds Gather” bears the stamp of its authors, whose curatorial oeuvre reflects a long-standing commitment to excavating narratives by women artists and posing critical questions. Examples of their approach were seen in previous projects, such as the 2018–19 Helen Sebidi retrospective curated by Malatjie at Norval Foundation titled “Batlhaping Ba Re!” (The Fish People Say!) and the 2012 exhibition “A Fragile Archive” curated by Ntombela at the Johannesburg Art Gallery in 2012. Both of these shows sought to contest a hegemonic art-historical canon by emphasizing Black women’s subjectivities through their artmaking.

Comprising more than 120 works by forty artists, “When Rain Clouds Gather” is organized into thematic subsections, including those themed around politics; love, pleasure, and intimacy; Black African feminisms; landscapes; spiritual and religious conjurings; and the speculative spectacular, among others. An accompanying time line, while an effective visual device to handle a mass of information, at times reads as a broad catchall compilation of literary, musical, and art-historical records that falls short of nuance and salience. Yes, the second (and final) Johannesburg Biennale, “Trades Routes: History and Geography,” took place in 1997, the same year the autobiography of women’s rights activist and struggle hero Ellen Kuzwayo was republished, but the connection between these events remains opaque.

“When Rain Clouds Gather” is brilliantly brought to life by complex images in many media, among them Katherine Mchunu’s undated Jockey, made from cloth, fiber, and beads; Noria Mabasa’s carved wood sculptures; and Rita Ngcobo’s richly textured mixed-media tapestry Veld Fires at Night, ca. 1969. Textiles, sculpture, painting, and photography sit comfortably together, absorbing and commenting on one another. The exhibition successfully brings established artists into conversation with lesser-known figures without perpetuating hierarchies, as in the juxtaposition of Gladys Mgudlandlu’s serpentine landscapes from 1961 to 1966 with Emily Mkhize’s structured tapestry Geometric Design 102/92, 1992. Spirituality is also a recurrent if elusive theme in the exhibition, explored through Ruth Motau’s poetic images, Allina Ndebele’s surrealist tapestry, and Venus Makhubele’s beaded cloths. Letisa Mashawu’s decorative wrap, known in the Tsonga traditions as nceka, merges symbols and text to create a remarkably intricate image that reads as both dreamscape and prayer. The mythological and speculative, the modest and unremarkable, are all woven together, allowing productive tensions and contingencies to emerge.

“When Rain Clouds Gather” compellingly maps out the artistic output of many overlooked and forgotten Black women artists. Some contributions engage social, political, and environmental events and function as a form of witnessing, including Motau’s documentation of the clamor of shebeens and quiet intimacies found in same-sex hostels, Mabasa’s depiction of the deadly 1987 Natal floods, and Bongiwe Dhlomo-Mautloa’s portraits of urban life. Other works lean toward the strange, dramatic, and bizarre, such as Valerie Desmore’s paintings The Family, 1958, and Street Accident, 1959, which convey deeply personal stories via broad brushstrokes, thickly applied pigment, and an unusual color sensibility. Such works make “When Rain Clouds Gather” a thematically rich and complex reading of the South African cultural landscape over six decades through the eyes of Black women artists.