Cape Town

Inga Somdyala, Isala kutyelwa ibonwa ngomophu (It Remains to Be Seen Through the Lens), 2022, ocher, oxide, and ash on canvas, 6' × 30' 10 1⁄8".

Inga Somdyala, Isala kutyelwa ibonwa ngomophu (It Remains to Be Seen Through the Lens), 2022, ocher, oxide, and ash on canvas, 6' × 30' 10 1⁄8".

Inga Somdyala

Numerology, myth, and memory converged in Inga Somdyala’s exhibition “Adamah,” which included paintings; small and large flags made with soil, ocher, clay, and canvas; and video installations exploring notions of heritage, lineage, and national identity. Through the exhibition title, language seeps into various paths: Adamah is not only a root word for “ground” and “earth” in the Hebrew language, but also the Adam of the Bible—creation, beginning, and end.

The show began with Somdyala’s recollection of his grandmother’s burial; he presented a pair of Nike Stefan Janoski sneakers he wore as he helped dig her grave. The work, titled (As Long as I Am Alive) You Will Be Remembered, 2022, invited reflection on mourning and memorialization. Installed on a gallery wall, the shoes, unaltered ready-mades, preserved personal and familial histories. Even hanging on a gallery wall (and not worn at the graveyard), they did so.

Throughout “Adamah,” Somdyala furthered his exploration of abstraction anchored by composition, materiality, and tonality, which he used to stretch the limits of representation. The color and texture of the paintings evoked the incredible hues seen in the high mountains of South Africa’s Eastern Cape and the desert lowlands of its Tankwa Karoo region. Soil, dust, and clay coursed through the exhibition, both as material objects and as dematerialized presences that agitated the relationship between here and nowhere, something and nothing. Of course, soil is not land. It is the visible layer of the land. It is the edges that need to be ossified before making territories and nations. And yet to think of soil is to also think of dust—of returning to dust, returning to nothing. But Somdyala seems to propose that dust is not reducible to decay; dust collected on shoes and canvas is not waste or simply excess. Writing in Dust: The Archive and Cultural History (2002), Carolyn Steedman asserts that dust “is about circularity, the impossibility of things disappearing, or going away, or being gone” and that “nothing can be destroyed.” Similarly, in “Adamah,” nothing disappeared. Memories were carried across rivers and mountains that delineated geographical boundaries, and origin stories transcended religious grounds—everything was useful and everything circulated.

In the face of the crisis of dispossession and landlessness, something else emerges: new ways of constituting the self and belonging, which are complicated through works such as Isala kutyelwa ibonwa ngomophu (It Remains to Be Seen Through the Lens), 2022. The installation comprises works on canvas, which the artist describes as flags. Referencing the old flag of the Transvaal Colony known as die vierkleur, “the four-color,” Somdyala offers twenty-seven variations—twenty-seven is important as it refers to the number of years Nelson Mandela spent in prison and to the date in April of the country’s Freedom Day holiday commemorating the first postapartheid elections. Here, appropriation was a matter of breaking apart, dislocating, and translating, what Homi K. Bhabha (quoting Walter Benjamin) describes as finding “another place, something new, which bears the trace of.” If the old flag claimed national identity through violence, exclusion, and oppression, Somdyala’s variants claim the opposite. But they also illuminate the contradictions inherent in concepts of national identity, especially in a country where masses continue to face severe poverty and economic exclusion.

“Adamah” was a deep invocation of lineages and legacies. Through logical extensions of the meaning behind numbers, words, and materials, Somdyala brought us face-to-face with the reality of death, decay, and the disorientation that comes with dispossession.