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Stories from our Programme

“A lot has been lost and shifted”: Mbali Dhlamini on breathing life into archives

Mbali Dhlamini

was an artist in residence at Embassy of Foreign Artists in Geneva, Switzerland in November and December 2021. In this interview she shares insights about working with a specific archive and how this informed her work during her residency.

Read more about Mbali’s residency

Artist website

Through an open call and jury process, Johannesburg-based multidisciplinary artist Mbali Dhlamini was selected for the Art and Stories residency strand at Embassy of Foreign Artist, in collaboration with the Records and Archives of International Organisations Group. The residency is focused on giving form to archives, and framed as follows: “The archives of international organisations are part of the collective memory. These archives constitute a formal record made up of reports, official letters and documentary images that contain no less than millions of human stories. Through the eyes of artists, the idea is to transform this material and give it a new dimension.” Mbali proposed a research and performance project that engaged with material from Swiss missionaries in South Africa in the archive of the World Council of Churches. Mbali’s process recognises language as a medium of understanding and as a repository of knowledge. Her work in the archive focused on the act of erasure in image captions. Her performance enacted a traditional isiZulu vigil for the unnamed and forgotten subjects. “A lot has been lost and shifted,” she explains, “we carry ceremonies and memories though our bodies. How do we use this in discourses and make visible what is less visible?”  

In what ways did your research and project evolve and grow during your residency?

I was able to create new networks that helped grow the research. I was fortunate to work with Anne-Emmanuel Tankam the archivist from the World Council of Churches who was very interested in the project and exchanged a lot with me. She was open to discussion the archive and she also gave me original images, where the archive had duplicates, to keep for my project. This was great and became the key component in my research trip especially responding the idea of “bringing the image back to the owner,” or rather, attempting to.

Your residency proposal posed a number of questions: “How do you bring back the image to the owner? What is the significance of images that exist in colonial archives and museums, outside their country of origin? Can the images be erased? How do you reimagine the image and its place in history?” In what ways do you feel like you’ve moved closer to finding answers to these questions in your research? 

These questions I ask and present as a communal responsibility, in a sense asking the audience to engage and think with me. There is no definite answer, and the answer won’t come from me. As part of the research, I hosted a site-specific discourse where I asked the audience to lindela, await with me. This was an attempt to bring these conversations to the audience and invite them to think with me. The audience was asked to perform in the installation by recording a caption of ‘how would they caption their image if they were pictured in the space?’ on the papers that had a set of instructions on them. This was an act in direct response to some of the questions I ask and also a way of presenting problems around image captions. The exercise was key in highlighting problems within the language of captions and directly asked the audience to reflect on the captions used in the WCC archive and images. The installation included the images from the WCC archive, some of the images were turned back to front to show only the captions on the back. It was interesting to note how the audience responded to the captions through the language they used in writing their own captions.

Please share with us your experience working in the World Council of Churches archive and what material you found there that influenced your work.

The archivist, Anne-Emmanuel was lovely and inviting. She shared a lot with me and allowed me to access the archives and other materials WCC had. It was refreshing and motivating, especially to engage with an institution that was willing to be critical with its archive. I had access to a number of images from after the 60s that document church life in Africa, apartheid in South Africa and different political activities in Southern Africa.

WCC gave me original copies which all became important in building my site-specific discourse. The images, labels and captions responded directly to the questions I was asking. Because I had original images with handwritten text, dated labels, the images became essential to building the installation. They became the installation.

Your project engages with the power of language and the notion of “unnaming”. Please tell us more about this theme in your work. 

The installation was created with the intention to ask for the names of the people in the images. To highlight the removal or the use of language to ‘unname’. I was interested in highlighting how words such as “woman” or “man” allow the person captioning to get away without asking for a person’s name and how it is used to categorise rather than individualise.

You staged the site-specific installation Umlindelo – in the World Council of Churches archives. What was your experience of transposing this ritual from the South African to the Swiss context? What meanings might be lost and gained through this shift in cultural context?  

The intention was to stage the discourse at the WCC but because of covid restrictions and other setbacks encountered I had to stage it in my studio. The studio also presented an interesting site for the discourse. It was an old military building and the room next to my studio belonged to a Colonel. The building had been abandoned for some time and had only recently been reopened as artists’ studios. The building was empty and I was one of the first people to inhabit the space and creating this installation there added more layers to the narrative. Different layers to ones I had set out to engage with at the WCC. I still intend to host the discourse at the WCC in the future and in fact I did host a small engagement even though I was the only one there but the moments I spent opening up the archive and filling the conference rooms and public rooms that I was allowed to work in with the images was a performance of a discourse: Letting the archive breath, thinking through it, with it, as I sorted the images and placed them on all the furniture in the room and available floor space. We are here because a lot has been lost and shifted, we carry ceremonies and memories though our bodies regardless of the geography. How do we use this in discourses and make visible what is less visible?

What benefits do you think residencies provide for artists in terms of their work and careers?

For myself, as a visual researcher who employs site-specific discourses as a methodology, residencies have become a critical component to my practice. Especially when your research requires you to access materials or information that is not easily available in your country. Therefore, highlighting the need for restitution and to critique the institutions that hold the archives. Residencies are beneficial in expanding your work and allowing you to create new connections which can grow your career. Support is necessary in residency as it’s only through support that the above can happen.

Please share with us any interesting encounters and experiences you had during your residency that had an impact on you and your work.

Being able to have original images to bring back to South Africa with the intention to think further about the project and grow it has been the most impactful experience.

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