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Artist

Buhle Ngaba | Residency

Switzerland | Performing Arts

January - February 2022 — Performing Arts

Buhle Ngaba

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Residency partner

Kaserne Basel

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Buhle Ngaba is a multi-award winning South African actor, writer and speaker. She combines these art forms in order to find new forms of expression and ways for herself to exist within established art forms as a black female artist with a distinct new voice. Storytelling is at the centre of her practice, informed by family rituals and histories. Her work engages with the entanglement of the personal and the political within her family’s archive.

During the first phase of her residency at Kaserne Basel in Switzerland from 11 January to 22 February 2022, Buhle plans to develop the idea of a “Southern Region Women’s Archive”, inspired by the legacy of her great aunt Ruth Mompati, the first female ANC cadre, and Charlotte Maxeke, the first black woman to graduate with a university degree in South Africa. Buhle is interested in how this archive can be excavate from academia and become a living resource for different kinds of storytelling. Her work over the past few years has converged around this idea, exploring fictional and factual modes of storytelling.

In 2016 she wrote the short story The Girl Without A Sound to help young girls everywhere find their voice. The story has been translated into all 11 official South African languages and made available as a free downloadable book. Her multidisciplinary coming of age tale Swan Song traces the journey of a young woman born with a winged scapula – a symbol of her struggle for a sense of belonging. Buhle begun writing the work at The Royal Shakespeare Company (Stratford, UK) through the prestigious Brett Goldin Bursary, and premiered it at the Klein Karoo Nationale Kunstefees in 2017. Swan Song received wide acclaim and multiple awards, and Buhle has continued to adapt the production incorporating new technology and revising it for streaming and radio broadcasts. She will continue working with the production while at Kaserne in collaboration with designer Iskander Guetta. Buhle explains that “Continuing to explore Swan Song in many forms/in many spaces allows me to interrogate issues of proximity, performance spaces, language and narrative principles – I’m hoping to shed light on reimagined processes aimed at challenging inherited assumptions of understanding and approaching the theatre space.”

Since 2019, Buhle has taken on the project of completing her late mother’s PhD biographical research about their aunt Ruth Mompati, the first female ANC cadre (1925-2015). Ruth Mompati was the ambassador to Switzerland (1996 – 2000) and on her return, became mayor of Vryburg (which is part of the Ruth Mompati District) in the North West Province. In addition to holding deep personal significance, the project aims to address the general lack of women’s stories in the telling of South African history.

In 2021 Buhle was selected to write the story for a collaborative puppetry production re-imagining the life and legacy of Charlotte Maxeke, the first black woman to graduate with a university degree in South Africa.

Buhle explains the impact of these two archival projects and how she plans to take this work forward during her residency in Switzerland: “The family archive I have inherited has become indispensable in all of my work, alongside my research about the life and times of Charlotte Maxeke. In addition to developing the idea of a Southern Region Women’s Archive, I would like to develop ideas on how to create and use this archive so as to bring the voices of these ‘forgotten’ women to the forefront of our storytelling, such as through research-based performance. Through my explorations with Maxeke and Mompatis stories, I have discovered so much herstory that needs to be excavated and made accessible beyond the academy.”

Excerpts from artist statement

I am originally from Vryburg, North West. A place where the overwhelming weight of the sun hangs onto your back as you cross the street. Where the women carry grief silently in their hunched shoulders and your uncle is either the family hero or foe. Wilson’s toffees colour the recollections of my childhood alongside memories of sitting on my grandmother’s red stoep. At 6years old, I would determinedly gnaw through the original flavoured toffees while listening to my family’s accounts of the day: the goat my grandfather encountered on his way to school, which of my aunt’s prospective suitors had charmed her that day, my cousins arguing about who imitated the TV presenter best…

The oral accounts were shared as intimately as drops of water in the sink. For me, stories are a marker of home, the beginnings of my archive. Essentially, storytelling has always been my way of making sense of the world, and identifying where I might fit in it. I learnt from a young age that storytelling is intrinsic to human nature whether factual or fictional. At home, we used our exchange of narratives on that stoep to heal, to share and to practise imagining more for ourselves.

I remember being in grade four, turning the page of a textbook and glimpsing Ruth Mompati in the foreground of a picture in it. Two things were revealed to me; firstly, one page in a whole textbook couldn’t possibly be all that there was to tell about the Women’s March in 1956. The second was that the retelling of history is very much dependant on who is telling the most powerful story during which time. This speaks to the gaps in our telling of South African histories, specifically with regards to those involving the contributions of women to the progression of South African society. The project not only holds personal significance for me but also speaks to who and what is remembered in the South African consciousness.

(Extract from the beginning of the archive)

Imagine turning your mother’s bathroom into a national archive. Converting her most intimate space into a home for black feminist herstory to unfurl at last. I’m sitting on the pink carpet of her bathroom, using the toilet as a backrest about to do exactly that. It’s been a year and a half since she passed. I suppose then, it has been that long that I have been preparing the bathroom for this moment; clearing away toothbrushes and strands of hair, using the last of her face creams and lotions, identifying talcum powders that belonged to Ruth; my mother’s ode to her own mothers. “Maybe that was her way of keeping them alive with her I think” as I begin to pull out the boxes from all the corners I haphazardly stacked them in last year. I think, “maybe this archive will be my way of holding them with me”.

The boxes (filled to the brim with all manner of things including letters, interviews, manuscripts, books, memorabilia from all over the world, photos, notebooks etc) now in the centre of the room, I turn to the shower to interrogate the leopard in the room. Literally. Yes, there’s a leopard hanging off a hanger from a shower head in my house. At least it has a name, “Isithwalande” or “seaparankoe”, the highest honour awarded by the ANC to those who have made an outstanding contribution and sacrifice to the liberation struggle. There have been twenty recipients since 1955, seventeen men and five women. It is given to those who have distinguished themselves as having shown exceptional qualities of leadership and heroism. As we face one another, the leopard and myself, I begin to giggle at the scene and how tame my own encounter with a leopard is in comparison to any experiences my ancestors would have had with leopards long ago.

As I turn back towards the centre of the bathroom, I catch a glimpse of my own face in the mirror. I avoid eye contact with myself as I begin to pull out funeral programmes from a large brown envelope. The first is Oliver Tambos and though I try, I can’t seem to put it down. So I begin to examine it carefully and discover a piece of paper with what looks like a speech for the funeral on it. It’s Ruth’s. I’m overwhelmed by the discovery and try to shuffle the programmes in my hand so as to find something less overwhelming. I find Chris Hani’s funeral programme and the one under it is Albertina Sisulu’s, then Nelson Mandela’s and every other “key” figure from South African history you can imagine. I’m swallowed whole by feelings of inadequacy, throw all the programmes into the bath before darting out of the bathroom.

The next morning I’m forced back into the bathroom by a ritual I’ve watched all the women in my family perform. “After putting ten kettles to boil on the stove, all the women at home made a ritual of pouring scalding water into plastic basins laid out in the master bedroom” (from Swan Song, 2018). I need to wash my panty in the basin. As I fold each corner of fabric into one another, kneading water into my undergarments, I reflect on just how deeply knitted the personal is with the political within this archive. As I wring the last remnants of green sunlight soap down the drain I hang up my panty, and as I do, I catch my reflection in several mirrors. It occurs to me that maybe what I’m doing here is as simple as hanging up the gentlest undergarments of our mothers for all of us to fold together.