Thabiso Phokompe | Artist Statement



I grew up in Soweto, with everything the ghetto means socially and politically. My father is Catholic; I went to Catholic school and was an altar boy until I was 15, going to mass four days per week. But I would return home to the sound of the drum, because my mother is a nyanga, a diviner, and the drums would be calling the ancestors into our house. Many years later, living in Norway, I was struck by the way Norwegians treasure their folk costumes and customs, and I realized my lack of my own traditions. I suddenly saw the schism in my identity between global Western values and African one. Only then could I see the beauty in the drum, and begin to integrate it. One can’t exist broken, divided. My quest is to negotiate a path between these different identities and bring them parallel in my work. I don’t believe one is weightier than the other.

I don’t like my work to be labeled “African” or “abstract.” I don’t think it’s relevant. I’m making art. I’m working as a process of identity, of being in the world, and I’m drawing together multiple ingredients. As for abstraction, it’s always existed; but so has conceptualism and you can’t make art without a concept. Making art for a gallery context is completely Western in origin, so is my art training, and the format and presentation of the work. The gallery is part of the installation.

Though my work might look like abstract, the materials I use are not abstract; they are loaded with reference. The ochers and African earth I use are the ground of existence, the womb of life. When I mix my earths, I feel linked with primeval art-making and with my African heritage. Our ancient laws and traditions, including our art and architecture, are rooted in the earth – the soil in which we grew our crops and from which we built our houses. Once we lived in harmony with the earth and it nurtured us in return, this is true of the whole human race. Things may be different now, but the earth has always been part of everything. That continuity is in my mind. At the same time, I am in Brooklyn, working flat upon the earth in my backyard, and I remember being back in Soweto, surrounded by mine dumps. They are composed of the powdery, golden sand that remains after gold ore from the earth has been transformed by crushing and dissolving it with acid. The oldest mine dumps look like natural mountains, the newer ones are terraced like ancient pyramids or ziggurats. They are earth but they are not earth; they fuse and confuse nature and culture.

The safety pins and beads in my works are items that Africans traded from Europeans; they mediate two worlds. Africans held them dear and used them as currency. The staffs I use are called izikhali, which translates as “weapons,” but actually they are spiritual shields that protect worshipers of traditionalist Africanist churches. You are naked without the staff, just as many Africans believe you are naked without beads. The sticks both divide my pieces and join their halves together, just as the Africanist churches merge Christianity and African spirituality. The worshippers hold ceremonies near the mine dumps and in other natural settings, especially where there is water. They believe in the spiritual purity of water, but they don’t use traditional herbs and medicines, as I do. My packages of medicine, called muti, contain both medicinal and magical substances. I am not trained to activate the magic substances like my mother does, but the concept and the process fascinate me. While I explore the sophisticated psycho-spiritual dynamics of traditional religion as a belief system, I also intend the final work to be magical, transformative. The medicinal ingredients, of course, are not magical; they have their own built-in healing power, and for me the creation of the work is part of a healing process.

The cloth bundles I use are like the love potions that a diviner will make. You call into the cloth the name of the person you desire and then wrap the bundle towards you, you call the name, you talk to it, you walk with it to find the one you desire. And if you do win that person, that person will always treasure the bundle that brought you together. When I use such bundles in the work, they are a meeting point between the work and the viewer, a resolved state, and art is the treasure. Maybe that’s why I’m in New York, because I hope people will find something to treasure in what I’m doing.