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Home in the Arts

- Ufrieda Ho

When you are thousands of kilometres away, ‘home’ may be what you carry in memories, but it might also be what you choose to forget.

home: /həʊm/ noun 1. The place where one lives permanently, especially as a member of a family or household. Arts: the theory and physical expression of creativity found in human societies.

Rusting Diamond. ©Meghna Singh |

For Dr Duduzile Ndlovu of the African Centre for Migration and Society (ACMS) at Wits, the way memory, identity and a sense of belonging keep changing – especially for migrants – makes art one of the most powerful ways to make meaning of dislocations, disorientations and journeys. It is also a way to process versions of truths and to find power in personal creative expression. 

She argues that art, like indigenous wisdom, is a part of knowledge production that has depth and reveals clues to lived experience, even if it may remain outside of academic convention. She believes art deserves increased academic inquiry to avoid becoming a blind spot that prevents transformation in academia. 

Zimbabwe-born Ndlovu has lived in South Africa for 13 years. Through her research and poetry, she has explored the use of poetry, story, music and performance art in how she and other Zimbabweans living in Johannesburg remember the Gukurahundi. This was a series of massacres of Ndebele civilians by the Zimbabwe National Army between 1983 and 1987. Conservative estimates put the number of people killed in that period at around 20 000. 

Hostage to hostility at home 

“In Zimbabwe, Gukurahundi remains silenced from the public domain, although people continue to speak (about it) in ways that are not always clearly recognisable, to avoid a backlash from the government. There is no narrative to make sense of the event or to justify the experience as necessary in people’s lives. This means the narrative of Gukurahundi is open to being reframed in different contexts,” she says. 

For many Zimbabweans living in South Africa, being away from home has opened up a space of freedom to speak out. And art has given them the tools to frame and reframe their stories for different contexts and different audiences. 

“The idea of home is therefore a complex one. It is not necessarily the place of safety we think it should be,” she says. 

Distance from home allows people to “constantly re-story their lives”, creating versions of themselves to fit different spaces at different times. 

“With art, we don’t need to be after absolute truths. We’re about asking questions about versions of the truth. Questions like ‘whose voice gets heard?’ and how official versions of the truth don’t turn out to stand up over time,” she says. “There is also a sense of hope in art; it creates a space that allows people to be, to be social, and even to take enjoyment in expressing and sharing.” 

These days, Ndlovu finds herself singing songs from her childhood to her children, who are growing up as South Africans. These songs connect her to Zimbabwe, she says. The words are reminders of what’s been passed to her, a kind of birthright in lyrics, but they are reminders, too, that for her there is no “going back”. 

It doesn’t leave her in an in-between space, though. Ndlovu stresses that it’s not a case of being split or not feeling at home in either place. Rather, that she’s still wholly and fully herself, existing in two different contexts. 

Meghna Singh, a Research Associate at the ACMS and PhD candidate at the University of Cape Town, relates to the contexts that Ndlovu speaks of as liminal spaces. They’re the ‘no man’s lands’ that Singh explores in her artistic video productions and installations. 

Since Singh moved to South Africa from India in 2013, her works have included a short film called Arrested Motion. For nine months, she followed a group of Indian seafarers stuck in Cape Town as the supply ship they were working on was detained en route to Dubai from Nigeria.

“These men literally didn’t know when they would be allowed to set sail again and they were caught up in a world of complex channelling of capital between shipping corporations,” she says. 

Prison homes 

Singh used the technique of observation film with no dialogue, and soundscapes, to create an immersive experience for her audience. Her art showed the passage of time and its effects on the bodies confined to a place that became both home and prison. 

She did something similar in Rusted Diamond when, on and off for three years, she spent time with a group of Ghanaian men who were left to pump water daily from a rusted wreck they lived in, which was once a deep-sea diamond mining vessel in Namibia. 

She also turned this film into an installation that included flooding three rooms at The Castle in Cape Town and asking people to enter, mostly on their own, to temporarily be immersed in these other worlds of precariousness. 

“I am hoping that I am creating experiences for my audience to think about how people on the fringes are caught up in capitalism, and how they are abandoned when capitalism moves onto the next thing. It is part of creating connection and empathy,” she says. 

Singh brings this visual methodology to her current research and art project called Container, in collaboration with her filmmaker partner, Simon Woods. The virtual reality and installation art piece has received National Geographic Explorer funding and is expected be completed in October when world anti-slavery month is commemorated. 

Container makes visible the history of the slave trade and focuses on the São José Paquete Africa, a Portuguese slave ship that sank with 212 slaves on board en route to Brazil from Lisbon in 1794, near today’s Clifton beach.

Forced removals 

The project hooks back to the present day, showing how more than 200 years later, people are still reduced to commodities, often forced from their homes to become modern-day slaves. They often moved in metal shipping containers across oceans, stuck here for weeks with the memory of home as a place of safety and sanctuary – or just the known – disrupted forever. 

These are the contexts and lived experiences from which Singh and Ndlovu want people never to turn away. 

  • Ufrieda Ho is a freelance journalist. 
  • This article first appeared in Curiosity, a research magazine produced by Wits Communicationsand the Research Office
  • Read more in the seventh issue, themed: #Ekhaya (isiZulu for ‘home’) about our homegrown research that crosses borders and explore the physical spaces we inhabit, where we feel we belong, where we’re from and what we identify with, including the physical/psychological space we may return to – or reject.