The sex appeal of the African condition

Lhola Amira went looking for inspiration in Ghana, the pride of independent Africa. She reports back in her first South African solo exhibition. Valeria Geselev had a pan-African breakfast with the artist in the unlikeliest of places – a restaurant in Stellenbosch. On the menu: colonialism, love and extra avo.

It's Saturday morning in Cape Town; Lhola Amira picks me up with a cab. She looks stunning in a mustard-yellow jumpsuit and matching head-wrap, her cheeks shining with a touch of gold. I am too intimidated to develop small-talk. Instead, I listen to the music and look outside the window.

“It’s a new day, it’s a new dawn, it’s a new life for me. And I’m feelin’ good.

Nina Simone sings in the sound system. “I had to ask the driver if I can play my own music” – she relieves my suspicion. We take the highway. Under us are the views of the harbour, with ocean and mountains in the background. This city looks beautiful from above.

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BRINGING IT BACK: After five international exhibitions and residencies from the US to Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Germany and Spain, this is Lhola Amira’s first solo show in her homeland, South Africa.

In 10 minutes we are on the N2 with residential shacks on both sides. Laundry lines are allowing colourful clothes to blow dry.

“You don’t have to live next to me, just give me my equality, everybody knows about Mississippi, everybody knows about Alabama, everybody knows about Mississippi. Goddam!”

She sings along to Nina, and then looks at me: “We should do a Cape Town version. Cape Town Goddam!”

The shacks are replaced with wild bush. We turn towards Stellenbosch municipality. Signs announce “wine tasting”. We’re almost there. The road turns into narrow streets with coffee shops, black waiters, news headlines in Afrikaans on street poles. “It’s a strange place, Stellenbosch,” she comments either to me or to herself, “you see colonialism and apartheid sitting here, comfortably”.

In the entrance to SMAC Gallery, a huge banner welcomes us, announcing “Lhola Amira: Looking for Ghana and The Red Suitcase”, with two larger than life images of her from the exhibition. She corrects me – “it’s a constellation, not an exhibition. Ghana did a lot of things to me, this is just a little piece of my offering”.

Her artwork occupies four rooms with a series of photographs, two installations and a video, all telling the story of her visit to Accra. The gallery is cold and clean, probably the opposite of the Ghanaian capital.

After five international exhibitions and residencies from the US to Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Germany and Spain, this is Lhola Amira’s first solo show in her homeland, South Africa. It’s dedicated to her first time visiting an African country. She chose Ghana, the first sub-Saharan country to become independent. This year the country celebrates 60 years to that historic shift.

It’s now an hour before the opening, just enough time for breakfast. We sink into leather armchairs in a restaurant next door. Viennese breakfast, extra avo and an Americano. She gives me a cue to start the interview.

What the show is about?

“The whole idea is looking for Africa in Africa, which is an absurd thing in itself. But it’s necessary. It’s important for me to try and imagine what Africa looks like. I’m looking for the red suitcase which is the metaphor of decolonised living.”

Did you find decolonisation in Ghana?

“No. The more I looked, the more I found a colonised way of life. It’s something that black people still learn – to radically love ourselves. It means to be unapologetic about being black. That doesn’t happen overnight. We unlearn all the things we were taught to hate about ourselves. To want to decolonise is to want to love.”

BRINGING IT BACK: After five international exhibitions and residencies from the US to Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Germany and Spain, this is Lhola Amira’s first solo show in her homeland, South Africa.

What common thread did you find between South Africa and Ghana?

“We haven’t healed. Most black bodies are sick from colonialism, from apartheid. Ghana made me go back to western philosophers. Hegel says that slavery was a favour to black people. You have to ask yourself how the genocide of black people is depicted compared to the holocaust. Anyway, let me try and finish my food. I’m hungry, therefore less articulate about what I am processing and saying to you.”

Holocaust and Hegel for breakfast, and it’s not even 11am.

She signals that we should go back to the gallery. Inside, it’s show time; guests have arrived for the opening.

During the event I find myself doing errands for her, carrying her purse, getting her wine. She has super human energy that makes you want to please her. Indeed she is not like us, humans. She has no records in Home Affairs, no bank account and no boyfriend. Her only existence is as an artist. In her rare public appearances, Lhola Amira always wears a uniform: jumpsuit, high heels and cigarette.

A woman recognises Lhola Amira from the photographs and starts a conversation:

“Are you from Ghana?”

“No. I am from Gugulethu”.

“Is it in Johannesburg?”

“No. It’s here, in Cape Town.”

Lhola Amira walks away.

Why do you exhibit in Stellenbosch? Is it poetic justice? Irony? Coincidence?

“The spaces are always white. My concern is who is buying the work, more than where it is shown. It saddens me that my people – who the work is about – can’t own it.”

They might not own the works, but that day, they owned the gallery. Students who arrived in a shuttle from Cape Town gave a nice balance to the older, whiter and wealthier crowd of Stellenbosch gallery-goers.

“I am grateful to see so many black people,” she comments. They gather around her with lit eyes. I overhear the gallery owner in a conversation: “I struggle when working with Lhola Amira, since I feel intellectually inferior.”

She is provocative and sharp. Yet people navigate their way around the elephants in the gallery – her hyper-sexuality and honesty – while drinking free wine. Only once she lights a cigarette, they lose their composure. Hegel and Holocaust can’t do that. Uniformly, both young black and old white visitors take out their cameras.

“Who thought it can happen – smoking in the white cube!” says a brave student who jumps on the bandwagon and asks for a puff.

Looking around, I notice that the gallery was transformed – on the floor under the pricey artworks are platters of fried shrimps, two women dance in the corner, youngsters are sitting around. They discuss protests, white supremacy and black patriarchy. It’s refreshing to hear conversations in galleries.

On our way back, Lhola Amira plays Simphiwe Dana.

“I need to give Khanyisile her body back,” she says, as we arrive at her doorstep. Khanyisile Mbongwa is an award-winning curator, who looks identical to Lhola Amira.

“People think I’m her alter ego. In fact, Khanyisile sacrificed her body so blackness can flourish.”

Confused? She doesn’t care much. “It’s a Eurocentric notion to try to understand things. I don’t have to know everything.”

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