Storytelling is at the heart of what Gauteng-based artists Teresa Kutala Firmino and Helena Uambembe do. From their performances to their paintings and prints, this narrative practice threads through their work as the collective Kutala Chopeto, and also through their own distinct practices. As Uambembe explains, they “want to tell African narratives from an African perspective as honestly as possible.”
Both up-and-coming artists have exhibited around South Africa and have been recognised for their unique voices – Uambembe with the David Koloane Award in 2019 and Kutala Firmino with a sell-out solo at the 2020 edition of the Investec Cape Town Art Fair. The stories they tell are primarily of their shared history as young women raised in Pomfret (although they only met in 2016).
Pomfret is an atrophied North West community of former 32 Battalion soldiers of Angolan heritage, many of whom settled with their families close to the army base there around the end of the South African Border War in 1990. Rivals to the FAPLA who emerged victorious in the Angolan War of Independence, these soldiers first fled to Namibia (then South West Africa). Rootless, they were recruited by the apartheid South African government to fight independence efforts here.
After Namibia won its own independence, the soldiers were moved to South Africa, where they manned the country’s borders and later, violently policed its townships during the end of apartheid. Having fought on the side of the previous South African government against their own countrymen and against black South Africans, the Angolan soldiers of the 32 Battalion could neither return home nor integrate into South African communities. When the unit was disbanded, a number of soldiers opted to stay in Pomfret. The army base was soon however shut down, and most basic services followed suit, leaving the town unsupported and decaying.
“I always felt a sense of responsibility as a child of that community who has access to larger platforms,” Uambembe reveals, “to tell the stories.” Though they no longer live there, as previous members of the community, both artists aim to document and preserve this largely-unexplored and painful history, the stories that wouldn’t make it into the textbooks. Through this, they show us how the hidden histories of our country and our continent have a lasting impact through the generations.
To narrate the traumas of others requires a delicate combination of sensitivity and strength, rising from the burden of responsibility to the people they grew up with. Kutala Firmino describes how “the history of the Pomfret population is very recent, so [the] people who were affected are still alive. Some of these stories were hidden for a reason.”
The two artists, instead, translate several of these stories into fairy tales, which serve the dual purpose of appeasing the community and metaphorising the narratives into something more universal. One such fairy tale is that of the Crocodile Lover, a performance by Kutala Chopeto which took place at the Goodman Gallery in Cape Town in 2017, and which, for both artists was a stand-out piece in their oeuvres. A procession comprising the two performers in stark white cotton and dripping palm oil, the piece uses recited text and movement to tell the story of a woman seduced by a soldier on the banks of the Okavango. She realises, too late, that the man is in fact a scaly beast with dangerously sharp teeth. The crocodile brutally ravaging the woman is a parable for the violence of marriages in Pomfret.
Both the women and men in Pomfret suffer the traumas of war, poverty and displacement, but it is the women who are subjected to further pain through a second wave of trauma: rape, abuse, negligence and torture. Many of them experienced violence, and some were even killed by their partners. Those who survived could not trust the community for support, because society had normalised this violence. But, as Kutala Firmino clarifies, “we heal by retelling our stories”.
In her individual practice, Helena Uambembe employs a range of media and disciplines.
“The narrative can always be applied to any form of art. I believe that the act of making art is a performance in itself.” She draws on folklore and history, evidenced by the image of the buffalo which appears repeated in different works. The animal is both part of the insignia of the 32 Battalion and local mythology. In many parts of South Africa, the 32 Battalion is still referred to as the Buffalo Battalion. In her performances, installations, photographs, videos and prints, Uambembe uses a range of source materials, which are fragmented and repeated to make patterns and meaning. These she collects from people’s personal archives and from books, or (more recently) from fabric stores on Albertina Sisulu Street in central Johannesburg. From this extant imagery and her own creativity, she then carefully layers pieces and stories together to construct painfully honest works that present opportunities for catharsis. Uambembe is showing The Borders of Memory alongside Namibian artist Tuli Mekondjo at Guns & Rain Gallery in Johannesburg from 15 April, 2020.
In her own practice, Teresa Kutala Firmino also collects images – from magazines, newspapers, historical documents and social media. Elements from her performances show up in her paintings. A delicate pink tea set displayed at the Investec Cape Town Art Fair piece reappears in a recent painting, Pouring Privilege. The performative aspects of her work also translate into paintings: tableaus staged to look like sets, with a range of surreal characters acting out a play or dance within the frame. They pose and frolic and contemplate, with masked faces or enlarged heads. Here, the same technique of transforming real stories into fairy tales creates dramatic scenes in which the caricatured individuals have the opportunity to re-enact their stories or construct new ones. This process allows Kutala Firmino to create alternative past, present and future narratives of Africa, rebuilding her own archive of African history.
As women with the history of borders and displacement in their blood, Teresa Kutala Firmino and Helena Uambembe are liminal artists, and this shows in their variegated yet nuanced practices. While their careers continue to grow, in recognition of their talent and intellect, as well as the importance of the conceptual underpinnings of their work, they still look to home. As Kutala Firmino states, “Knowing who I am and where I come from gives me the courage to face the future with a different type of confidence.”
Written by Lena Sulik.
Lena Sulik is a Cape Town-based curator, writer and designer who has been involved behind the scenes in the South African art world since 2006.