Re-membering: Memory, Intimacy and Archive, an exhibition by Sharlene Khan, Reshma Chhiba and Jordache Ellapen is currently on at the Michaelis Gallery in Cape Town. Each of these artists use their personal experience to explore ideas about memory, race, class, gender and sexuality in South Africa.
Sharlene Khan incorporates video-art, digital photography and needle work in her Series titled When the Moon Waxes Red. Khan was influenced by the stories of the women in her family and those she heard while growing up in an Indian township. These stories of indenture; of women who hung, burned or drowned themselves in order to overcome social injustices; and of women living with abuse and poverty. The narratives are underpinned by women’s strength and their ability to endure great hardships. The Drowning Durga (see featured image) is a series of stills from Khan’s video which describes cycles of poverty, domestic violence and love.
Reshma Chhiba features work from her project Kali and The Two Talking Yonis whereby she uses the powerful goddess Kali to show women as strong, assertive beings. In Hindu mythology Kali is often depicted as bloodthirsty and murderous but she also has a compassionate side as the champion of women making her an ideal feminist figure. Inspired by the memory of her grandmother who left India for South Africa, Chhiba uses Hindu philosophy to address women’s power. She represents Shakti or feminine energy with the yoni (female genitalia) and the tongue.
Jordache Ellapen’s project titled, Queering the Archive:Brown Bodies in Ecstasy, examines intimacy, sexuality and the relationship between men. He was influenced by old family albums, Indian ‘pass’ documents and studio photographs of early Indian settlers found in archives. Ellapen’s work is a response to the lack of ‘Indian queer subjects’ found in South African visual material. The term ‘queer’ is used as a positive term in this context rather than as a derogatory one.
Within the South African Indian community gay stereotypes are popular as comic entertainment but serious depictions or discussions about homosexuality remain difficult. Ellepen challenges our accepted notions of masculinity and the manner in which history has depicted men.
All three artists approach notions of memory, ethnicity, intimacy and gender through their experiences as ‘Indians’ but the issues they confront are ultimately universal ones that we can all relate to.