Inspiring people to re-imagine their relationship to their world

Exhibition as Storyteller

Angelique Michaels
Published on

Candles flicker and coloured wax hardens in streaks across dark soil. Earth, scattered with seeds and adorned with flowers and fruit, tells a story of offering, honouring and abundance, of relationship to nature.

In words encircling this earth-mound, the beginning of a Community Manifesto takes shape at the feet of anyone present to witness it.: “Forgiveness”, “Dignity”, “Community”, “Respect”.

This circle with earth at its centre, finding expression in various contexts, would serve as a powerful vehicle for transcultural and intergeneration dialogue.

The healing power in processes of witnessing, and being witnessed, that an exhibition makes possible is granted new meaning by the material and symbolic preparations preceding its enactment. Before its opening ceremony, a space conceived of as sacred, calls for an attentivity to the elements and materials constituting it.

On the day of this exhibition, intentions were set, and prayers offered while imphepho burned. Practices like these contribute to the re-signification of space as sacred by giving tangible expression to the traditions and stories that precede and transcend them. This process is expanded when rituals turn witnesses into active participants.

Following the drumming and opening song, people attending the exhibition each placed a handful of earth on the mound at its centre. Through this practice, at once material and symbolic, those attending re-enact the earth ritual originally performed by the community, and through its re-enactment, for a moment, everyone present is brought into direct relationship with one another and those they’ve come to bear witness to.

When tactile, textured displays, of content, light, sound, and spatial composition meets with an awareness of the genealogies and histories in material things and the symbolic and dynamic lives preceding and outliving them, an exhibition is transformed into a political and symbolic site where social change and transformation can be facilitated.

Yet, even with an understanding of the power of place, and the transformative potential of elements and materials, these, to a large extent, would remain latent and untapped without the practices and symbolic enactments that imbue matter with life and meaning.

Ritual is the cultivation of this embodied entanglement with nature, elements, materials, people, and places. It is a practiced intimacy with matter as performative and responsive; of spaces informing relations; and of the stories articulated through them.

Harnessing the performative potential of ritual in exhibition-making and the creation of narrative space, draws people into relationship with place, and the cultural processes and natural elements constituting it. This relationality performed through ritual, when not just conceptually understood, but practiced, transforms materials into technologies and, through it, brings processes, publics, and places into being.

This celebration of practices previously devalued, the conscious creation of platforms for stories formerly muted, in our context, facilitates healing precisely because it speaks back to histories of trauma to land and to people. Here, legacies of colonialism and Apartheid bleed into relations, spaces, materials, and memories. Here, traumas intersect with narratives of progress and development, which in their veneration of all things deemed modern, have disregarded indigenous knowledge systems, devalued traditions and severed relations to land, place, and history. In contexts like these, material practices that align nature with ritual and community, can serve to re-signify exhibition as storyteller, and facilitator of the healing and social transformation that the contemporary moment calls for.

For many participants in the Sustainable Together project, what was most affirming was being witnessed in a space traditionally associated with things of value, things worth remembering, preserving, celebrating. Suspended between wooden frames were moments forever etched into memory: of rituals enacted, hands clapping, land tilled, people gathered at the Kariega River in garments that celebrate who they are, and where they come from.

It was seeing themselves reflected back in high definition, photographed and framed. It was the echoes of their words, prayers, songs, and visions; their voices filling a room, that communicated a powerful and necessary message: ‘There is worth, and wealth here. These stories matter’.

- Angelique Michaels, Facilitator, Return to Origin

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