In a family photo, four black women frolic on a beach. A carefree and happy moment, apparently. Then you learn the context: Port Elizabeth, South Africa, mid-1970s. The country’s apartheid regime legislated on every conceivable aspect of race relations; beach segregation took time, but by the 1970s it was firmly in place.

The photograph – a bit chipped from having been hidden away in drawers for years – has been enlarged to the size of a wall and placed to the left of the entrance to the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds. He’s here to whet the appetite of anyone who wants to know more about Lungiswa Gqunta, the young South African artist whose work is now on display in this northern English town.

Sleep as a witness consists of two installations, plus a film and a sound piece. It’s a show about sleep and dreams, water and healing, landscape, memory and history. Through its ideas and materials, the exhibition confronts head-on the legacies of colonialism and is the artist’s most personal exhibition to date.

A wider view of 2022’s ‘Ntabamanzi’ shows its wave-like shape filling an entire room © Rob Harris

Gqunta, who was born in 1990, struggled with the wording of the title, but the notion of sleep – informed by her Xhosa heritage – is the clear starting point. “Dreams are taken seriously – I grew up with it,” she says on Zoom from Leeds, where she puts the finishing touches on the show. “It’s like a language and I want to open up to it.”

Dreams can take you somewhere else. Sometimes they force you to work so hard that you wake up exhausted, feeling like you haven’t slept at all, she says. But sleep and dreams are a pathway to knowledge, a connection to your ancestors. The content of dreams was often discussed the next morning in her home in New Brighton Township, Port Elizabeth when she was a child. She talks about a recent dream in which she was walking in the ocean between waves as solid as mountains. “I woke up amazed by the view I saw because it was really beautiful,” she says. “I thought I was in two places at once – and feeling two very contradictory things.”

Gqunta completed a first degree in sculpture at Nelson Mandela University in Port Elizabeth, followed by an MFA at the University of Cape Town. At the time I was in Leeds to see her show, Gqunta was heading home to Cape Town, but her dream story came to mind when I walked in. For ‘Zinodaka’ (2022), she created a richly toned ‘wall-to-wall landscape’, spreading a mixture of terracotta clay and sand on the floor and dotting it with rock sculptures of translucent blue glass. Then comes “the sea”: “Ntabamanzi” (2022) is a monumental “drawing in space”, a delicate sculpture in the shape of an immense blue wave; its color draws on that of the watery blue “rocks” next to it.

An art installation consisting of a cracked clay surface strewn with boulder-like objects

Lungiswa Gqunta’s 2022 artwork ‘Zinodaka’ at the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds

On closer inspection, the boulder-like objects are small sculptures of bluish glass

A detail of the mini glass sculptures of ‘Zinodaka’ (2022) © Rob Harris (2)

The slave trade may be a reference, but the wall text highlights a less obvious point: that for many black Africans the ocean is a place of healing and purification – but under apartheid , black water spiritual practices have become crimes. Clusters of silver coins embedded in the installation symbolize a restoration, post-apartheid, water-based rituals and, optimistically, a path opens under the crest of the wave. You enter at your own risk, as the wave is made of barbed wire.

Gqunta spent seven months tying the strands of barbed wire in blue cloth so that only the small spikes remained uncovered. They shine by catching the light. It reminded me of her previous piece “Lawn” (2016), where she used shattered bottles filled with green liquid to suggest the violent history that white society’s exclusive green spaces are based on. The beauty of such pieces draws you in, and then, before you know it, you’re mired in the work’s shocking message.

An art installation made up of several broken bottles filled with a green liquid
A detail of Gqunta’s 2016 installation ‘Lawn’ © Courtesy the artist/Whatiftheworld gallery

“Apartheid had a start date and an end date,” she says. “Colonialism hides in the structures: we still live with it. Taken in the violence of what she was directing, Gqunta took time to perceive the effectiveness of the trap she was setting for viewers, but now appreciates it. “Nobody wants to have difficult conversations,” she says. “But we have to find a way to get them.”

Her work challenges the ‘don’t touch’ norm of gallery spaces. “With ‘Zinodaka’, you have to walk on the clay, feel it crack under you, leave your footprints and maybe take some of it with you,” says Laurence Sillars, director of the Henry Moore Institute and curator of the ‘exposure. “Lungiswa wants you to feel that you are entering a different territory and wondering if you are allowed to. There’s an unease she wants people to feel – and an awareness of what they’re doing that becomes more intense with the barbed wire.

A work of art made from razor wire and found fabrics

“Benisiya Ndawoni” by Gqunta (2018)

A close-up detail shows the razor wire barbs juxtaposed against floral fabric

A close-up detail of ‘Benisiya Ndawoni’ shows the razor wire barbs © Courtesy the artist/Whatiftheworld gallery (2)

The exhibition ends with “Gathering” (2019), a poetic 15-minute film, accompanied by a bewitching sound work, in which Gqunta evokes the domestic ritual of folding sheets remembered from his childhood. The practice will be a familiar memory for many, whether black or white, but Gqunta presents it as a special time when, as adult and child grow closer to the beat of the bend, a curious child might be able to ask a burning question, and the strategies for survival in the world can be passed down from generation to generation.

With “Gathering”, the artist looks back on his childhood, and these happy women on the beach turn out to be his mother and his aunts (all “mothers”, as far as Gqunta is concerned). In these plays, the personal meets the political in a moving and thought-provoking fusion – even if it wasn’t what Gqunta intended. “I had a long spiritual relationship with water, but I didn’t try to have it in my work,” she says. “It crept in, just like dreams, and I thought, OK, this is where I am, I can’t deny fate.”

As of October 30, henry-moore.org

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