From the Archives: Sangomas and the Sacred Power of Earth

Zulu woman in Natal, South Africa. Photograph by Constance Stuart Larrabee, 1949. EEPA 1998-060947 Constance Stuart Larrabee Collection Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives National Museum of African Art Smithsonian Institution

Zulu woman in Natal, South Africa.
Photograph by Constance Stuart Larrabee, 1949.
EEPA 1998-060947
Constance Stuart Larrabee Collection
Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives
National Museum of African Art
Smithsonian Institution

Thabiso Phokompeʼs paintings and assemblages are meant to tie directly with concepts of the earth. Through his materials and visual cues, Phokompe seeks get closer to the spiritual and political power of the earth, and regain a sense of connectedness to the land that sometimes now seems to get lost in the din. He also describes how declaring himself to be a “child of the earth” was a political act in South Africa during the Apartheid years when he and his fellow Zulu did not have the right to own their land.  As he says in his artistʼs statement on his website (http://www.phokompe.com), “…the earth has always been part of everything.”

Phokompe illustrates vividly this notion in his two works included in Earth Matters: Untitled #13 (2001) and Bambezela (2012). The former, created while he lived near Johannesburg, South Africa, reflects organic forms and pigments, natural materials and the working of the artistʼs hand. The latter was created after Phokompe moved to Brooklyn.  Its grid pattern and sand paper are reflective of the rhythms of city streets and new construction. Despite their visual differences, both pieces utilize found materials taken directly from a place that Phokompe called home and both illustrate his ongoing interest in re-using and reinvigorating discarded materials.

Phokompe describes his mother, a Zulu sangoma (diviner), as an early influence.  Her ability to create a sacred space with simple objects fuels his attraction to found objects and informs his fascination with muti, or medicine bundles activated by a sangoma to communicate with the ancestors, heal, and restore order. Earth is also a central ingredient of muti.

This photograph (1949) by Constance Stuart Larrabee of an unnamed Zulu sangoma presents the spiritual leader as strong and calm, a stoic force in the midst of the crowd that fills the background. The beaded headdress and fur near her neck marks this women as an important figure in the community, someone respected for her ability to commune with the ancestors. She bears the marks of someone empowered to locate the source of a problem or illness, and set muti into action.

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