And she was
wearing trousers:
a call to our heroines

Naomi Velaphi

An archive; a process

...without an understanding of where we have come from, we are less likely to be able to make sense of where we are going - Margaret Busby

In 2017 after the birth of my first child I had a hunger to lean into my ancestral history and determine what legacy might look like for my new found family. Since then I had also returned to Zimbabwe to reconnect with family and in this time ended up meeting with historian, writer and publisher Pathisa Nyathi who was going to write about my father and his migration story to Australia and my late uncle and his role in the liberation struggle. At our meeting in the surroundings of the Bulawayo National Gallery, he shared with me a stack of publications, one of which was about Ndebele Queen Lozikeyi Dlodlo. This book kicked off an intrigue into what influential women existed who had a significant impact on Zimbabwean history and culture. It was hard to come by an archive like this as collecting and preserving Zimbabwean culture has been limited due to ongoing political instability.

Reflecting on these two moments, led to a conversation with my collaborator and co-curator Roberta Joy Rich about what types of archives exist here in so called Australia as pointers to the history of our connection to the continent and the African diaspora.  As anticipated, physical archives were limited and from there our minds were off learning more about those that came before us, those who inspire us and those who we wanted to share conversations with. Margaret Busby known as Britain’s first Black publisher and editor speaks of tradition and history as nurturing spirits for women of African descent and explains that without an understanding of where we have come from, we are less likely to be able to make sense of where we are going. [1]

A bright orange book with a monochrome image of an African woman on its cover reads "Lozikeyi Dlodlo, Queen of the Ndebele". It sits on a light brown table, with printed material adjacent that has text that is out of focus.

As curators our lived experience as second generation African diaspora women from the Southern region has raised constant questions of where we find ourselves in an Australian, African and global context. This led to many initial points of inquiry around where and how we can be seen, what histories can we learn about our heritage when our own voiced histories are new, or what were common experiences of peers in search of something similar? Libraries only had books on Mandela and Mugabe, visits back to the continent were short and dotted with tourist experiences, all whilst yearning for our Aunty or cousin to share more about life back on the continent.

And she was wearing trousers: a call to our heroines is a response to this inquiry - it’s layered, complex and iterative. Through ongoing conversations it continues to grow and change shape each day we visit it. This exhibition as much as it celebrates, unearths and rejoices in women from Southern Africa who teach us about ways of being, it has tendrils that reach and connect us with female artists of the Southern Africa and diaspora to collaboratively voice these histories around politics, music and liberation.

It brings together a culmination of a series of conversations with artists of the Southern African diaspora in Australia and those on the continent around how female figures in Southern African history serve as entry points into reimagining and understanding the Black female experience in the past and then into the future.

We invited Nontsikelelo Mutiti, Jabu Nadia Newman, blk banaana, Kirsty Marillier, Rara Zulu, Tariro Mavondo and Sethembile Msezane to respond to the discovery, legacy and character of significant female figures - Brenda Fassie, Thenjiwe Lesabe, Dorothy Masuka, Princess Krotoa and Queen Lozikeyi.  Bringing together artists across forms including playwriting, film, performance, graphic design and music, this project aims to stretch the possibilities of how we communicate as peers, community and members of a far reaching diaspora. The focus on these women was also driven by their lack of visibility and/or the strength of their character questioned during their time which spans from the 16th century to today. 

This exhibition as much as it celebrates, unearths and rejoices in women from Southern Africa who teach us about ways of being, it has tendrils that reach and connect us with female artists of Southern Africa and the diaspora to collaboratively voice these histories around politics, music and liberation.

As Brenda Fassie states, “I’m a shocker. I like to create controversy. It’s my trademark.” [2]  Fassie was a seminal artist who for many Southern Africans represents power, style and a fierceness, yet the media demonised her and the focus lay on her substance abuse and unapologetic lifestyle.

When speaking with artist and educator Nonstikelelo Mutiti about Brenda Fassie, such labels were no barrier and she was immediately seen as iconic. This inspired the work Memeza - a Zulu word meaning to call or to cry out,  is also the name of a Brenda Fassie hit single. The site specific installation created for the arched windows of Arts House use Mutiti’s signature graphic motif of braids spelling out the word MEMEZA, each punctuated by found graphic images of Fassie’s performative gestures. These include clapping, caressing, punching and grasping, all of which are faceless, inviting the audience themselves to consider what these gestures might evoke on the street front of North Melbourne. The space these prints occupy is upon a large colonial building, further highlight the acts of defiance and the power these gestures hold. As the first work to be viewed by the audience as they enter the building, the strength expressed through the work Memeza and the way in which it wraps around the building, become a gesture themselves holding the other works inside the building and lifting the audience into a space where works speak to one another.

Female musicians of Southern Africa played a key role in shaping the identity of Black women and how they were perceived in the West. Many know of Miriam Makeba but many don’t know that Dorothy Masuku(a) [3] wrote many of her songs and this lack of visibility was of interest to us. Dorothy Masuku(a) similarly to Fassie, was an icon in Southern Africa. As we went deeper into who they were as people and the place and time that their music was being shared, it revealed perspectives of the African female experience which had a specificity, showcasing a certain strength, power and ability to be major influencers of their time. Both were also staunch, politically driven and unafraid. It’s these nuanced moments we have collectively discovered and nurtured which help shape a new dialogue of how southern African artists can connect back into modes of cultural production and culture building when often much of it feels lost.

A pine wooden frame holds a small screen that shows an image of an African woman in monochrome. She is wearing a black leather jacket, a beret, has big earrings and is posing with her arms up, one hand holding her long braids out. The pine wood frame is surround by a black colour background.
An arched window within a Victorian-era colonial style building made of stone and its curves and architectural shapes create shadows from the sun shining brightly on the window. Inside the maroon painted window frame is a black and white print, made up of braid like motifs making three vertical columns, with body parts of arms and hands holding a microphone in the one hand emerge from the braid motif..

As we continued to look into further archives, namely an anthology book of Women Writing Africa [4] and the story of Queen Lozikeyi Dlodlo [5], it was clear amongst African Australian diaspora artists there was a lack of access and sparse knowledge about many of these stories. Initiating new commissions with artists allowed space for discovery, conversation and connection. Key texts were identified collectively and as the project was developed during the peak of COVID, much of the work unpacking these was done so online. Public and private archival collections from the continent were also accessed to ground the new reflections in the historical context. These specific texts, images and short videos were held in two wooden vitrines in Studio One- the first of the internal spaces within Arts House.

Two works sat alongside this archival content: the short film ISIMO by Sethembile Msezane and Auntie’s Curtain, created by a collective of African diaspora women based in Naarm (Melbourne). The intention of the space was to present a contemporary representation of the Black female figure. ISIMO in particular is centered around a woman wearing a beaded mask- a familiar symbol of Msezane’s work- traversing Hoerikwaggo (colonially known as Table Mountain) in Cape Town, in search of a way of healing the wounded world. The setting feels timeless, like it could be from the future or the past and this sensibility evoked through this short film aims to harness the fact that women have always been here caring, holding space and nurturing the land and the children throughout history and into the future. Directly opposite this piece is Auntie’s curtain, a textile that holds many stories and symbols from Afro-diaspora women in Naarm and together with ISIMO the intent is to shift and empower the narrative of the Black female experience.

A perspex display unit has printed material and books inside, sitting on an MDF table with a black background. Inside the display from left, is a print of a drawing of an African indigneous woman, next to it a printed text, beside a yellow book titled Women Writing Africa that has a colourful artwork on its book cover..
In the foregrund is a wooden display box with perspex covers, housing a collection of printed texts, books and photographic material situated in a dark room. On the left side, faintly spotlit is a curved seat, in front of a large projection screen that is slightly out of focus. It appears to have an African woman with a face covering, wearing a white dress is lying in a mountainous rock surface.

Auntie’s Curtain also made very visible the faces of the women we had been exploring. This textile creation was influenced by the political style fabrics one would see to celebrate the likes of Mandela. To expand this narrative we enlarged archival images of the significant women we were researching for the screenprint; Brenda Fassie and Dorothy Masuku reflecting music and performance and Princess Krotoa, Thenjiwe Lesabe and Queen Lozikeyi who all had strong influence in politics and policies across centuries. I focus for a moment on Thenjiwe Lesabe, who in our research was extremely hard to locate in depth information on, and both myself and artist Tariro Mavondo found ourselves referring back to family and peers in Zimbabwe to see what we could discover. These anecdotes alongside a series of images we were able to access via SAHA  (though unable to show in the exhibition due to copyright issues) started to reveal her influence in politics, the liberation struggle, and the invisible work of women in particular, she was doing across her career in politics.

Studio Two aims to take the audience into a space of layers, texture and complexity through sound and video. As a more performative experience for the audience, the works in this space are all housed within a timber frame referencing their connectedness. The structure encourages the audience to move through the space, initiating many viewpoints and listening points for the works. The works were also arranged on a loop of sound, video and silence, so for some the experience was full bodied, whereas for others it may be more fractured. This again speaks to our experience of a connectedness developed with peers and the fractured nature of our archives and history. These works can be seen as one installation reframing the stories and archives of these women.

There was a particular process we created around responding to archives of these heroines. We invited Kirsty Marillier, Jabu Nadia Newman, Rara Zulu and blk banaana to take part in an exercise where contrasting contexts and forms would generate new ways of talking about these histories, a call if you like, to a new way of reading histories. Australian based artists Kirsty and Rara shared their work, inspired by Princess Krotoa and Dorothy Masuka respectively, as a new form - a reimagined archive, with South African based artists Jabu and blk banaana, who then created new works inspired by histories and now peers. Kirsty, is an actress and playwright, Jabu, a filmmaker, Rara, a musician and blk banaana, a collage artist. The layering of all their disciplines and creative forms enabled artworks that emerged to truly speak to the complex identities we hold as Black and Brown women in our immediate and global context.

A dark room has two video projections, one hanging above the low spotlit timber structure, and the other is playing on a small TV monitor that is attached to the timber structure. The larger screen has white, blue, green and red colours creating an abstract image, the middle inverted looks like it could be a group portrait. The smaller screen has small yellow text on a white rose with green and pink colours, creating an abstract image.
A large timber wood structure making square and rectangle geometric shapes, is free standing in a dark room with wooden floorboards and black curtains along its walls. The spotlit wooden structure has speakers on its top shelf, with cords neatly coiled on the shelf below and a large base speak on the floor. Above the timber, is a hanging screen with a projection that is not fully visible in sight, but has a blue backgrund and red and purple abstract lines at the centre. Behind the timber structure on the left is a green curved seat, also spot lit, adjacent to faint navy blue light that is hitting the back curtains surface. On the right side of the structure, is the back of a small TV monitor that is mounted to the other side of the wood.

This act of ‘calling and responding’ to one another stemmed from an interest in the importance of oral archives and the stories captured within this. Orality as a practice is a long standing feature of global indigenous, Black and Brown communities. The women we explore are significant orators in their ability, skills and powerful influence and encourage a type of ‘call and response’ for collective action. While Fassie and Masuku call for change through song, Lesabe and Lozikeyi lay important political groundwork, in an illusive but significant call of action within community. Krotoa too, like all these women, negotiates a means of access and power through her oral practice as a translator that also raises deeper questions into the legacies of these women and how their oral practices of ‘call and response’ resonate within the diaspora and African continent.

Upon entry to Studio Two, Kirsty’s video work Slide into my displacement on view, is a literal call via DM (direct message) to Princess Krotoa, speaking to the yearning of a history and identity she can’t quite grasp. Adjacent, Jabu’s video work A Bedtime Story acts as a love letter to an imagined contemporary ‘Kro’ and all the things she wishes she could tell her through the form of a creation story.

Noli, a four channel sound installation by Rara Zulu starts the call in the space as an electronic soul based soundtrack highlighting the freedom of the woman described in Dorothy Masuku(a)’s original track ‘Nolishwa’. blk banana’s video collage housed above this in line with the frame, carries forth the ideas of women being free, referencing June Jordan’s A poem for South African Women-  a commemoration of the 40,000 women and children who protested against the ‘dompas,’ an identity card which dictated what public spaces one was allowed to occupy. [6]

The commanding yet dulcet sounds of Tariro’s spoken word piece Heroines Walk completes the sonic experience, as she plays homage to the often silent work of many women in Zimbabwe. Heroines Walk  revives the voices of the likes of Thenjiwe Lesabe and Mbuya Nehanda, and is inspired by both physical and spiritual realms, the personal and political.

A dark room has a spotlit timber wood frame structure on the left, with a small monitor TV screen mounted upon it with a grey abstract image, faces a large flatscreen monitor on the right that shows an instagram direct message conversation.
A dark room shows a series of wooden timber frame geometric structres standing on 90 degree angles. There is a small light installed at the top of the timber frame in the foreground, emitting purple light that is being reflected on the timber surface. Behind are more timber structures all low spotlit, and above is a hanging projection screen with green, white and blue light, making a head-like shape. In the far distance is video screen that looks like it could be a series of text messages being displayed..
A dark room with black curtains in the background has a spotlit wooden timber shelf structure strecthing across the foreground. On its shelf, are four small black speakers. In the background reflecting on the black curtains is a dark blue light making a trianglur shape with wavy light shadow markings.

The term archive comes with a weight. Often based around a material document or library, societies have attempted to control readings of history, and for African history, the written has superseded spoken word as a dominant approach to research, undermining the local claims for sovereignty which we also see in the context of so-called Australia.

Whilst much of the research and learning for this exhibition has been derived from such material documentation, there is a tension around collecting and extracting that has taken place, and the rich insights we have been able to access through such archives. In thinking about the archive, this project seeks to highlight the absences, reimagine, and create a new ‘archive’. An archive where readings and perspectives held within the oral histories, anecdotes and artworks we are cultivating through peers, are as important as those found on the shelf of a library and we aim to honour that in this exhibition.

Installation images by Jody Haines.

An African woman with big curly hair wearing a black long sleeve top and dark denim jeans smiles quietly in front of a red brick wall.

Naomi is an arts producer born on Whadjuk Noongar country, residing in Naarm. She strives to nurture artists' work and practices exploring alternative narratives, radical thought and deep connection. Centered on producing the work of contemporary, diverse and interdisciplinary artists, her experience spans working for and amongst galleries, festivals and performance spaces. Through her independent practice she aims to unearth honest and generous collaborations between artists, producers, curators and presenters and create pathways for new work creation. She is the co-curator of And she was wearing trousers: a call to our heroines.