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Mbali Dhlamini and the decolonial etymology of colour

South Africa is constituted through a myriad of textures; it’s a kaleidoscopic interweaving of constantly adaptive and evolving languages and cultures, and communicative gestures within this context often do not lie prostrate to colonial dialects of restrictive definition. Complex physical and metaphysical engagements are constantly operating through forms of language that imposed ontologies could never even begin to find the words for. Mbali Dhlamini, artist and co-coordinator of Artists Anonymous, speaks to some of these intricate entanglements of representation within her practice, and has often considered African Independent Churches (AICs) as sites of dynamically contested meaning-making, or as a way to access wider concerns related to the decolonisation of contemporary-cultural identity. Drawing inspiration from her childhood curiosity of Sundays in Soweto, where incredible palettes of colour would mystically unfurl and radically alter her visual landscape, Dhlamini carefully listens to this often-unheard etymology as a transmission of alternative articulations that intercept dominant, dichotomising narratives or preconceived notions of monotheistic spiritually as being inherently westernised.

Mbali Dhlamini installtion view

Like the imphepho sometimes burnt at her multimedia installations, colour can operate to heighten senses and perceptions and alter the parameters of understanding. The symbolic colours utilised within AIC garments, often delivered to church leaders through dreams, reflect uniquely African idioms which prompt a radical re-learning. While white may have been violently thrust upon the precolonial body as a way to capture and contain, the incomprehensible and incorporeal could never be served through such insipid specification. The vitality of progressive spiritual practice within South Africa is constantly reconstituting its own vernaculars against anaemic appropriation; while umbala may translate to ‘colour’ in English, in Zulu, the meaning is constantly shifting and so it cannot be arrested by dominating dialects. These invocations are often connected to fabric and clothing through ideas of ritual preparation and transformation, as well as questions of how what we wear (both physically and symbolically) comes to carry our form. Dhlamini feels that there are significant lessons here for issues of representation and identity and laments that these can be lost if everything is viewed through the registers of oppositional logic that embrace static constructs like ‘traditional’ and ‘modern’- the complexities of human existence require far more rigorous and unsettled narratives; something resonate with the twilight of ubomvu (red), which expands and transcends the dichotomy of ubumyama (darkness) and ukukhanya (lightness)…

All works below were taken from Mbali Dhlamini’s project titled: Non Promised Land




All works below were taken from Mbali Dhlamini’s project titled: Spirituality and Colour

Mbali-Dhlamini.Amakholwa-Apostolic-Church.2015_1340_c Mbali-Dhlamini.-Seaparo-Sa-Moya--Se-Halalelang.2015_1340_c Mbali-Dhlamini.-Mopostola-O-motle.2015_1340_c Mbali-Dhlamini.-St-Jewel-Apostolic-Church.2015_1340_c

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