An Exhibition Review
by Shameelah Khan and Aasif Bulbulia
A few months ago, artists Cheriese Dilrajh and Hemali Khoosal invited Aasif Bulbulia to participate in a research project about the experiences of current and former Mayfair and Fordsburg residents. In the process of being interviewed, Aasif reflected on the role that these neighbourhoods played in shaping his worldview and perspective, while sharing personal stories about his upbringing in the area.
Resonating with Aasif’s journey, Shameelah embarked on her own shared experience of conversations around the intersections of Fordsburg and Mayfair. Having spent many of her childhood years growing up on Mayfair’s 5th Avenue, she recalls her memories of staying next to the mosque where the sounds of the athaan filled the foggy sky at the early morning prayer or the magical-stretched-out years at her primary school.
Both Shameelah and Aasif remember the Oriental Plaza as a site which held a great deal of significance throughout their respective childhoods. In later years, they would come to learn about the entanglement of this site with complex histories of forced displacement, collective fragmentation, and intergenerational trauma. As we struggle to make sense of our historical experiences, which continue to linger in the collective consciousness of the communities that have shaped Mayfair and Fordsburg, new artistic forms have allowed for meaningful exploration of what these histories could represent.
In Passing, a joint exhibition by artists Cheriese Dilrajh and Hemali Khoosal, explores the complexities of movement, migration, and Mayfair. As per the exhibition’s description, “the artists started an oral histories project based in Fordsburg and Mayfair. Through recording conversations with people from these areas, they explored the layering of experiences of displacement. Their audio-visual installation focuses on the dynamic between ex-residents who were forcibly removed during the Group Areas Act, and people who have migrated from other countries more recently. The project reveals underlying past histories and current realities”.
Tucked away on the periphery between Newtown and Fordsburg, the exhibition is a stone’s throw from the Oriental Plaza. It is carefully curated in a dark room, where light, colour, and personal stories matter. Dilrajh explains that darkness is a deliberate choice: “If light is what we already know, then darkness is what we don’t know, and that’s what I gravitate towards”.
Diving into the possibilities of the unknown, where play and new worlds are created, both Dilrajh and Khoosal explore the notion of fragmentation, unearthing the fleeting experience of time. “Time passes differently when you’re experiencing it through a screen,” says Khoosal, “or if you’re stuck in the same space because you’re stuck in lockdown. It almost feels like time becomes this blur because you’re in some sort of loop.”
Upon entering, a poem greets each visitor, welcoming them into a new, re-imagined space, and summing up the core themes of the exhibition:
of people’s worlds,
and imprinted on this landscape ….
Thoughts and emotions
arise and dissolve
carrying residuals of lands passed
carrying words unspoken
Durban born artist Cheriese Dilrajh presents a striking body of work unearthing her personal historic narratives by weaving together sari material inherited from her grandmother and mother. Dilrajh explores new avenues of her own re-imagined history through a combination of interwoven tapestry, installation, projection, and collages. Dilrajh’s work is an ode to the women of her family. Not having any documentation of her maternal ancestors, she explores the socio-political archive, excavating the research and history around the indentured labourers brought from India to Kwa-Zulu Natal, specifically around the women who had come unmarried, widowed, or for sex work. Through her work, she unravels her own history, piecing together cloth that carry memory, a history of violence, love, imagination, and new dreams. It is in the interwoven generational narratives that Dilrajh navigates the landscape of her maternal lineage.
From the tightly woven colourful tapestry, threading together the meeting points of complex meaning-making, to the undraped hues in her nani’s saris. The blues for a once lived life, braving the ship across the Indian ocean, meeting the reds and the beaded-unknowns – a newness, a strange-ness. In the middle spaces that hold together the fragments of our lives, Dilrajh considers migration, identity, and language.
Dilrajh’s tapestry work is reminiscent of maps, flags, and borders, recreated through the surreal colours that South-Eastern cloth may carry and begin to reflect. On her tapestry and sari work, Dilrajh comments that it is,
“meant to be the contours of the landscape; women embodying the landscape and how they navigate the world. But also how everything is tied together, like I’m tied to them. Our fates are woven together. Maybe they didn’t get as much autonomy as I did. I’m lucky enough, like I’m not obligated in the same ways they were, in terms of the age at which they got married; not being bound by this limitation. I also feel that tapestry is not something that can be separated without violence, and there’s already so much violence inflicted.”
Even though Dilrajh had not been raised in Mayfair or Fordsburg, her key research interest is rooted in its familiarity. Her work navigates themes such as social practice, heritage, cultural work, and more importantly occupation, disruption, and migration.
“There’s a potential for solidarity here [in Fordsburg]; there are people from different parts of Africa, the Middle East, India, Pakistan who share so much but also exist on their own.”
In her collage work, Dilrajh presents a set of digital prints layered with familiar Fordsburg imagery. Using an almost utopian blend of multi-spatial realities contorting into one space, fragments of Fordsburg are presented in a zine-like manner. Accompanying the prints, is Dilrajh’s narrative voice taking us into the damp and dusty alleyways of Fordsburg Square, reminding both Aasif and Shameelah of their personal relationships to it. Dalrajh’s collages evoke laughter, reminiscence, and childhood nostalgia. Her work deliciously conjures up an intimate feeling of connectivity to these spaces that begin to feel like home. Anyone visiting the exhibition who is familiar with the social setting and spatial design of Fordsburg and Mayfair will resonate with her work, from the fluorescent lighting over the fake name brand shoes being sold to the smell of freshly made sweet meats to the many barber shops where soon-to-be brides have their hands decorated in henna patterns.
Dilrajh drew her inspiration for these collaged prints from simply walking through the space and interacting with the community who live in it and make it what it is today. Over the years, Fordsburg and Mayfair have become spaces of extreme movement, trauma, love, displacement, migration, poverty, and liminality. Possibly one of the more intriguing, interesting, and chaotic spaces to experience in Johannesburg, Fordsburg is an ocean of colour, culture, and curiosity. Speaking back to her collaged prints, Dilrajh notes:
“Even though capitalism is maybe bringing these people here [to] the other worlds… the disorienting nature of it firstly, but then the other worlds that may be possible. Which is why I put the sky on the floor in some places. Creating a dreamland of sorts. But also, the goods that come from… maybe they travelled the Indian ocean to get here. That also carries meaning. Or they imitate the actual goods, you know? Sometimes these plastic items are a mimicry of what the actual item is, and that’s also kind of special in some ways.”
The final piece to Dilrajh’s body of work sits in the center of the exhibition. A moulded, shaped body of a deceased, headless woman covered in material, is peacefully presented with visual overlays of the deep ocean and its mystical creatures projected onto her. An impeccably gut-wrenching piece that brings to the surface, the deeper existential questions inherent in Dilrajh’s work. The historical narrative of the deceased woman takes on a new life and form with an ocean of possibilities, where the limitlessness of creation and new cultures are re-born.
Dilrajh’s work explicates the notion of “renewal” or “rebirth”, that even though our ancestors are lost and lingering in the worlds we may never know or come to know, Dilrajh encourages us to think beyond the past and present, looking to the futures we want to radically dream into existence for ourselves. There is an ethereal, pulsating, and poetic language that thread together the intersections of Dilrajh’s work, from the past delicately woven through material, to the re-imaginings of a present space and voice in her mixed media collage, and to the ever-present body that forces us to think about what it feels like to die and come to life in a new future – a new space, a new life, a new way of dying… a new way to memorialise ourselves and our stories through our creative voice.
“We are everyone else around us. Yet we identify with this strange term, “South African Indian”. Also, to say, “you are the other now”, but you are actually within me.” Says Dilrajh.
Hailing from Lenasia, Hemali Khoosal explains that her “residual relationship” with Fordsburg, and her family’s experience of being fragmented from the area, meant that working in the space evoked some deeply personal feelings. Khoosal shares that her intention to understand and reveal this “space of many subspaces” has been instrumental in allowing her to see herself reflected in the stories that the team have documented. To a large extent, her description of this process is reflective of one of the central goals that she and Dilrajh set out to achieve:
“As soon as people start to see themselves in other people, and see their world reflected in a piece of art, then there’s this feeling of connection. Whether or not you fully understand this person’s experience, if there’s some thread of continuity between your story and theirs, then you are able to empathize. And if we can get people to do that, with stories that are different from theirs, then something special is happening.”
Khoosal sets out to examine the extent to which the different realities of people who inhabit the same space overlap. Using an apt metaphor, she explores “the ripple effect that one person can have in a space or looking at the ways in which two people can, for a moment – for a fleeting moment – have some intersection in their experiences”. Khoosal’s first body of work in the exhibition is centred around her exploration of fine art particularly using monotype prints of rich greys and deep white. While acknowledging that these intersections are not without their limitations, and while these experiences are “a lot more messy” than can be represented by neat, concentric circles, reflect a profound degree of hope in the possibilities of what might be uncovered in the temporal collision of different realities. Khoosal introduces experimental visual work, a playful approach to the spatial understanding of intersecting spaces like Lenasia, Mayfair, and Fordsburg. Seen in her visual work, Khoosal projects her experimental shorts in a colliding way against the wall, pulling the viewer into a new realm of spectatorship. Khoosal’s work is corporeal and rooted in repetition, non-linearity, and rhythmic soundscapes.
An important piece to look out for is the experimental documentary which the two had worked on together. The documentary takes us into the world of community members who had once lived in Fordsburg or Mayfair or continue to live in it now. It delves into their memories, concerns, and fears about the present and future of these areas. This is an archival project that is ongoing, according to Khoosal.
Underpinning this hope that appears to lie at the root of the team’s work, is the courage to dream, which both artists describe as a radical act. Dilrajh says, “in unravelling through the artistic or other forms, you can have an entry point to a different world which represents [a space to dream and play]”. Khoosal concludes, “If you’re unhappy with a specific social situation, and you allow yourself to dream, you can potentially bring a new world into being. Slowly, slowly.”
The exhibition, In Passing, runs from the 28th of August to the 17th of September 2021, at the Bag Factory Artist Studios, Johannesburg. Pre-bookings needed. To find out more, contact 064 270 5861 or 084 413 9528