By Sonya Solanki
The Spirals talk ‘Imperial Fevers, Invisible Lives’ by Dr Edna Bonhomme, shone light on the intersections between colonialism and Black health, the importance of Black feminism, traditional healing and curatorial practices in the area of medicine. This reflection will unpack the cruciality of each of these, with a view on the type of curatorial practices that should be pursued for Black health to thrive in the South African context.
Pandemics and disease have a history of plaguing Black populations across the world. Noted further, is the persisting infection of African colonies by their colonial powers. An example of this includes the Democratic Republic of Congo where Belgian colonialism severely weakened the public health system. It was also a Belgian citizen who carried COVID-19 into the country (Bonhomme, 2019; Bonhomme, 2020). In South Africa, this narrative has also endured since colonialism with the smallpox epidemic of 1713, for instance, disproportionally affecting the Khoisan population versus the White colonists (South African History Online, 2011).
South Africa’s first major national health disaster, the Spanish Influenza of 1918, was brought to the country by WWI soldiers. Many of these, Black soldiers who served as periphery support soldiers, were unable to bear arms under South African legislation (Phillips, 2020). How ironic then, that in the contemporary the COVID-19 virus was first introduced to South Africa by a Euro-travelled male, and that township communities have been the most severely affected – ultimately causing an unprecedented economic constriction, widespread loss of jobs, homes, and collective mental instability (Patel & Steinhauser, 2020; Wiysonge, 2020). Women are particularly affected, being further entrenched in the informal labour market, more likely to be living in poverty and earning less than male counterparts (Gordon & Parry, 2020).
This gives rise to the essential role of transnational Black feminism. This is a longstanding movement, arising out of the condition of being black and a woman and is characterized by a multifaceted approach to emancipation, and multifaceted obstacles (Peterson, 2019). South Africa’s Black October in 1918, Europe’s Black Death in the mid-fourteenth century and rampant overtones of Africa connected with HIV-AIDS, Ebola, Zika epidemics, show the gross bastardization of Black health (Alemu et al., 2010; De Kadt et al., 2020:1-4). How then, can Black feminism be enacted in the realm of public healthcare, especially when the odds are so stacked against women?
Both Dr Edna Bonhomme and Associate Professor Nomusa Makhubu alluded to curatorial practices in Black health feminism as one of the answers to this question, and the notion of care as being an integral aspect of Black, queer and feminist tradition. Dr Bonhomme and Nnena Onuoha’s Cartographies of Care trace the modalities of healing found in the Afrodiasporic community through ancestral archives, the healing arts and the imagining of Black futures (Contemporary And, 2020). Ingrid Lafleur’s ongoing exhibitions in Afrofuturism (such as Manifest Destiny) seek to curate spaces in which the imagining of Black destiny may be shifted, and also draws on the importance of ancestral wisdom and spiritual technology. She challenges the perception of Black bodies being unhealthy, and the unhealthy relationship with Black bodies (Espy, 2019; Faramarzi & Nkinzingabo, n. d.). Audre Lorde’s Cancer Journals is an important example in the archiving of lived Black queer, female experience with disease and the overcoming of female defeat in the wake of breast prosthesis (Zakaria, 2016). Toni Morrison’s Home although fictional, draws important parallels between the ignominies of slavery, its effect on Black mentalities and the traditional healing power of women, a vestige of resistance to the violence of the patriarchal modern medical industry (Penguin Random House, 2021).
In South Africa, traditional healing and the drawing of ancestral wisdom has long fallen under the polemic of colonial stigmatization of Black magic, heresy and the sangoma. Khoisan thought was transferred through mythology, stories and rituals that were united in the belief of the spiritual universe and the idea that human and spiritual realms should be in reciprocal communication. Today, the sangoma’s deliverance of muthi (traditional medicine), is still based on divination, occult readings, and dream interpretation. Despite extensive Western imperialist legislation against this practice, the associations of indigenous healing with disease, and the difficulties with integrating African Christian and spiritual beliefs, indigenous healing remains an integral but eclipsed aspect of Black South African culture (Black, 2016; Wallace, 2015).
With indigenous and traditional healing in South Africa still falling into a place of shadow and doubt, are there ways in which we can shift this narrative through work in the curatorial? Can we take inspiration from the work of Dr Bonhomme and Toni Morrison in creating archives that depict the healing powers of the sangoma, and facilitate the de-stigmatization of the supernatural, herbalism and magic? How can we curate safe spaces and continuous discourse that free Black women from the burden of caring, the legacy of domination and the misogyny associated with ancestral healing- to being cared for, understood and unrestricted to explore the art of healing Black bodies?
Watch the recording of the discussion between Dr Bonhomme, Dr Makhubu and researchers from the affiliated institutions, here.
Sonya Solanki is an Honours in Curatorship student at the Michaelis School of Fine Art. Through her research, she hopes to uncover the meaning and importance of deeply creative acts to the individual and collective feminine journey, using her experience in dance as a foundation for this.
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