Updated: Mar 2, 2021
With several pieces currently on exhibition at the Contemporary African Art Fair in London, a recent purchase by the University of South Africa and a new solo show opening today in Windhoek, Namibian artist Tuli Mekondjo's star is on the rise.
Visitors to these events will be treated to a tapestry of colours, images and textures, just as they might expect from a collection of mixed media art.
What they might not expect is the way it makes them feel. Beyond their aesthetic appeal, Mekondjo's pieces emanate a subtle sense of unease, a difficult-to-define dissonance, a hunch that things are not as they should be. Skies are the colour of clay; birds are not flying but falling; faded portraits bear crowns of gleaming gold. All of Mekondjo's latest works feature images of women that have been transferred to canvas by hand. They have an aged look about them, like those sepia prints of bare-breasted girls caught unceremoniously by colonial cameras, or the recoloured memories of long-lost relatives framed on living-room walls. The faces are unsmiling but benign, protective spirits trapped between films of paint and varnish. What elevates these images and intrigues the viewer is the way the artist has adorned and embellished them. In one piece, an image of Mekondjo's late mother is dressed in a chiffon-like covering of tiny white flowers. In another, the head of an otherwise naked figure is crowned with bright golden spikes, like a medieval mohican on an African Madonna. It is easy to read these iconographic pieces as a celebration of the mother figure, and for Mekondjo the connection is spiritual. Born in Kwanza-Sul and growing up partly in Nyango, Mekondjo didn't meet her grandmother until she was about eight years old. She recalls an instant connection with the woman who came running and ululating to greet her and her mother, and remembers being captivated by her deeply lined hands. “Everything disappeared and these hands were telling me a story.” She says this moment represents her birth as an artist, the time from which her own hands became busy making necklaces from her grandmothers' beads and drawing pictures for neighbourhood children. The story told by her grandmother's hands was one of toil – of tilling the fields and harvesting crops – and also a story of suffering. She had given birth to nine children but survived them all, including some who were killed in a bomb blast during the war. “She held all her children – and buried them – with those hands.” While her grandmother was to become her 'best friend' – an unconditional source of kindness and warmth – Mekondjo had already developed an unbreakable bond with her mother, and she still feels her presence today, looking on appreciatively as she works. She recalls her tears when, at the tender age of five, she watched her mother cycle away from her to leave for studies in the UK. She talks of the overwhelming grief and confusion she suffered after her mother's death when she was only 12, and the isolation she experienced in a “culture that doesn't talk”. For a society that has suffered the trauma of war, Mekondjo sees the failure to talk about painful emotions as a fatal flaw, and the root of the violence women endure. The artist pays visceral homage to the strength and support of her foremothers, quite literally feeding her canvasses with millet meal, 'cooking' the nutritious glue into clear layers of resin. This unusual choice of medium connects the artist's work with the labour of centuries of women who have planted, harvested, threshed, winnowed, pounded and cooked mahangu since the first Aawambo began farming in the north. Oshifima clings to Tuli's work in the same way that it clings to pots and cooking utensils in a village homestead, to mothers' hands and children's mouths, “a veneer that covers everything and brings the family together”. Anyone who has been weaned and raised on mahangu will instinctively respond to its significance as a symbol of life itself. Mekondjo's art is teeming with such symbols. Some, like the plants that enfold their female subjects in fronds of lime green and cobalt blue, are common metaphors for life, growth and abundance. For Mekondjo, they mirror the strength of women – the ones who plant and harvest – a visual nod to continuity and hope. “No matter how much hardship there is, things will get better. Where there are plants, there is life.” She started to include them after noticing their role as both background and foreground in a favourite photograph of her mother. “They need to be there. It's my way of keeping her spirit alive.” Other symbols are more enigmatic. A woman's face bears three lines of bright scarlet stitching. Could they represent the scars made by cutting with a traditional healer's blade? Emotional wounds, perhaps? The viewer is free to interpret, but the artist's intention is uniquely personal. For her, they are marks of togetherness, signifying the everlasting ties that bind her and her two siblings to their mother, beyond the physical world. Thread and togetherness also play a role in Mekondjo's larger works. Instead of using one large 'perfect' canvas, she deliberately chooses several smaller pieces, which she painstakingly stitches by hand. It's all about “keeping things together”, a commitment to the opportunity and beauty of imperfection. There is more puzzling symbolism in the birds that appear in her work, not in flight or song, but dangling downwards, seemingly lifeless. As the artist's verse implies, the bird is the perfect symbol of vulnerability and resilience. Like the women she has known, including herself, birds are both blessed and cursed with a magical strength that makes them tempting targets for attack. They are at once soft and strong, both fragile and unbreakable. She is Very much Bird Broken and Fragile Yet Strong enough To Survive She is As well as the contradictions so often embedded in such symbolism, there is something jarring about the stark juxtaposition of Mekondjo's earthy, humble portraits and the glorious halos that beautify them. Here, the artist has made no attempt to blend. Crowns and clothing hover over translucent resin layers, shamelessly superimposed. Like the women who emerged from the missions with shaven heads, their rightful crowns of braided clay shorn and discarded, the women we encounter in Mekondjo's works have been stripped and re-clothed. We are reminded of the brutal history our (female) forebears lived through. The leather that traditionally hung from beaded waists was replaced with a modest Victorian smock; Christian names supplanted Oshiwambo phrases rich in family folklore; entirely new belief systems, practices and values were imposed on a people deemed devoid of God and culture. There is a hidden pain, an intergenerational trauma that reaches down through the gloomy, undocumented past. “We lost a lot of who we are.” In a similar way, the veils that cover the faces of the women in Mekondjo's most recent works hint at the silencing of a gender. She cites “the invisibility of women in Namibian society” and the constant fear of abuse and violence from male partners as driving forces behind her upcoming exhibition at The Project Room in Windhoek West. Entitled 'Limbadungila' (which loosely translates to 'self-reliance'), Mekondjo describes her current project as an opportunity to work through the personal trauma of gender-based violence while raising the issue publicly. The veil holds deep and diverse associations, though many are subconscious. In wedding rituals and dress codes across cultures and history, it is a flag of chastity, symbolising a bride's modesty and obedience; her fitness for marriage. As such, it is also a sign of inequality and possession, branding women property and men their owners. In her portraits of women, Mekondjo explores the veil's ability to both adorn and subject. Some are distinctively Muslim in appearance, others more Christian in style. Whatever the cultural or religious connotation, the veils in her works hide not only beauty but also suffering and fear. A language Of trauma Is spoken Within their Silence The women in one of the 'Limbadungila' series wear striking red headdresses, a departure from the 'Mother Mary' blue that has featured in earlier work. Mekondjo describes her colour selection as an intuitive and experimental process, rather than a calculated decision. The red that has emerged in this series is a bolder choice, more often associated with masculine power than feminine fragility. It speaks to the vital strength of women in the face of adversity, their voice in the dark. Mekondjo's own experience of growing up as an orphan, forced to find her way in the world without proper support or direction, has taught her the value of self-reliance. “I like to do things on my own terms, in my own way. Then I know I won't be disappointed.” She bemoans the hypocrisy of a society in which girls are too often overloaded with household chores and not prioritised for schooling or financial support, but then ostracised and blamed when they 'do crazy things'. Mekondjo's latest work bears testimony to her own inner strength and her growth as an artist. Now it is her hands that are telling their story. Mekondjo's work is currently being exhi-bited through Johannesburg gallery Guns and Rain, was at the 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair 2019 in London from 3 to 6 October and will be on show at the AKAA (Also Known As Africa) Art and Design Fair in Paris in November. Her new show, 'Limbadungila', opens today, until 26 October at The Project Room in Windhoek West (32 Jenner Street).