Buhlebezwe Siwani is an artist. She is also iSangoma. For our inaugural issue, Hol(e)y, Buhlebezwe writes about the chicken’s role in African Spirituality and the way in which she’s incorporated the fowl into her art practise through her works iSana libuyele kunina and uNgenzelephantsi.
My first encounter with a chicken was growing up in Soweto. A lady from up the road used to sell chickens. This lady was a family friend and often I was left there. My great aunt also had a chicken coop and I hated going there because she had chickens. When I was around 6, I was walking down to my house with a couple of friends, the lady from up the road had let her chickens run free. One of the hens had chicks and as I picked a chick up, the rooster and hen attacked me, following me all the way home. I have never forgotten that ordeal and I can never look at chickens the same.
My foray into using chickens in my art stems from this fear of the red chicken that chased me during my childhood. A similar chicken was used during my initiation to become iSangoma. I cannot tell you what happens during that time but I can say my initiation involved four chickens: a red rooster, two white ones (one hen and one rooster), and a spotted hen. The chickens are used in various ways during the initiation and are integral to the practice of ubuNgoma as the chicken is the stand in for the ancestors we are communing with. The link between chickens and ancestors is very complex, it is also very simple, in a way it operates in a paradoxical manner.
Chickens symbolise various things within African spirituality: cleansing, an intercessor, an offering and hierarchy. Various parts of chickens are used to do different things in my practice as iSangoma. They are used to commune with those who have passed on, to cleanse, to heal and to correct spiritual wrongs or ailments.
I constantly find myself in a paradoxical situation with this chicken debacle; as iSangoma I cannot work without chickens but Buhlebezwe the artist has a choice: to use the chicken or to allude to its physical presence. I choose to introduce the actual chicken into my work as, in the same way I speak and make myself visible, the chicken as spiritual insignia should be made visible as it occupies a lesser known space.
The chicken in the photographic series iSana libuyele kunina is significant. In this case the chicken is the substitute for the ancestor or ancestors, and although it would usually face death as the substitute, it becomes a way to think about death as continuity. In one photograph I am wearing a dress made of Injeti standing in the middle of a street in Makhaza, Khayelitsha with a chicken in hand, and in the other, I am walking away from a Pentecostal church with the chicken on my head.
The church has been seen as antithetical to ubuNgoma and has proffered the idea of being ‘born again’ not in flesh but in spirit. The body in Christian belief is the very basis of ‘man’s disgrace’ from heaven. In order to reach heaven, a human being must transcend corporeality through actual death or symbolic death. The body and what it consumes is therefore the site for ‘evil’ titillations (sex, food, intoxicating drink, etc.) These ideas are opposed to indigenous ways of thinking about the body. Contrarily amaXhosa, do not regard the body as debasement. While there are beliefs in uQamatha, descendant of the omniscient sun god, uThixo (Asante, M.K & Nwadiora, 76), the body does not represent the ‘fall’ but it becomes a way in which ancestors manifest. Through the introduction of the chicken in iSana libuyele kunina, I consider the presence of ancestors in one’s body.
In the video uNgenzelephantsi, I examine the body as medium through a consideration of pain and mortality. In this video piece, I am covered entirely with white chicken feathers that I then pluck off my skin. The use of cold glue to attach the feathers exacerbates the pain felt throughout the performance. The reason I used white feathers rather than black feathers in my performance is that black chickens are used to rid one of evil spirits while white chickens are used to bring about light and luck. In this way, the body of the chicken is seen as a carrier, a site and a medium through which good or bad forces are transferred. The performance revises and questions the Manichean distinctions based on black and white. As a black woman, I pluck off white feathers. By doing this I aim to destabilise the dichotomies of black as evil and white as light and good luck. The body in this performance is represented as a critical site for thinking about race, gender and mortality.
Cleansing is a major element in some rituals. For example, the passage of young girls to adulthood is seen as a process of identifying “pure” virginal, clean women. Bathing and washing is a significant social and performative part of the process. However, washing something off is also to refer to its existence; it is evidence or testament. The trace implies both absence and presence. In both uNgenzelephantsi and iSana libuyele kunina, I investigate the trace that the artist leaves behind: an extension of the performance which ultimately becomes the art piece. The trace of the artist presents liminality, the same way which the chicken does in a spiritual sense, it is both a living and a dead creature.