Bessie Head has published her first novel, When the rain clouds gather, while exiled in Botswana in 1968. Following the journey of its protagonist, Makhaya, an escapee from apartheid South Africa, the novel is a poignant exploration of hope amid despair. Taking their title from Head’s novel, South African curators Portia Malatjie and Nontobeko Ntombela have meticulously woven together a survey of important works in “When Rain Clouds Gather: Black South African Women Artists, 1940–2000” – part study of research and partly commemoration. “When Rain Clouds Gather” bears the imprint of its authors, whose curatorial work reflects a long-standing commitment to delving into the narratives of women artists and asking critical questions. Examples of their approach have been seen in past projects, such as the 2018-2019 Helen Sebidi Retrospective curated by Malatjie at the Norval Foundation titled “Batlhaping Ba Re!(The Fish People Say!) and the 2012 exhibition “A Fragile Archive” curated by Ntombela at the Johannesburg Art Gallery in 2012. Both of these exhibitions sought to challenge a hegemonic canon of art history by putting the emphasis on the subjectivities of black women through their artistic creation.
Comprising more than 120 works by forty artists, “When Rain Clouds Gather” is organized into thematic subsections, including those focused on politics; love, pleasure and intimacy; black African feminisms; landscapes; spiritual and religious conjurations; and the speculative spectacular, among others. An accompanying timeline, while an effective visual device for managing a mass of information, sometimes reads like a vast catch-all compilation of literary, musical, and art-historical material that lacks nuance and salience. Yes, the second (and last) Johannesburg Biennale, “Trades Routes: History and Geography”, was held in 1997, the same year that the autobiography of women’s rights activist and heroine Ellen Kuzwayo was republished, but the link between these events remains opaque.
“When Rain Clouds Gather” is brilliantly brought to life with intricate imagery in numerous media, including the undated artwork by Katherine Mchunu Jockey, made from fabric, fibers and beads; the carved wooden sculptures of Noria Mabasa; and the richly textured mixed tapestry by Rita Ngcobo Veld fires at night, California. 1969. Textiles, sculpture, painting and photography coexist comfortably, absorbing and commenting on each other. The exhibition succeeds in bringing established artists into dialogue with lesser-known figures without perpetuating hierarchies, as in the juxtaposition of Gladys Mgudlandlu’s serpentine landscapes from 1961 to 1966 with the structured tapestry of Emily Mkhize. Geometric design 102/92, 1992. Spirituality is also a recurring but elusive theme of the exhibition, explored through the poetic images of Ruth Motau, the surrealist tapestry of Allina Ndebele and the beaded fabrics of Venus Makhubele. The decorative envelope of Letisa Mashawu, known in Tsonga traditions as the nceka, fuses symbols and text to create a remarkably complex image that reads as both a dreamscape and a prayer. The mythological and the speculative, the modest and the banal weave together, allowing productive tensions and contingencies to emerge.
“When Rain Clouds Gather” convincingly maps the artistic output of many overlooked and forgotten black female artists. Some contributions engage social, political and environmental events and function as a form of testimony, including Motau’s documentation of the clamor of shebeens and the quiet intimacies found in same-sex hostels, Mabasa’s description of the deadly floods of Natal in 1987 and that of Bongiwe Dhlomo-Mautloa. portraits of urban life. Other works lean towards the strange, the dramatic and the bizarre, such as the paintings of Valerie Desmore Family1958, and street accident, 1959, which convey deeply personal stories through broad brushstrokes, thickly applied pigments, and an unusual sensitivity to color. Such works make “When Rain Clouds Gather” a thematically rich and complex reading of South Africa’s cultural landscape over six decades through the eyes of black female artists.