Two Ph.D. Candidates Encounter South African Artists and Artwork They Have Long Studied
In January 2023, the Yale MacMillan Center’s Council on African Studies sponsored research trips to South Africa for two Ph.D. candidates in the Departments of the History of Art and African American Studies at Yale. Alex Fialho, a fourth-year Ph.D. candidate, works to historicize the ongoing HIV/AIDS pandemic in the context of Black cultural production. Fifth-year Ph.D. candidate Alexandra M. Thomas’s research focuses include global modern and contemporary art; African and African diaspora visual culture; feminist and queer theory; performance studies; architecture, film, and media. Thomas and Fialho traveled in tandem to several South African cities to further their research on South African art.
Thomas’ scholarship focuses on artists, primarily women, who are at the forefront of engaging themes of domesticity, gender, and feminism in contemporary South African art. Her dissertation, “In the Hand of Afrekete: Black Queer Feminist Errantry and Global African Art,” explores mixed media assemblage as a site of worldmaking.
In Johannesburg, she met with artists Usha Seejarim and Senzeni Marasela — both of whom she writes about through the theoretical lens of transnational Black feminism and colonial domesticity. Seejarim uses household items such as brooms, irons, and scouring pads in her work, while Marasela’s photograph of a torn-apart baby doll lying in the grass symbolizes the trauma of her Apartheid-era childhood.
Thomas reflected, “The most meaningful aspect of the trip for me was definitely the hours and hours I got to spend sitting with South African women artists throughout Johannesburg, Hamburg, and Cape Town and talking to them about their lives and their artistic practice.” Thomas was also grateful for the opportunity to write a review of a landmark exhibition by the Keiskamma Art Project, which has been a focal point for both students while at Yale.
A women’s art collective started in 2000 in Hamburg, South Africa, the Keiskamma Art Project produces major textile artworks to “aid in the archiving of the rural Eastern Cape’s collective memory and the preservation of oral history,” according to its website. From September 2022 to March 2023, Constitution Hill in Johannesburg hosted a Keiskamma retrospective entitled “dying and rising, as the moon does.”
Alex Fialho has theorized and written about Keiskamma Art Project’s artwork as Black cultural production and resistance, has considered its connection to health disparities resulting from globalization and anti-Blackness, and has explored several of the piece’s complex references to Western canonical art. Fialho explained, “Keiskamma Altarpiece (2005) and Keiskamma Guernica (2010) highlight the perspectives of women and children deeply impacted by HIV/AIDS. With stunning scale and magnificent embroidery, these artworks manifest a daring vision of resilience and family amidst mourning and loss.”
The monumental Keiskamma Altarpiece (2005) was the Art Project’s early response to the country’s HIV/AIDS crisis. In addition to intricate and colorful scenes depicted in fabric, beads, and wirework, its centerfold features life-sized black-and-white photographs of three Eastern Cape grandmothers alongside their grandchildren.
This research trip made it possible for Fialho to see Keiskamma Altarpiece on display in Johannesburg, and then interview the artists who made the artwork, including textile artists Nozeti Makhubalo and Veronica Betani in Hamburg, and photographer Tanya Jordaan in Cape Town.
“After years of thinking about the Keiskamma Art Project, it was amazing to see the large-scale artworks in-person for the first time in Johannesburg and to meet those closely involved in Hamburg and throughout South Africa,” said Fialho. “The Council on African Studies’ Graduate Student Research Award and this research trip significantly deepened my scholarship by providing an invaluable first-hand opportunity to directly engage these artworks and artists.
The research trips were also sponsored by the Yale Department of the History of Art and the Yale Center for the Study of Race, Indigeneity, and Transnational Migration (RITM).