This past Thursday the Sophie Lalonde Art Gallery in the iTowers, CBD, hosted the widely celebrated local artist Ann Gollifer in an exhibition known as “Omang” or in English “Who are you?” an exploration of the identity of the Motswana. I set out to the event with only a slight acquaintance with Ann Gollifer’s vast works of art, and a healthy dose of ambivalence; an exhibition exploring identity in Botswana through the gaze of a non Motswana (Ann Gollifer is a permanent resident, and has lived in Botswana since 1985) definitely rouse some suspicion in me. I think the arts in Botswana have a long way to go, I think there are brilliant Batswana artists who explore similar themes in their work, I think they deserve, more than anyone else, a platform to showcase their work, and I am outraged many don’t. Luckily, not only is cynicism a pathology I have perfected, it is one I manage exceptionally well, and my having an open mind that evening was never in doubt.
The exhibition opened at 1800 hrs sharp, with performances by three poets Angie Chuma, Mmakgosi Tau and Nametso Phonchi, scheduled for 1830 hrs, set to accompany the viewing. Attendance was excellent; by far the biggest crowd I have seen the gallery pull, and a very enthusiastic one at that. I spotted a few well known faces, like the always gracious Samantha Mogwe, and even got to meet for the first time ever, my favourite local poet, TJ Dema. Complimentary wine from the Robertson winery was provided, and, encouraged by the most electric atmosphere I have been around in ages, I was ready to be dazzled.
The artwork itself was set on a canvas made of German print, or shweshwe, a textile with a history too complex for me to delve into, that has been assimilated into, and become synonymous with traditional Setswana attire. Ann Gollifer’s art is a delight: simple and still ferociously expressive, I was bowled over by all of her pieces. Still, I could not shake the feeling that, given what she had set out to do through the art, she had JUST fallen short. A series of works that would most certainly impress anybody not very familiar with Botswana, I felt, as a 20-something year old born and bred Motswana, that the identity of my country, and my people, was a lot more diverse than was portrayed. Not to mention the fact that I have seen many more aesthetically interesting works by Ann (her Mozambican inspired “Mother Tongue” series, for example is worth marvelling over, on her website- www.anngollifer.com)
The highlight of the night, and a fulfilment of everything I had wished to experience that evening, was the performances. The poetry was amazing, and undeterred by a sometimes uncooperative crowd, the poets gave rousing performances centred on their identity as young Batswana women which touched on blackness, on womanhood, on lineage, and on tradition. Most notable was Angie Chuma, with what she told me was the first performance of her poetry. You could not tell; Angie is a gifted writer, every one of her words punches you in the gut, her last lines are a coup de grace; final, stunning, and brilliant. Any limitations that I may have felt lay in the art, were made up for threefold by the performances; including these three lovely women was wonderful foresight by Ann Gollifer, and a much needed perspective on selfhood in a Setswana context.
I can confidently say this is the best exhibition I have attended at Sophie Lalonde, and every minute of it was momentous and a timely affirmation of my national pride. Ann Gollifer has a new fan in me, and I will definitely be keeping an ear out for her projects.
*Ann Gollifer’s “Omang” exhibition is running from 12 February 2015 to 11 March 2015 at Sophie Lalonde Art, Floor 19A, iTowers, New CBD.