Portia Malatjie Talks on ‘Black Spectrality’

Portia Malatjie Talks on ‘Black Spectrality’

January 17, 2024

Portia Malatjie, curator and senior lecturer in art history and discourse at the University of Cape Towns Michaelis School of Fine Art, presented the imagery of birds as an extended metaphor for Black South African women artists at a recent lecture at the History of Art Department.

Malatjie, who is also adjunct curator of Africa and African Diaspora at the Tate Moderns Hyundai Tate Research Centre: Transnational, used avian visuals in her Dec. 6 talk — “Black Spectrality and the Post-Colonial African City” — to reflect misrepresentations, erasures and the resilience of Black women artists during both the apartheid and post-apartheid period in South Africa. 

Malatjies research and scholarship examines the intersection between spirituality, sound and Blackness in contemporary African art.

Like the birds of my childhood, the histories of black South African modernist art history seem to appear and disappear at sometimes purposeful and often random intervals,” said Malatjie, and that has proven to be in line with what art historians, collectors and museum custodians of yesteryear seem worthy of revelation.”

Malatjie, who holds a PhD in Visual Cultures from Goldsmiths University of London, shared a chapter from a work-in-progress paper.

Malatjies visual cultural and curatorial research over the years has explored African conceptions of Blackness through the intersection of sound, spirituality and Black Feminist Thought. 

For the Yale lecture, Malatjie reflected on the influential and often unacknowledged contribution of Black Women to South African art history in the 20th Century from early Modernism to the contemporary period.

Truly egalitarian South Africa,” she said, remains but a dream, as Black South Africans still face systemic subjugation in a white-dominated economy.” Malatjie also pointed to the importance of curating as means of making previously suppressed work visible to new audiences.

Malatjie said that despite the brutal enforcement of subjugation  — “like birds, when they may grace  the sky and spread their wings — these histories are now finding expression by way of restorative exhibitions and application practices that are intended to repair centuries of misrepresentation and erasure.”

To Malatjie, the multiple ontological meanings of the metaphor of the birds as it applies to African art by women of color can signify freedom, healing, spiritual communion and the refusal to stay in one proper place.”

She described women in South African prisons during the challenges to apartheid who created art out of the limited resource they had: pillowcases, which she called a daring gesture of self-articulation in captivity.”

Of the symbolism, she remarked: Slumber —and by extension rest — do not come easily for a country that is embroiled in centuries- old ontological and  political unrest.”

These artists, she said, present different grammars and registers with which to understand continental articulations of Blackness…and of how Black spectrality finds expression in how we might begin to think about race, empire and displacement in the continent and in the diaspora.”

Malatjie is also co-curator of two exhibits: Ecologies of Elsewhere” (2023, Cincinnati Contemporary Art Centre with Dr. Chandra Frank) and When Rain Clouds Gather: Black South African Women Artists, 1940 – 2000” (2022, Norval Foundation, Cape Town, with Nontobeko Ntombela). 

She has also published in peer-reviewed journals, non-academic publications and exhibition catalogues, including Third Text, the 2018 Berlin Biennale catalogue, the 2019 Venice Biennales South African Pavilion catalogue, Artforum, and London-based journal Afterall. She is curator of the South African Pavilion at the 60th Venice Biennale, 2024. She is working on a monograph that explores South African art and curatorship through Black ontology.