The African narrative is certainly not singular as there exist diverse African identities, but there are common experiences that most, if not all, Africans can relate to, and these experiences create a collective identity. One such experience is migration, which photographer and performance artist Nobukho Nqaba engages with in her work. Her interest lies in the way migration affects human interaction.

A sojourner’s plight

Migration has a tendency of disrupting one’s identity in that it leaves one feeling like a nomad, a sojourner constantly in transit between home and survival; searching for belonging, which becomes evasive as they move from place to place. Nobukho’s work explores her first-hand experiences of migration and its global relevance. Her photography and performance art function as journal entries that chronicle her memories of travelling between her native town of Butterworth to Grabouw, and growing up in the Eastern Cape.

Her 2012 project, Umaskhenkethe Likhaya Lam, is centred around the ubiquitous plastic mesh bag that is manufactured in China and has become the global symbol of migration. In this compelling series of self-portraits, Nobukho recalls her own experiences of Unomgcana (isiXhosa term for the plastic mesh bag), how it was an important part of her childhood as she travelled regularly between the Eastern Cape and Cape Town. “My work draws inspiration from personal memory, which then gets translated visually using objects that are reminiscent of such memories.”

 “My work draws inspiration from personal memory, which then gets translated visually using objects that are reminiscent of such memories.”

Unpacking the African identity

For Nobukho, it is impossible to engage with issues that concern Africans – such as migration –  and speak of self-representation without understanding one’s identity. To present the self, there needs to be an understanding of who you are and where you come from. From understanding your identity, you are able to represent the self in its purest and truest form. Her understanding of her identity enables Nobukho to present work that reflects her journey, and it makes it easy for her to portray concepts that will be understood and appreciated by her audience. “When you put yourself out there, you want your audience/viewer to understand your concepts and ideas. Understanding who and what you are about forms part of that.”

“I unpack my own identity using people that have been or are close to me.”

While her work doesn’t touch specifically on heritage and culture, one can certainly see traces of what she refers to as “collective identities”, “Culture and heritage are collective identities, because they are linked with a community of people that relate in terms of belief systems and social norms. We all come from that collective identity because we exist not only as ourselves but also as communities.”

The materials and objects she uses speak to issues that have come to form an integral part of many Africans’ heritage – their stories. “I guess in a way one could say the objects speak something about a certain kind of heritage because they are local and global symbols of particular things.” As she interacts with diverse people from different walks of life, she also encounters who she is as a young African woman and artist. “I unpack my own identity using people that have been or are close to me.”

Searching for comfort in the familiar

Nobukho’s work forms part of the African narrative in that it presents and represents issues that have come to define the African experience and our existence in the world. Memory and symbolism are powerful tools that she uses to both heal herself and tackle issues that form part of a collective representation of African identities. Her recent body of work, laconically titled “Ndiyayekela” (I’m letting go), is a poignant yet enthralling embodiment of her struggle to make peace with the passing of her father, who was a migrant worker in rural Eastern Cape. “Using symbolic materials that recall my past, I am battling with feelings of guilt, fondness and confusion – reinforcing my physical presence. My movements – together with the carefully selected materials – conjure up old memories, bringing them to life through photography.”

“The African that continuously remains true to their selves is the one that will change the world.”

The materials she uses, blue overalls and grey blankets, are important pieces that tell the story of many working class black South Africans. They tell the story of struggling to make ends meet. The pain of leaving home and loved ones to eke out some kind of income. “The overalls and blankets represent the impermanence of a home space, and the search to find comfort in the familiar: to carry a part ‘home’ with you, and to come to grips with the burden of its weight. Continuing the conversation on migrancy, I am physically confronting and challenging (the value of) the materials, which in turn take on their own agency.”

Telling your story with your whole heart

Nobhuko ardently believes in the importance of telling our stories and being unabashedly honest about our experiences as Africans. For this young prolific artist, “Africans need to be truthful about the stories they tell. Throughout history our narratives have been distorted and diluted. In this contemporary world Africans have the advantage of using their voice and tell honest narratives that relate to them and must not rely heavily on western theories and ideals.”

There is power in embracing our culture, heritage, identity and stories. By doing this, the world will know that Africans as a collective and individually are a force to be reckoned with. We brave our struggles with much sangfroid and must continue to strive to be more than what has been spoken about us; for, as Nobukho says, “The African that continuously remains true to their selves is the one that will change the world.”