The intimacy and harshness of African women’s rituals
For the young Tanzanian multimedia artist Rehema Chachage, her own intimate stories and experiences of being a woman in Africa form a rich source of inspiration and living together with her two-year old daughter, her mother and grandmother gives her the chance to explore traditional cultural and religious rituals. Rehema is fascinated by the origin and meaning of African rituals related to womanhood. She uses video and sculptural installations in order to question and critically analyse such universal themes as identity, gender, rootedness and inheritance in patriarchal societies.
After her father died, Rehema started questioning the politics of gender and inheritance in African culture. “My father was a university professor in sociology and worked in South Africa. He also wrote books, but I had never read his work until he died. It felt like the only true inheritance he left were his books because in African tradition, as a woman, I am not allowed to inherit material belongings, which are all inherited by the male family members. So this knowledge that he left behind in his books is the only thing I’ve got… I also felt I related to it because he wrote about being an expatriate and the suffering that comes with that. I also encountered these feelings when I was studying in South Africa because I was still in Africa and not in the USA or Europe and I felt that I should still feel at home, but because of race politics and subtle discrimination I felt like a stranger.”
Based on her experiences and her father’s inheritance, Rehema made a work entitled ‘Mizizi/Nasaba’ which means Kinship or Roots. In a series of photographic prints she documents the relationship and interaction between a mourning daughter and the wisdom in the text, projected onto her face, that her deceased father has left behind.
The feeling of uprootedness and being a voiceless stranger as a result of social alienation is what both Rehema and her father encountered while living in South Africa. She also refers to this in a work that explores the themes of voice and voicelessness. Two videos show the artist, one with radio frequencies projected onto her face and body and one without. A poem is recited in Swahili while a tuning dial moves back and forth from left to right over the image of the artist. Rehema explains: ‘In the video with projected frequencies the voice in the poem becomes very clear in the middle, on my face, but really distorted at the sides and at the other one it’s the opposite; the voice becomes very clear at the sides but in the middle, on the face, it’s all distorted. It’s a break in transmission that leaves the viewers with two choices; to either ignore the content of the work that they may perhaps not even understand or relate to, which seems too often be the fate for the voiceless individual, or to try to listen and engage with what is being said by this voice that speaks from a place of ‘difference’.”
Where Rehema’s earlier work is about identity expressed through not having a voice, the current work is about identity being expressed through rituals. After travelling to Dakar for the Dak’art 2012 biennial where she exhibited her work, she developed the idea to explore 29 African rituals related to women. She explains: “I went to Gorée island in Senegal where I came across a text that goes all the way back to slavery and it’s about how pregnant slaves were punished. They were given 29 lashes but before they were whipped the slave owners would dig a hole for them to rest their pregnant bellies in. So whilst they were delivering their punishment, they were also protecting future slave power. This stood out for me. The 29 lashes is not really a ritual but I see it as an adapted ritual, because it was an everyday reality for these woman.” From that moment on Rehema started with the ambitious idea to explore 29 different ways a woman can use different rituals to survive and to subvert power in a patriarchal society. Collecting these rituals and collating them like chapters in a book has become her life’s work.
Another reason why Rehema chooses to explore female rituals rooted in African culture is the fact that she lives with her grandmother and mother. Both of them have always told her stories about rituals that they have used in order to cope with life’s hardships in a male-dominated society. Rehema: “So it’s like storytelling and I feel like their stories have formed me into who I am today, because it was their way of shaping their world and their way of living and some of these rituals they still believe in today. Like for example burying the umbilical cord. I threw mine away when it fell off my daughter and my grandmother said: ‘No! You should keep it and protect it otherwise it means bad luck’. In the villages they have mud houses and they have one wall for the umbilical cords and then they put mud, so the whole wall is filled with umbilical cords inside… it’s a ritual related to parenting.” Rehema has created an artwork about another aspect of parenting. The work is entitled ‘Mshanga’: “It’s the name of a special belt, a thing that women tie under their clothes around their bellies. So ‘Mshanga’ is a story about my great grandmother. She was a very poor woman with a lot of children to raise, including my mom. There was never enough food in the house and the little food she had she gave to the kids. So she tied this really tight piece of fabric around her stomach to distract herself from hunger and have enough energy to keep farming, so she could bring more food back to the house. That’s one practice of ‘Mshanga’.”
Mothers and sons
Rehema dug deeper into the historical use of ‘Mshanga’ and found out that it was also used in the villages in the past. When boys were taken for circumcision their mothers would tie the ‘Mshanga’ around their waist every day they were gone. Of twenty boys who left the village to undergo a circumcision or initiation, four or five would not come back. Rehema: “I think they killed them, but they said the forest swallowed them... Eventually the boys came back to the village and some mothers were happy because theirs sons had returned and they would untie their ‘Mshanga’ and celebrate. The others kept the ‘Mshanga’ tied tightly to be constantly reminded of the loss of their sons by the pain. So there is a lot of historical significance to the story. Besides the stomach is the centre of equilibrium.” Rehema’s performance and prints show how the ‘Mshanga’ ritual refers to gender, generation, poverty and identity.
The henna ritual
Another ritual can be found in the work entitled ‘The Flower’ that is part of the theme of preparing for life as a married woman. It’s the henna ritual that takes place before and during the marriage of Tanzanian coastal women. Henna is a ritual itself, not only for ceremonies but also for beautification and protection against evil spirits. The work is an intergenerational dialogue because Rehema worked together with her mother, who wrote a poem that is part of the work. It’s a video installation that starts with an image of the artist standing like a shadow whilst a flower slowly covers the screen. As the flower blossoms the sound can be heard of a woman singing a song in Swahili. It tells the story of a woman who is giving birth alone, about the pain she experiences, the fear she feels and her need for her mother’s support. Initially the outline of the woman can still be seen but as the song continues it is gradually obscured by the flower.
Wrapping up the bride
‘The Flower’ is also a result of one of Rehema’s personal experiences: “My sister was getting married and I saw her being properly wrapped up which is a strong belief in the coastal area, to protect the bride.” In this video installation Rehema’s mother’s poem is displayed on a piece of fabric hanging in front of the video:
‘Pleasing to the eye, your veiled familiar rendered unbeknown. A blanket of colour, so snugly hugging as if it were your second skin. Beautifully patterns traced on your limbs, akin to the blooming of a creeping vine. Garbed as a sensuous wrapper of modesty to which you are partially beholden. To the ritual of pleasing, a wedge for thriving in a woman’s station.’
Through this intimate approach, Rehema explores gender, sexuality and oppression during the rite de passage of marriage. The henna ritual contributes to the persistence of patriarchy that reduces women’s bodies and identity by decorating the body of a woman for marriage as if she is being sacrificed to her future husband.
Rehema has a hard time being taken seriously by friends and other artists in Tanzania. She explains: “I don’t blame them because visual arts are supposed to be a hobby here. They don’t understand that I do a lot of research and read many books. According to people here art is supposed to be commercial and only about skills. So I fight hard to create a space for people who are interested in exploring more contemporary and experimental styles of working. My dream is to create a platform for people who are interested in contemporary ways of making art, in dialogue, in exploring new ways to create and in going out there and performing all these interesting interventions and especially targeting Tanzanians!” By working at Nafasi Art Space in Dar es Salaam Rehema tries to make her dream come true by organising discussions and inviting artists from abroad.
Meanwhile, she continues to critically analyse religious and cultural rituals in order to expose them to the world. She wants to create dialogue with people who have an interest in women’s issues or in African rituals. Rehema: “That’s what the role of art should be anyway; to provoke discussions about significant social issues.”