It’s clear from the pictures off the iQhiya exhibition on at the Kwazulu-Natal Society of the Arts gallery in Durban, that the gallery space has been transformed on multiple levels. Sassy, textured, challenging, feminist, earthy and complex, there is no single, simple narrative here.

Some members of the iQhiya collective (from left) Thandiwe Msebenzi, Asemahle Ntlonti, Buhlebezwe Siwani and Sisopho Ngodwana. Picture: Liza du Plessis

“We are iQhiya – young, black women who collided paths in the institution. We make art,” reads the artists’ statement. “There is a lot to say that wouldn’t fit into this exhibition, and it’s debatable whether you are paying attention in any case – because blackness and womanness is absentness.”

The group of 11 artists met at art school in Cape Town and, in a first of its kind, have started staging art shows together that are curated by the artists themselves.

The artists, many growing famous in their own right, are: Bonolo Kavula, Matlhogonolo Charity Kelapile, Bronwyn Katz, Matlhogonolo Pinky Mayeng, Thulile Gamedze, Lungiswa Gqunta, Asemahle Ntlonti, Thandiwe Msebenzi, Sethembile Msezane, Sisipho Ngodwana and Buhlebezwe Siwani.

On show there are woven mats unravelling, a giant matchstick scratching angry art on a white wall, farming tools upended and forming a forest of sticks, bare feet exposed, yaass, girl! video work, plastic washing tubs reinvented, a broken bed... On one level, they speak of rituals of domesticity and womanhood that have been charged with spells to create new meaning.

On another level they explore identity – and erasure.

“We were tired of the Western view of how to make art,” Siwani told #Trending this week. “We wanted to find our own nexus of who we want to show work to and speak back to about our experiences and journeys as black women... We are sick of being history’s side chicks. It’s time to control our own narratives.” The exhibition, she says, is as much about tensions facing black women as it is about imagining a way to be free.

Significantly, iQhiya offers a way of the white-walled space being free too. “Digital, print and sculptural realisations occupy the gallery space – not as token additions to whitewashed, or in-vogue black man shows, and neither at the margins, but occupying the centre that has at times appeared so far away.”

Understanding each individual artists’ work is just one way of looking at the show. Its true power lies in its hive mind, its collective imagining and its designing of a safe space for the artists.

“iQhiya is the support structure we wish we always had in learning spaces, the centres we always wished we could occupy, and the people we wished we could share lunch times with,” concludes the statement.

  •  The show runs until August 13 at the Kwazulu-Natal Society of the Arts gallery at 166 Bulwer Road, Durban

Bronwyn Katz's work Wees gegroet (be greeted)

A work featuring bare feet and farming implements

Thandiwe Msebenzi's portraits depict glamour and domesticity

A visitor to the Durban exhibition. Picture: Liza du Plessis