The ‘dreamscapes’ of South African artist Lungiswa Gqunta take over three rooms of the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds, for her UK solo exhibition ‘Sleep in Witness’, and incite conversations about knowledge systems, spirituality and collective experiences in a society impacted by colonial legacies. Gqunta appears enlightened by dreams, she records them as a spiritual practice and connects with them to envision her work (the team around her were left to trust the artist’s intuition while she created the exhibition’s landscapes, following her intuition to mould a clay floor and hang tangled ‘waves’ from the ceiling).

It is through dreams, and conversations with mothers in her family and with friends, that the artist gains an understanding of her experiences as a Black woman, establishing a platform for a form of knowledge that isn’t commonly accepted in western academia. Curator Laurence Sillars explains that ‘systems of apartheid have discredited so many different ways of knowing and of passing on knowledge’. Gqunta ‘brings personal identities and journeys back to the fore; this exhibition presents other ways of knowing and gathering information.’

 Rob Harris
Lungiswa Gqunta, Zinodaka, 2022 at Henry Moore Institute

Zinodaka, 2022, fills the first room of the exhibition; a layer of dried clay covers the entirety of the floor, manipulated by Gqunta’s bare feet, to create ridges and hills that form a landscape envisioned in her sleep. Aptly named ‘water rocks’ are sprinkled across the scene – hollow and crystal blue. They were moulded by the pressing of rocks into their blown-glass surface, leaving behind an imprint of the natural environment.

The clay floor has cracked on drying, and walking around the space makes the crevices bigger. Each step or shift of weight produces a crunch, reminding us of our unexpected impact. There is much to intrigue in Gqunta’s work and its engagement with our senses widens the potential audience. It’s easy to imagine the room filled with children, delighting in the crunching under their feet and staring into misshapen spheres of ‘water’. 

 Rob Harris
Lungiswa Gqunta, Zinodaka, 2022 at Henry Moore Institute

Zinodaka gives a sense of contributing to the breaking of something, which is simultaneously blatant in the landscape of lingering colonialism in South Africa, and subtle sitting in an art gallery in Leeds.

Gqunta says that she ‘likes the idea of a collision of two different parts, whether it’s peacefully or violently’. The layered experience of dreams is a fundamental concept to bring to ‘Sleep in Witness’ to understand its construction. Gqunta wanted the show to feel like moving through different dreams; it jumps from the cracked, water-dotted landscape of Zinodaka into the tangle of two crashing waves in Ntabamanzi, 2022.

 Rob Harris
Lungiswa Gqunta, Ntabamanzi, 2022 at Henry Moore Institute

Harnessing a technique used previously in Tending to the Harvest of Dreams, 2021, Gqunta and her team spent seven months wrapping barbed wire in strips of blue fabric and allowed the wire to retain its curled structure. The tangles start on the floor at opposite sides of the room and rise up, meeting in the middle and leaving an arch to walk under.

The room triggers images of parting seas and crashing waves, small spikes of wire stick out from under the blue wrapping, again, ensuring we take note of our bodies – this time as a result of the potential danger surrounding us. Metal coins are tangled in the waves – a detail alluding to the hope and wisdom of the ocean.

 Rob Harris
Lungiswa Gqunta, Gathering, 2019 at Henry Moore Institute

Room three contains a 15-minute video, which Gqunta describes as ‘a place of rest’. The original name for the work – now called Gathering, 2019 – was Riotous Assembly, referring to the Riotous Assemblies act established in South Africa in 1956 that made it illegal for a certain number of Black people to gather in one place. ‘I thought [that coming together] was really beautiful because it’s the communal spaces in which a lot of rejuvenation and a lot of refusal, and denying oppressive systems happen,’ says Gqunta. 

The black and white video is projected onto a brown wall, echoing the brown of the clay floor in Zinodaka, 2022, and shows Gqunta and a friend, singing ‘yakhal’inkomo’ (the cry of the bull in Nguni languages, which historically refers to the unspeakable pain of domination for Black people in South Africa under aparthied), ritualistically, comfortingly, while folding sheets. It seems to acknowledge and reframe an historical and deeply rooted struggle felt by Black people living under oppressive systems. 

They spend the 15 minutes pausing for breaks and coming together, sheets appearing to flow in a continuation of the show’s water theme. One major thing, says Sillars, is that ‘this piece stands back-to-back with the photograph of Gqunta’s family on the outside of the building’. It brings a continuity to the structure of the show and, falling perfectly in thematic line with the disordered and associative nature of dreams, gives us one last detail of thought: where there are dreams, there are ongoing stories and a continuous collision of worlds. §