BAW JOURNAL: In one way or another, almost all your works feature the colour red—what is it about this colour? And how do you use it conceptually?
LERATO SHADI: That’s true. I have been using the colour red for a long time. My body and something red—that’s often basically it. When asked why, I mostly just say red and I »have a relationship«: we are seeing each other, it’s complicated at times, but it’s a steady thing and so on (laughs). But jokes aside—conceptually I started thinking about the colour red in regard to its connection to corporeality and to violence. In my video ›Re Mautwana Gonyela‹ (2018) you see a red figure in a landscape—I think of this figure as a spirit of resistance. Where there’s violence there also is resistance.
Red is also the paradigmatic signal colour.
Definitely. I am also interested in what could be referred to as historical erasure—the denigration or removal of certain stories and perspectives from official history. This is a very violent act—at least that’s how I experienced it as a person of colour, as a woman. But generally, I’d say that all of these things interlace in my work, and it is difficult to speak about one thing without closing-off the others.
Talking about »interlacing«—you often work with quite literal techniques of interlacing, namely knitting and crocheting. Can you tell me a bit about this strand of your work?
It, too, connects to the idea of corporeality—and to the idea of performativity. In one of my early works called ›Tlhogo‹ (2010), I hid in a red knitted cocoon and just laid there in the exhibition space for around three hours. The work in my show at KINDL—Zentrum für zeitgenössische Kunst is slightly different. This video, titled ›Selogilwe‹ (2010), shows me knitting for seven hours straight. It will be switched on in the morning and will run throughout the day. Within the show, it will act as a sort of hourglass. You not only see the knitted work growing over time, but also how I get tired and sleepy after a while. The whole experience should be almost like seeing someone going to work in an office in real-time.
In general, there seems to be a strong element of strict time frames and certain restrictions placed on yourself, right?
Most of my works start with a performative element. But performance is such a big umbrella and it means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. For me, performance is a tool—that’s its purpose. And for each performance, I place certain restrictions on myself. One of my first performative works was ›Hema‹ (2007) for which I breathed into balloons for six hours straight—every outwards breath went into the balloons, so all the air, that had filled my lungs during these six hours became visible in the space as the accumulation of balloons. But all these things, all these restrictions are more a tool for me. They have more to do with my own body and organise its presence—and less about the audience.
Many of your pieces seem to deal with the act of inscribing something—writing, scripture, scratching.
Yes, and like the balloon-piece I was just talking about, the crocheting is an act of inscription. It is about materialising something. Sometimes, the patterns feel like a kind of scroll to me, even though I can’t read it. But there’s meaning inscribed. Crocheting is like writing with a needle instead of a pen. In general, writing for me has a lot to do with history. I wasn’t taught much about African history. When we speak about world history, we usually mean Western history. African history appears as nothing more than a footnote, here. But you don’t have to dig deep—in fact some half-hearted scratching will do—to realise that Africa has a huge, massive, and rich history. But it was systematically erased, denigrated, and supressed.
How do you tackle this in your work?
When I was talking about a spirit of resistance earlier, I was thinking about exactly this. If you look at the discourse around slavery for example, there is a lot of talk about the enslaved body—but not so much about the spirit of resistance that has constantly been there, too. Erasure takes on many different forms. It is a form of violence and I am talking about writing history as a way of saying »I will not be erased«. In fact, marginalised communities have constantly been doing this in certain ways, even just by surviving. Audry Lorde has a poem called ›A Litany for Survival‹: »We were never meant to survive«. Living in itself becomes a form of resistance.
Nowhere in your work the dimension of erasure seems stronger than in ›Seriti Se‹ (2015)—a piece for which you wrote the names of women of colour on the walls of the exhibition space. The audience then had to pick a name—and erase it.
For me, it was important for all the women named on the wall to no longer be alive. Because I wanted to talk about history. When I first realized the piece in 2016, I wanted to include a trans person of colour—but I couldn’t find a historical figure, even if I was looking. So, I made an exception and included a living person, Tracey Norman, an American fashion model. It wasn’t until later, that I found out about Marsha P. Johnson, a gay liberation activist who started the Stonewall riots. This is exactly what I am talking about in terms of erasure: even though I was looking and researching, I couldn’t find anyone.
And what about the role of the audience here?
For this piece, it is really important that it is the audience who does the actual work of erasing. First, to make erasure visible as an everyday practice. But also, to get people to do their own research about who they just erased from the wall or about who it is they are about to erase. Who is this person, whose name I am taking off a list so that the other audience members coming after me won’t be able to read? The moment you pick a name to erase, you’ll look it up, and hopefully you memorize it. And you carry it on. The piece never was about the actual full list of all names on the wall. It is about every single name. And about us, doing the work in bits and pieces.