Dramatic: Lhola Amira is the central figure in her own ritual, as in Ukhato-Manxeba II. Picture: SUPPLIED
Dramatic: Lhola Amira is the central figure in her own ritual, as in Ukhato-Manxeba II. Picture: SUPPLIED

Khanyisile Mbongwa is an impressive woman, stately and handsome, postured like a Hollywood star from the great movie studio era. Under the mellifluous moniker Lhola Amira, she is a serious, original artist with a remarkable presence on screen and in photographs.

With red lips, impossibly high heels and elegant head wrap, she is the central figure in her own ritual.

She features in and is the finely tuned inventor of the performance art recorded in the exhibition Sinking: Xa Sinqamla Unxubo, a riveting show at Cape Town’s Smac Gallery.

Amira has taken up the theme of the sinking of the SS Mendi in the First World War, just more than a century ago, when more than 600 South Africans, mostly black troops serving in the South African Native Labour Corps, died after the steamship sank in the English Channel on their way to France to fight in the war.

The restoration of this great tragedy to the South African historic psyche has in the last few decades been an important marker in the wider conversations about the country’s colonial heritage. It’s a catastrophic narrative rich for mining and Amira has created a contemplative encounter employing film, photography, non-figurative painting and found objects.

In iYahluma she is accompanied by six women, acting as acolytes, sisters in white. Picture: SUPPLIED
In iYahluma she is accompanied by six women, acting as acolytes, sisters in white. Picture: SUPPLIED

Within the gallery’s grand space — dramatically charged with dark red walls and openness that can take in thoughts and ghosts among the various objects installed — there is an aura that soughs reflection, remembrance. It reminds how tragedy from the distant past vibrantly informs the present. It confirms that performance can have piercing depth and that art’s restorative notions can complement its aesthetic and ethical aspirations.

Amira twists and drives these with focused skill, so that all the diverse elements of the installation slot in together, leaving a visitor thoughtful and impressed by her vision and sense of purpose.

The title of the installation conveys something of the paradox of that purpose. Loosely translated from isiXhosa, Xa sinqamla unxubo means "stopping the flow of agony". Amira has referred to the tragedy as a "wound", and to this project as a process of healing. Salt and sea water have played a role in many cultures as healing agents, physically and metaphysically.

Her installation includes glass jars filled with sea water and beach sand (rich in reference to travels and strange lands), a pair of high heels stuck in sand in a glass box, large canvasses treated by salt’s chemical qualities and, in iNduma, a pile of coarse salt beneath a hanging circle of beads.

The names of the drowned men are written on a matching canvas against the red wall. They are also rolled out from an old portable typewriter, suggesting the naval tragedy was only a cabin report or bureaucratic document.

A kitsch kist, jarringly out of place, displays toy plastic soldiers. These turn out to be of Amira in red, gold and black. The feminist element that threads through the installation takes another twist with these AmaKhosi ka Mendi figurines.

Female voices emanate gently from sound boxes, relating the original history and Amira’s process of the Sinking project. In a separate space one watches the short film of the same title.

The centrepiece of this installation, the film, is a jewel that heaves the viewer along on a ritual journey that seeks to resolve some of that agony of the sinking. With excellent production values (camera and editing by Zara Julius) and soundtrack (music by Kyle Shepherd), Amira gives full expression to her presence in what she calls "appearance". (Think enigmatic movie actress.)

Dressed in an umbhaco, she is accompanied by six women, acting as acolytes, sisters in white, sharing the rites, the distress of the environment, waves and wind, the bumpy sea voyage — the need to carry the African message of healing to an audience that will experience it surrounded by safe walls.

Stills from the film on the gallery walls close in on the artist’s face, her stylish head wrap ever intact, the ceremonial staff always held high, heeled shoes sunk into the uncomfortable beach.

This charismatic personality appeared in her earlier work. The film Looking for Ghana & The Red Suitcase is a delightfully eccentric and accomplished piece, with the artist as shaman-sangoma leading the performance, divining the way.

In 2006 Gugulethu-born Mbongwa, 34, was a founding member of the Gugulective, a collaborative art-production group and a remarkable team that included award-winning artist Kemang Wa Lehulere and numerous others who went on to establish careers.

The in-your-face band of art producers made a forceful entry into the local art world with a vision and ethos that challenged as much as it excited for its original engagement with South African reality and culture practice. A key to their success was the affinity of and tight alliance among the practitioners from various disciplines.

Much of that is reflected in the contribution of the participants in Sinking: Xa Sinqamla Unxubo, the fellow performers and those behind the scenes.

Amira’s presence and practice are strongly rooted in that Gugulective background. It had set out to explore how cultural memes from township and traditional African custom can be incorporated in the lush environment of the contemporary global art scene with its glitzy galleries and wealthy collectors.

It’s a cunning challenge, but also one that opens the possibility of contesting orthodoxy, of broadening the reach.

The danger is to play up the surface charm and the exotic — large photographs too slick for their own good, too many buzz words hanging in the air, overworked metaphors — and playing to the gallery.

But Amira skillfully keeps her vision, plot and script, not to mention her own bold "appearance", tightly on track as the ritual unfolds and as it is documented. The works, therefore, read as meaningful signifiers of a tragedy — if not reenacted, respectfully commemorated.

• Lhola Amira’s Sinking: Xa Sinqamla Unxubo is at Smac Gallery until April 28.