Art

‘Facing the Future’ Exhibition at de Young Promotes Profound Healing

By Noma Faingold

South African artist Lhola Amira looks at the exhibition titled, “Lhola Amira: Facing the Future,” as an invitation by the de Young Museum. In turn, the artist invites visitors to a safe space to examine the pain of the past and present, specifically of Black and Brown people, while embracing the possibilities of healing.

Selected works by South African artist Lhola Amira are on display at the de Young Museum throughout 2023. Photo courtesy of SMAC Gallery.

Amira, 38, who uses the capitalized pronouns THEY/THEM/THEIR/OUR, has created (in THEIR first solo exhibition in the United States), an enigmatic presentation incorporating hanging, shimmering beaded sculptures (panels) to walk through, gaze at and touch. There is a visually stunning short film, “Irmandade: The Shape of Water in Pindorama,” which asks the viewer to “witness the wounds of ocean and land.”

The multi-media, multi-dimensional exhibit, which opened at the de Young Museum on Dec. 17 and runs through Dec. 3, 2023, also has haunting music and tactile symbolic objects, while sharing galleries with the museum’s historical collection of African art. It intentionally connects the past to the present.

“The past is always present and can rupture the future,” Amira said. “If we do not fully engage it, there are dangers of it repeating itself. That the past can also be a place from which we can imagine from and through. Maybe the past is a long overdue love letter to this moment of how we can do living better, or the things we can look out for to ease the damage.”

On the evening of Dec. 15, the de Young held an unusual pre-opening reception for donors, media and other invited guests. On the typical side, there was food and drink, mingling, opening remarks by Thomas P. Campbell, director and CEO of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, and by curator of African art, Natasha Becker, along with self-guided viewing of the exhibit. However, more memorable was the welcoming ceremony, helmed by Amira, for nine pre-selected Bay Area participants from African American and indigenous communities.

A large circle was set up at the center of the museum’s expansive lobby space. Each participant sat on their own comfortable upholstered bench. Objects at their feet included a metal basin, a pitcher of water, a pair of red socks and a lit candle. Amira, a statuesque presence in a layered white garment, a towering red headwrap and black platform heels, spent quality time with each person in a moving feet-cleansing ritual. She knelt before them on a red velvet pillow, methodically washing and massaging their feet. Then Amira quietly spoke to each person. The caring interactions ended with her placing the socks on their feet.

The repetitive choral music in the background was more ominous than soothing.

“The music is a collage of sounds with traditional instruments and the artist’s voice woven in,” said South African-born Becker, who worked closely with Amira for more than a year on Facing the Future. “It’s haunting and a kind of mourning.”

Right after Amira had finished the feet washing ceremony with one woman, the participant began weeping. Another woman in the circle spontaneously walked over to give the crying woman a long, comforting embrace.

At first, the cocktail-sipping crowd seemed a bit uncomfortable and perplexed by the intimate ceremony they were witnessing. But soon, many became transfixed.

“Many people at the reception expressed their appreciation to me. They responded to the performative aspect, but Amira views it as a gift. It was an incredible gesture of love and healing,” Becker said. “And what people conveyed to me about the exhibition was they were filled with awe and wonder.”

Another participant in the ceremony, Melvin Phillips, 68, who was born and raised in Oakland, said he felt physically and spiritually uplifted by the experience. As a public safety officer at the de Young, he was able to meet Amira a couple of days before the event and was asked to be part of it.

Melvin Phillips said he felt “spiritually and physically uplifted” after Amira washed his feet at the Dec. 15 pre-opening event for the “Lhola Amira: Facing the Future” exhibit at the de Young Museum. Photo by Michael Durand.

Amira’s art evolved from South African Nguni spirituality, a combination of Christianity with traditional values, adapted tradition for today’s world. Phillips, who has spent a lot of time studying African spirituality, as well as being a devoted member of Allen Temple Baptist Church of Oakland, felt an instant connection with Amira.

“The ceremony was very humbling because it was honoring my ancestors – my mother and my mother’s mother,” he said. “It was a tradition in my mother’s family to have your feet washed going back four generations.”

While Amira washed and massaged his feet, Phillips, who recently became a grandfather, said a prayer, calling out his ancestors by name.

“I felt empowered to continue to represent my people. It was very inspiring.”

Amira encouraged Phillips to ring a bell when he sensed an ancestor’s presence in the moment.

“I felt the energy from Lhola’s hands to my feet. It was like jazz improvisation. My feet had been hurting all day and I felt my strength coming back.”

Upon entering the Facing the Future exhibition, visitors will find a large bowl of coarse salt on a table. They are encouraged to place their hands in the bowl.

“The salt in OUR work is inviting the ocean into the space as a place that is both a cleansing ground and a grave site,” Amira said. “Salt has healing properties that cleanse and clear out space so that a portal of connection can open. WE work with salt as a holding material that can absorb the wound/woundedness so that energetically one is prepared for a healing to occur.”

The beaded panels in the exhibit contain just as much symbolism and meaning. They are referred to as “constellations” (rather than the more static term, “installations”) by the artist. “OUR work is a constellation because it exists in the intersection of the past, present and future,” Amira said.

“Constellation is a way of marking time as memory, and the act of remembering as a repeating process held at different timelines with different consequences and/or effects.”

Every visitor will surely take away something different from the exhibit. The artist’s hope is that THEY created a tender place where people “are brave enough to hold the wound” and be open to healing with a “healthy imagination of what the future can bring.”

Natasha Becker, curator of African art at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, worked with Lhola Amira for more than a year creating the “Facing the Future” exhibit. Photo by Noma Faingold.

The constellations are handmade by South African women, ages 18 to 90, which is consistent with the generational themes of the exhibit. The newly created, site-specific spiritual portals called, “Philisa: Zinza Mphefumlo Wami,” are meant to be sacred spaces for honoring ancestors and healing.

“The women sing together and tell stories,” Becker said. “Each bead has been touched by those women. That says something beautiful about how many people this art touches.”

The solo exhibition, “Lhola Amira: Facing the Future,” will be at the de Young Museum through Dec. 3, 2023. For more information, go to famsf.org.

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