The first time I performed NdinguNina was at an exhibition called, ”The Other’d artist/s” just before Summer, at Transmission gallery in the city centre of Glasgow. I remember the day I saw the call out on Facebook by a fellow black artist, Travis. They were gathering Black artists for the exhibition, which I would later learn was a response to an exhibition in Glasgow they took part in the previous year. I remember them relaying their shock to find that, not only were they the only black artists selected, but they were the only POC artists. After enquiring as to why that may be the case, Travis was met with a statement that was oh too familiar to my ears “There are no artists of colour in Glasgow”.
As Travis was based in London, he wanted to find out for sure. It was, of course, later discovered this was not the case. I remember that I was in the middle of finals and unsure whether I would have the time to take on such a project. But something in me felt this was a project worth pursuing, and thus became NdinguNina. It is an autobiographical piece about an African woman who, despite existing in a predominantly Western world, refuses to abide by its rules and assimilate its standards.
I hate cliches as much as the next person but in many ways, the piece felt like it was meant to be written and performed. I remember sitting in the library with my friends, going back and forth on whether I should write something for the exhibition, whether it would feel too rushed, and what I would even write about. With submission only three days away I felt I would be cutting it too close. Moments later, a WhatsApp message arrived from my father’s girlfriend. It was nothing, but an image. An image, that even my red, itchy, sleep-deprived eyes could tell right away would be important and thought-provoking. I began to read the inscription at the bottom of the sepia coloured page. It read, “Lord Macaulay addresses the British parliament.” and written in my father’s handwriting in bright red ink was the date 2-2-1835.
Bright red pen, I learned from an early age, was my father’s signature colour for when he wanted to either: conduct further research or draw attention to something; it was something I began to associate with curiosity. It felt like fate, that this artefact had been placed into my hands (or onto my screen if you want to be pedantic about it). Ideas began to flow out of me. I knew I wanted to respond in some way to this aged piece of paper that allowed for no introduction, no “hello Nanillia”, no “isn’t this interesting”. As I studied the words attached to an image of what I could make out to be an aged image of a “colonial hero” I could feel a heavy wave of emotion spill over me. Something of anger, and irritation, and sadness. The extract spoke of a strategy “To break the very backbone of the Africans, to break their self-esteem and make them succumb to the British”.
The words cut deep. They relayed the systematic invention of racism that oppressed my ancestors and would later govern my country. A system that would create domino effects of racism that still live and breathes in my country, today. For the sake of this article, I won’t go into the nitty-gritty details of the damage the British caused in colonising South Africa. Thus, as with everything else in my life that causes pain or discomfort, I turned to artistic expression and created a performance that would respond to Lord Macaulay and his merry men. I wanted to create a piece that would say I am still here, “NdinguNina”, and that myself and others like me will not be broken.
“NdinguNina” encompasses memories of my past, it encompasses the struggle to reinstate one’s identity in an environment that does not always feel open to difference, but most importantly, it encompasses an ongoing battle and a growing strength that imitates the struggle that POC face every day, worldwide. This was a piece I wanted to share with my fellow people of colour in the hope that they would feel empowered by the piece, just as I felt when creating and performing it.
On the 28th of September 2017, as part of the Black history month in Glasgow, I would have the opportunity to share NdinguNina again in the GoMA. And this year I would be one out of a handful of beautiful black artists performing at the event, to commemorate the start of a month that celebrates myself and beautiful black artists, women, daughters and people like me. I felt proud to be a part of the event. I admit feeling uncomfortable at the start being in a building that represented such an oppressive history for people like myself. Yet later, as the room filled with mamas (respectable term for older black women) wearing head wraps and west African traditional garb, little black kids with braids in their hair and beautiful smiles, songs of freedom by Jamaican songstress Brina and familiar faces of friends and colleagues, the room began to feel a little more like home. It filled with a sense of love and community, and this place became ours too.
The GoMA, I learned this year, used to be the mansion of William Cunninghame, a tobacconist and a pivotal figure in the Triangle slave trade in Glasgow. I learned that his name, along with the many other names that lay on plaques above the streets of Glasgow belonged to slave traders, and yet ironically Nelson Mandela square stands in the middle of the city centre. The realisation brings about some confusion (but perhaps that is a discussion for another day). The CRER representative who asked me to perform at the event shared this information with me and joked earlier that month that, “NdinguNina could be seen as a ‘revenge performance’”. I laughed, because in many ways it was, but it was also a celebration of my people. And being in that space on the 28th of September and performing NdinguNina felt like a way of reinforcing once again, that “I am still, we are still here”. It was beautiful.