In January 2023, the Yale MacMillan Center’s Council on African Studies sponsored research trips to South Africa for two Ph.D. candidates, Alex Fialho and Alexandra “Aly” Thomas, in the Departments of the History of Art and African American Studies at Yale.
In order to expand their investigation into South African art, Ph.D. candidates, Thomas and Fialho traveled together to a number of South African cities. Alex Fialho, a fourth-year Ph.D. candidate, works to historicize the ongoing HIV/AIDS pandemic in the context of Black cultural production. Fifth-year Ph.D. candidate Alexandra M. Thomas’s research focuses include global modern and contemporary art; African and African diaspora visual culture; feminist and queer theory; performance studies; architecture, film, and media.
Thomas’ scholarship focuses on South African contemporary artists, mostly women, who are leading the way in addressing issues of domesticity, gender, and feminism. In the Hand of Afrekete: Black Queer Feminist Errantry and Global African Art, the title of her dissertation, examines mixed media assemblage as a location for worldmaking.
In Johannesburg, she met with artists Usha Seejarim who uses household items such as brooms, irons, and scouring pads in her work and Senzeni Marasela whose photograph of a torn-apart baby doll lying in the grass symbolizes the trauma of her Apartheid-era childhood. She writes about both of these artists using the theoretical frameworks of colonial domesticity and transnational Black feminism.
According to the center, Thomas reflected, “The most meaningful aspect of the trip for me was definitely the hours and hours I got to spend sitting with South African women artists throughout Johannesburg, Hamburg, and Cape Town and talking to them about their lives and their artistic practice.” Thomas was also grateful for the opportunity to write a review of a landmark exhibition by the Keiskamma Art Project, which has been a focal point for both students while at Yale.
Alex Fialho has theorized and written about Keiskamma Art Project’s artwork as Black cultural production and resistance, has considered its connection to health disparities resulting from globalization and anti-Blackness, and has explored several of the piece’s complex references to Western canonical art. This women’s art collective, Keiskamma Art Project, which started in 2000 produces major textile artworks to “aid in the archiving of the rural Eastern Cape’s collective memory and the preservation of oral history,” according to its website. From September 2022 to March 2023, Constitution Hill in Johannesburg hosted a Keiskamma retrospective entitled “dying and rising, as the moon does.”
According to the center, Fialho explained, “Keiskamma Altarpiece (2005) and Keiskamma Guernica (2010) highlight the perspectives of women and children deeply impacted by HIV/AIDS. With stunning scale and magnificent embroidery, these artworks manifest a daring vision of resilience and family amidst mourning and loss.”
The Art Project’s early response to the HIV/AIDS pandemic in the nation was the monumental Keiskamma Altarpiece, which was completed in 2005. Its centerfold includes three grandmothers from the Eastern Cape with their grandkids in life-size black-and-white images in addition to elaborate and colorful scenarios represented in fabric, beads, and wirework.
The scholarship considerably improved and deepened by the priceless first-hand opportunity for the Ph.D. candidates to interact with these works of art and artists. Fialho was able to see and interview the artists that created the Keiskamma Altarpiece on this research trip. These artists included textile artists Nozeti Makhubalo and Veronica Betani in Hamburg and photographer Tanya Jordaan in Cape Town.