When I decided to apply for a residency in Johannesburg I was undertaking research in the field of popular magic—entertainment, magic tricks— with the aim of integrating elements from these domains into my artistic practice. My previous work has been shaped by questions around how the use of illusions and fictional magic can change our perception, and whether magic tricks can be used to understand cognition. In South Africa I wanted to look at the material culture surrounding traditional healers with particular interest in the paraphernalia and symbols used during rituals and consultations. At the same time, I was reading a lot about ethnological study of witchcraft and its impact on African societies and individual person. One of the most important authors has been David Signer, his book Économie de la sorcellerie, was a great source of inspiration and the starting point for my research. Converging the two topics, witchcraft and traditional healers, led me to South Africa.
I knew about Johannesburg being one of the world’s most unequal and segregated cities, but I never expected such a “divide”, especially in term of separation between black and white, rich and poor. Despite the dangerousness of the CBD, and the fact that you have to be constantly vigilant, for me this area was really inspiring, alive and authentic. While in the city my main activities involved meeting Sangomas (traditional healer), having consultations, visiting the Faraday Muti Market, collecting healing objects and conducting interviews with all sort of traditional healers.
Johannesburg scenes. ©Valentina Pini
One of the main ways I connected with healers was through conversations with taxi drivers. Every time I took a taxi/Uber to move around the city (at least twice a day) I would look inside the car to see if any sort of fetish was visible hanging from the rear-view mirror or hidden somewhere else. In a very spontaneous way I would ask the driver about the origin or meaning of those objects or how they protected themselves against accidents if they didn’t possess any amulets. Drivers were sometimes surprised by my questions but after a little chat they enjoyed explaining anecdotes and the origin of the wooden stick hidden in the dashboard, the goat hair bracelet that they were wearing or the little bottle containing unidentifiable liquid. Over time I gained a certain familiarity in asking the right questions and I received a significant number of contacts for Sangoma, Inyanga (traditional herbalist) and prophets with whom I could arrange consultations. In a bar in Johannesburg I had the opportunity to meet a very particular Sangoma who focuses on doing business consulting for start-ups. His story and voice I later integrated in a sound installation titled The Calling.
Consultation with Johannesburg-based Sangoma, Happy Zwane. ©Valentina Pini
In Johannesburg I decided to set up my personal set of bones according some Sangomas’ advice but also in a very spontaneous way, choosing objects according to my personal feeling. Bones are a set of particular objects used by Sangomas to communicate with ancestors. The bones are “thrown” and the configuration of the way they fall carries specific meanings.
My set of bones, which I keep guarded in my studio, is composed of four goat bones, one vertebrae of a hippopotamus (or so I’ve been told), a domino numbered 1/5, an unidentified black animal horn, a twig that is usually burned to bring luck, a porcupine quill, two perfect halves of nutmeg, a piece of wood shaped like a sling with three black marks, a small branch of white coral, a shell shaped like an eye, a large rounded shell with spotted pattern, a giant flower seed that I can’t identify, a piece of the carapace of an armadillos (probably a big one), the skin of a water animal, a big reddish-brown sleek spherical seed that looks like a giant chestnut and some kind of lizard’s tail.
Selecting bones. ©Valentina Pini
I was drawn to these objects for different reasons. I knew for example that every set of bones needs four goat bones which symbolise one’s four ancestors. I remember choosing them very carefully in a Muti shop with the help of the seller who explained the difference between bones used for a male or a female ancestor. The bones were still covered with remains of flesh, so I had to soak them overnight in bleach in order to clean them. Other objects I chose based on my personal interpretation or analogies, like a shell, which looks like an eye, or a nut, which reminded me of a brain, or a horn, which is strongly related to sexual power. Some objects I just bought because I was intrigued by them and because I couldn’t classify them, not even their materiality. I remember one day rummaging through various things at the Faraday Market and coming across a very small monkey hand in my hand. For a brief moment I had the idea to add it to my set of bones. I was already negotiating the price with the seller when suddenly I was literally overcome by an uncanny feeling, much stronger then a simple feeling of guilt; something frightful. I intuitively let the little hand go. The salesman laughed and told me that the hand is really good for healing people with epilepsy, you just need to mix the hand with herbs and other liquid and drink it.
Muti from the Faraday Market. ©Valentina Pini
I used the objects that I collected, bought or that were given to me in South Africa for a video called Snake Oil in my exhibition that took place in Zurich in September 2019, All objects were cast in lead so that the heavy metal gave them a sort of uniformity but at the same time highlighted their specific texture. The video, in a close up, shows a gradual submersion of the bones into a thick liquid, which has an unusual viscosity. While working on this project in Johannesburg I was very attracted to big shells with opalescent colouring. These have a dominant presence throughout the video. Their shape is reminiscent of an eyes and the grooves allude to eyelashes. The shell is the source of the thick liquid.
Taking time to observe these objects I was able to see them anew; often they are objects of great banality that little by little become loaded with meaning and acquire a magical value. Now, I find myself being intrigued by an object, which leads me to try extract it from its basic function and try to understand the small element or detail, which alters my perception and the way I look at it.
This has influenced my process of working. For a recent exhibition that took place in Berlin in October 2019 I made casts of eels. The process of choosing, treating and positioning the eels in clay before covering them with various layers of silicone and plaster became ritualised and created new awareness for the eel that I manipulated.
From SNAKE OIL solo show at Dienstgabäde in Zürich, 2019
Photos © Diego Brambilla