The artist’s earth-based practice in the mopane woodlands is based on the reciprocity between her ancestral home and the offerings of her art works.
Among the mopane woodlands of southern Zambia, artist Banji Chona is cultivating an earth-based practice in reciprocity with her ancestral home. On a virtual studio visit, I am amused by her reference to herself as a ‘storage facility’, alluding to the multitudes embodied and excavated within her work. Chona calls her homeland “Zambezi” after the Zambezi River, as a distinction from “Zambia,” highlighting the importance of mother-tongue and naming as reclamation that spans beyond colonial borders, waters, and imaginaries. To situate our exchange geographically, from her solar-powered terracotta home in Simonga to my terrace in Accra, Ghana—some six thousand kilometers away—is to honor the space-time communion she alchemizes from the vernacular of her immediate surroundings, interconnected African roots, and seeds of our global ecologies.
Chona’s ongoing involvement in women-focused community development projects, currently with a textile studio, an organic garden, and curating for the Women’s History Museum of Zambia, is where she finds sweet convergence between her background in development and her creative practice. As a storyteller whose work manifests across the artistic, anthropological, and cultural spectrum, the artist says her practice channels a “visceral need to bring to life accessible spaces and bodies of work dedicated to fostering nuanced artistic and cultural dialogue that directly challenge hegemonic occidental systems.” From investigating Indigenous technologies to recent experiments with chlorophyll printing, whereby images are developed on leaves through photosynthesis, Chona is restoring archival mediums through deep engagement with material culture within her locale.
Contemporary And (C&): As you merge your developmental background and artistic practice after your study years abroad, how has your artistic practice shifted or bloomed?
Banji Chona: Living on ancestral soil after a hiatus has alchemized my process and nurtured a deliberate grounding. In communion with the land that my bare feet traverse, as my ancestors did, I unlock an instinctual need to find meaning and orientation through connecting to terra. Both my artistic and developmental practices are rooted in the necessity of personal and collective survival through discovery. The Zambezian and mopane woodlands in the south of Zambia are an interconnected web of ecologies, and the conversations and interactions that exist among and between community and ecosystem ecologies are at the crux of my current bodies of work.
C&: Does the meaning of your name, Banji, find itself intertwined with your life story?
BC: Banji in ciTonga can directly be translated as “many” or “in abundance.” It is often the name given to the second-born twin. I connect this to the duality of my practice. In a sentence, the word would be used to reference the collective, “bantu banji nkobaali,” which means there are many people. My practice is grounded in the existence of multiple narratives and realities. Naming is an important tool used among African cultures to convey certain messages, to either an individual, family members, or a community. It can be linked with sociopolitical factors of countries where anthroponyms and toponyms are found.
C&: Your work stems from a search for an understanding of your ancestral knowledge. When did you realize the deep-rooted interconnectedness of nature and ancestral knowledge? What areas of experimentation in this regard are currently emerging in your practice?
BC: I am guided by the interactions of the community and the plethora of living organisms that exist around me. Specifically, the relationship the Indigenous Tonga, Tokaleya, and Lozi people have to the flora in the area; it has been around for millennia and is rooted in survival, symbiosis, necessity, and care. Homesteads, arguably the center of village life, are mostly made using sustainable principles from vernacular Zambian architecture, which make use of plant-based materials such as wooden poles (malele) and dried grass (bwizu) in tandem with soil-based materials such as anthill clay (buloongo bwa kaulu) and waste products from livestock such as cow dung (mafumba ya ngombe). Cultural expressions/objects like baskets and textiles like rope are made from foraged materials such as (ilala) palm and mopane (mupani) bark.
Through observation and research it becomes painstakingly evident that over the years foreign influence has altered the relationships Indigenous communities have with the earth and natural ecosystems, not only in the southern province but in Zambia as a whole. For example, basketry has become a popular product in tourist-oriented markets, which has impacted levels of which the palm-tree harvesting. Both practices are now disconnected from Indigenous roots, fueled by a newly forged and imposed connection to the foreign, with serious negative impacts.
C&: We can define a medium as both an artistic tool and as an artist: a person who negotiates with the spirit. I see this in the interplay of permanence and impermanence in your work. Are there any ways in which Tonga spirituality or beliefs influence your use of materials?
BC: One medium I am working with in present bodies of work is musila, a type of red ochre found dispersed across the country, with a high concentration in the southern province where the baTonga reside. My people believe ancestral homelands or the place where mizimu (spirits) go when they leave the earthen plane is filled with this red ochre. During funeral processions the chief mourners or the immediate family of the deceased wear musila on their faces as in identity marker. Outside of funeral practices musila is used as a medium that anoints girls into womanhood. There’s a sacred connection between the baTonga and this earthen material, and therefore a sacred connection between myself as a Tonga woman and the red ochre. The earthen materials in my work signal an impermanence or ephemerality, mirroring the cycle of life. From earth we came, to earth we will return.
C&: How does memory manifest in your process, and how have photographic archives played a role in this?
BC: Memory is sentiment and connection (re)stored. It is traceable action and thought. It is love. A gathering of networks of things tangible and intangible, often conduits and access points of the metaphysical. I reconfigured my understanding of memory and the preservation and deterioration of it during a time of both harshness and softness. My grandmother, the backbone of my life, battled with Alzheimer’s for a few years. I found analogue photographs of familiar things were a way for her to ground back into understanding her present spaces and sentiments in relation to her past. This influenced my current practice of using past ecologies and anthropological images, in relation to collective memory, as lines of traceability and revival of ancestral Zambezian histories – as seen in my project Ngoma zya Budima (Drums of Darkness).
C&: Being a person who cares deeply for the land, in what ways do you think that traditional ecological practices can provide sustainable future-facing solutions for the environmental crisis today?
BC: My practice is very much based on a revival of these symbiotic relationships and processes. Through unearthing the collective Indigenous knowledge and technologies which lay dormant and alchemizing it into action and bodies of work, I look towards a future that takes into account the issues affecting Indigenous communities in Zambia.
Banji Chona is a storage facility, storyteller, and alchemist. At the core of her practice is the exploration of and dialogue between Ancestral Zambezian** Earth, Present-day and Projected Future(s).
Ethel-Ruth Tawe is an image-maker, storyteller, and time-traveler based between continents. She is a multidisciplinary artist, curator, and writer exploring memory and archives across Africa and the Diaspora.