The visionary multi-media artist Sekai Machache is already renowned for her subversive, expressionistic and staggeringly crafted artistic practices, and her latest exhibition only confirms her powers. In Svikiro, Machache has responded to and worked alongside the space of its presentation, the magisterial Mount Stuart House in Rothesay, on the Isle of Bute.
In a hybrid form of artistic practice that includes film, gestural performance, song, and materiality, Machache has composed a brilliantly evocative and entirely original assembly. We were lucky enough to catch up with Sekai to discuss the inspirations behind this new body of work, the spiritual significance of her artistic practice, and the singularly fulfilling joy of creative collaboration.
For readers who might be unfamiliar, would you be happy expanding on the term ‘Svikiro’ for us, the mother title of all the works now showing at Mount Stuart House? What drew you to using this title in particular?
I’ve been working on a series of projects for a while that I’m calling immersive; the first of them was Body of Land and the second was The Divine Sky. The way I work now is I create, as you say, a mother term or umbrella term that encompasses all the work that is going to be made for that particular project. That allows me to work across disciplines, to collaborate with other people, and to create a larger body of work that then can be showcased in lots of different forms.
The term itself is a Shona word meaning spirit. But it also has another kind of meaning, a person, someone whose role within the community would be to heal other people using specific skills that they’ve acquired, like healing through root work or healing with herbs, or someone who invokes a spiritual experience through dance, music, or through art. I wanted to create a body of work where I invited other practitioners [to collaborate] whose practices also have a kind of healing modality embedded into it, people who also have a spiritual dimension to their work as well. I wanted to have them come into the space and respond to Mount Stuart house, to the grounds, to then create a body of work that each person that’s involved in has been able to bring their own flavour, their own way of healing, into it.
How does the spiritual import of ‘Svikiro’ work alongside those of your previous works? Is art perhaps a mediating agent between the physical and spiritual world(s) for you, a form of metaphysical connection?
I’ve started doing this work when I was a child. My entire life has been dreaming and writing poetry from my dreams, then trying to capture the essence of what it is that I was I’ve picked up. When I was in art school I ended up looking at psychoanalysis and psychology specifically as a way of looking at the mind particularly. Then I got really interested in shamanic practices and other spiritual forms of knowledge from outside of the West, in order to better understand all of the different ways that people have codified this relationship between the mind, the body, and the spirit.
When I was a child, I was raised in a very, very Christian culture. I always questioned a lot of things. I was one of those children who would go to church with everyone but didn’t necessarily understand why we were there. I enjoyed the music, the experience and the atmosphere, but I didn’t understand what it was that we were really doing. It was very much about something external and outside of us, rather than about something that’s happening internally.
I had all these spiritual experiences, but they would not be considered that way by the people who went to church. I did a lot of research around African spiritual practices and the role of Christianity and Islam, enslavement and [the] colonial project. I felt very strongly that I needed to counter this by looking at more traditional Pagan engagements with spirituality. It’s actually everything that I think about, and everything I care about.
In Svikro you work with artists such as Alberta Whittle, Mele Broomes and Eyve Madyise, what draws you to artistic collaboration, particularly the physical and gestural? Did you find it easy to synthesise your independent visions of what Svikiro would become as you worked together?
Each of us has different relationships with one another, some of us have known each other for maybe 10 years. So for me, I have a relationship with every single person that I work with, like a friendship. Some of them I consider sisters, literally chosen family. I have this long-standing working and collaborative practice with Alberta, I’ve done performances with her for years. I show up in her work, and she shows up in mine. It’s this really nice reciprocal relationship.
Mele I had worked with a few times, and I wanted to develop my movement practice, so I invited her first to help me with my practice for the project. Everything comes about through the vision that I have, and then the conversations that I have with the people; what are their skills like, who’s in the best place to manoeuvre the landscape and then come into the house and manoeuvre that space? We had lots and lots of conversations over food or at each other’s houses, just doing each other’s hair.
Between myself and Alberta and myself and Mele, we go off, and they experiment and play with their materials and with their choreography or whatever it is that they do, and then they create something completely unique. So while I feel very much involved, I also give lots of space for the collaborators to do what they do best, a lot of it is based on trust.
With Eyve, we talked about spirit, we talked about our ancestries, we’re both Zimbabwean and the relationship to which is tenuous with both of us. We talked about our relationship to spirit and discussed the House and everything that it represents. I asked her to come into the space, I wanted her to respond to it with her voice and to make her voice, as big as or even bigger than the space. I said, use everything that you have, and try to express whatever it is that the space makes you feel. Her response was this original song that she wrote, which is titled Svikiro.
I really would not have been able to create something so beautiful myself, so I love that reciprocal process of passing on the information, giving space and then allowing people to just do their thing. I feel like what I’ve been doing is guiding, supporting and giving the grounds for people to do what they do.
Mount Stuart House was rebuilt by John Crichton-Smith, whose abiding interest in spirituality, occultism, and religion is explicit in the architecture of the building. It’s an interest your work shares – how did you negotiate and work with the space?
Honestly, I felt really, really excited, and quite humbled by the invitation. I’m a Black artist, I talk about Blackness in my art quite a lot, but I didn’t intend to make work that related to practising identity. When I was first at art school I was interested in just making art and of course looking at the things I’ve been talking about, like dreams and spirituality. So I’ve been desperate for someone to see my work for what it is, not just a token gesture of invitation to a black artist to respond to a space. My practice is also very engaged with historical narratives, slavery and colonialism, but my main interests are going to be spirituality, occultism, symbolism, and so on.
When I got the invitation, I felt like, wow, they see me, they see my work, and what I’m trying to say. The house, the space, the grounds, everything just really spoke all those things for me. I felt really excited to make something that responded to that space. But I also wanted it to be very beautiful, very alluring, thinking about using a similar tactic or process to what the 3rd Marquess might have been trying to do with the House, which is to hide things in plain sight, to give people information without them necessarily knowing that they’re receiving it. I felt like I was working with the architecture of the building, and with the grounds, working with that eclectic hidden knowledge system and symbolism process that the 3rd Marquess was doing as well.
While the works in Svkiro gesture towards futurity as a creative principle, I’m intrigued by the intense immediacy of the present moment which flows through these new works, from the more obvious Present Existence to Svikiro Tiripano, Tiripano translating in Shona to ‘we are here’. How do our creative works of the present help create a desired future?
There’s a concept of time that I work with because I don’t understand linear time, it doesn’t really make sense to me. I have looked at a lot of different forms of cyclical time and ways that it’s been described in different cultures and practises for many thousands of years. I also looked at concepts of African Time, meaning a relationship to the past and present with no real capacity or ability to really ever engage with, or exist in the potential future because we have been perpetually placed in our history, if that makes sense. I wanted, with the Present Existence work, that we create that notion of ancestors who may or may not be present in that space, in a different time period. Even if they couldn’t be in that particular place we are all perpetually in, we are there with them anyway, and they’re with us all the time.
My understanding of the present has only really broadened since I started to learn about our history and colonialism and its impact on the world, and I’m talking about that in terms for everyone, not just for Black people, not just for people who are descendants of enslavement and colonialism, but for every single person on this planet. The fact that something that has been such a huge process, that has gone on for 600 hundred years now seems to be lost on quite a lot of people. It’s not through any fault of their own, it’s just that the information is not being given to us, we’re not being taught this history, the gravity of its impact on everyone.
Svikiro is at Mount Stuart House on Bute till 29th October. More information here.