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Divine Realms

By Greg Thomas, 18.09.2023
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Mutambi, featuring Mele Broomes. Credit: Douglas Tyrrell Bunge. Svikiro, Sekai Machache. Mount Stuart, 2023. Image by Keith Hunter.

In the Shona culture of Zimbabwe and southern Africa, the Svikiro is “one who mediates between the spiritual and human world, receiving visions in dreams, performs healing rituals and serves as a messenger.” Sekai Machache invokes this persona to transport us to an alternative version of Mount Stuart, the ornate gothic mansion where her new exhibition, Svikiro, is set. In a series of site- responsive films, singers and dancers move around the gardens and interiors of Mount Stuart, filling them with gesture and echo as if they were saturating them with a new reality—one in which the presence of Black subjects was less anomalous. Our protagonists wear lush, period-inspired costumes, many of them hand-painted by the artist.

Present Existence, featuring Alberta Whittle. Credit: Ambroise of Paradax Period. Svikiro, Sekai Machache. Mount Stuart, 2023. Image by Keith Hunter.

At the centre of this show is a long film playing in Mount Stuart’s grand marble hall. It opens with Machache sitting on a rocky shore, insects hopping up the train of her indigo-decorated, calico dress. Her face is veiled and she looks into a mirror, a gesture of shrouding and reflection repeated later on, riffing on the idea of parallel dimensions, perhaps of seeking home in another world. A poem by the artist read in voiceover invokes sleeping or banished goddesses, whom we sense being brought back to life by what follows. “Are you the trickling rain through the forest leaves?...When were you forgotten? Was it a moment or was it a lifetime?”

The remainder of the 45-minute video-piece, itself called ‘Svikiro’, comprises a series of discrete performances by Machache and her collaborators. They include singers Eyve Madyise and Trisha Margolis, dancer Mele Broomes, and filmmaker Alberta Whittle (a performance artist for the purposes of this project). Many of these performances infuse their surroundings with a different and better quality of reality. But Whittle’s movements allude to entrapment or submersion, prodding and pounding against the walls and floors of a long corridor. The effects are complemented by a delay-heavy synth-and-string soundtrack. This sequence, followed by a narrative reference to “the horrors of the hold,” comes close to naming the middle passage as a theme. 

The Banyan Tree, featuring Sekai Machache. Credit: Douglas Tyrrell Bunge. Svikiro, Sekai Machache. Mount Stuart, 2023. Image by Keith Hunter.

Extended edits of the individual performances play in the rooms in which they were filmed, with costumes and props left nearby for visitors to find, colour-matched to their surroundings. Have we have just missed something magical? Might it continue after we leave? A strange effect is created by watching recordings of the spaces in which we stand: the two versions are identical in appearance yet seem distinct in enlivening spirit. We are perhaps invited to imagine, though on terms that elude precise exposition, an environment just like our own but that is, and has always been, more open to Black bodies and voices, and animated by more benign divinities than the ones our history has created.

Svikiro by Sekai Machache is exhibited at Mount Stuart until 29th October