Nondumiso Msimanga explores rituals for rape survivors

Image: Zeno Petersen

Rituals are conduits for connections. Some address imbalances and seek resolution with the aim of restoring a sense of equilibrium when there’s been a disturbance in the home. But what does performing a ritual do to the body and spirit which affirms its purpose?

This form the basis for performance artist and provocateur Nondumiso Msimanga’s exploration of what form a ritual for rape could take.

Msimanga is one of the subjects of Gabrielle Goliath's immersive and ritualistic exhibition, This Song Is For, which is a haunting memorial of what it is like to survive rape.

This is captured in songs chosen by the eight survivors and reproduced by women and genderqueer-led musical ensembles. Each song has a sonic disruption, a disturbance resembling the sound of a scratched or broken vinyl record. This interruption, which lasts for some time before the song returns to normal, is a metaphor for the trauma that rape leaves etched in the psyche of survivors. Each song goes with the survivor’s testimonial printed on a purple wall.

Msimanga’s chosen song is The Braids’s cover version of the Queen classic Bohemian Rhapsody. With it go her searing words: “… I have to fight to not want to kill myself … I’m a fighter and every day I’m fighting for my life; fighting for it to matter.”

In her fight for survival, she has immersed herself in a conceptual exploration of protest performance against rape, as a response to the lack of a ritual that addresses rape in her Zulu culture.

The ongoing work comprises a series of performances based on rituals that do exist, with the aim of researching what transformative effects the performance of the rituals yield so that the revelations inform what a ritual for rape could look like and what it should do. 

First in her series was uNokuthula, performed at the Johannesburg Art Gallery last year. This took the form of a cleansing ritual. In parts of the performance, Msimanga was seen frantically trying to wash a stubborn stain from her grandmother’s red pinafore, with her frustration filling the room.

“Nokuthula is my mother’s name and uNokuthula was in protest of the fact that there is no ritual for rape in Zulu culture. And I haven’t found it anywhere in Nguni culture at all yet,” says Msimanga.

“With it, I was looking at how my mother, my caregiver, did not have rituals that she could perform when I was raped. She had no access to anything that she could do for me that could help. It was really debilitating for her as a caregiver. It was also debilitating for our relationship because I needed some guidance on what to do and how we could address it. And so we never spoke about it because we had nothing to do,” Msimanga says.

Image: Warren Nebe

Msimanga’s mother later performed uMemulo for her daughter as a gesture of love and support. Although the ritual did not acknowledge the rape, it did inspire Msimanga’s second piece She Wore Red Nokuthula.

With it she re-envisioned uMemulo as an act of love that fosters communal support for the woman who must fight for her rights in relation to men. It continued her investigation into what existing rituals could offer to a new ritual for rape.  

She performed She Wore Red Nokuthula at the My Body My Space arts festival in Mpumalanga in April, as uMemulo with all its elements, including sitting in silent meditation; gift-giving; song and dance and washing at a river. She added a meditative procession - walking to guide the public towards accessing the process.     

“The ritual kept bringing men into the space and in conversation with what I was doing. Many saw my performance as a public protest. The man who became my guardian during the whole process felt that what I was essentially praying for, and putting into consciousness, wasn’t only about the search for healing, it was also about freedom for women,” Msimanga shares.

Image: Chantel Thomas

“The fascinating thing for me was that the reason why I needed the ritual was because I couldn’t connect with men because I was afraid of them. There was something incredibly magical about that experience that allowed all of us to see each other and just pause. It became apparent, too, that I was looking for peace, as in my mother’s name. Her presence in this journey is profound,” she adds.

She Wore Red Nokuthula shifted, transformed and opened up something for Msimanga, but did not complete it. She is working the third part of her series, which explores aspects of a mourning ritual.

“What I sat with coming back is that in figuring out what kind of ritual needs to be made for rape, we first need to acknowledge and grieve for what happened. We do that by sitting when we mourn, with things like umlindelo and people coming to sit with you, to share the space and grief with you. We need a collective and public grieving for all the people walking around with this thing that has happened to them, this thing that puts them in disharmony with themselves, their families and the world itself. And because we [rape victims and survivors] are alive, we’re not allowed to grieve ourselves,” she says.    

Msimanga’s research includes looking into rituals for rape throughout the continent. She is due to travel to Ghana next month, where they do have a ritual for rape, to see how it could inform a local ritual for rape.