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Lungiswa Gqunta: Sleep in Witness

Henry Moore Institute, Leeds

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A woman walks through Lungiswa Gqunta’s sculpture 'Ntabamanzi', made from barbed wire and blue wool. The sculpture is designed to look like a wave breaking against the wall of the gallery.

Lungiswa Gqunta (b. 1990) is a South African sculptor who works across assemblage, installation, performance and printmaking.

Sleep in Witness traces the intangible world of dreams as a space of learning where extraordinary, overlooked and discredited places of knowledge are illuminated. The exhibition includes two new installations, Zinodaka 2022 and Ntabamanzi 2022, along with the video Gathering 2019.

Gqunta examines the enclosures imposed upon African knowledge systems and sees this deprival as a symptom of colonial history and conquest. She positions dreams as a response to this curtailment and a space from which new languages, wisdoms and information for living emerge.

Lungiswa Gqunta – Dream, Ancestors, and the Ocean

The artist talks about the environments she creates, the emotional connections to her work and her ancestors, and the ocean that motivated her exhibition Sleep in Witness.

The exhibition opens with Zinodaka 2022, an installation that considers the faith and belief systems of Black ancestors as spaces of knowledge and information. Its floor of cracked clay and sand is proof of something living, not necessarily human but something ancient. This landscape, along with glass rocks that appear like water, offer an appeal to consider sources of knowledge that have often disappeared, been cast aside or discredited as non-existent.

One of the cruel legacies of the apartheid regime is the criminalisation of Black aquatic spiritual practices and the curtailment of water-based ways of acquiring knowledge in South Africa. Ntabamanzi 2022 is not a reaction to this brutality, but rather a display of a new consciousness and alterity — a state of being different or other — that exists in spite of this historical wound. Made from barbed wire wrapped in fabric, the installation fills the exhibition’s central gallery like a drawing in space with vast, wave-like forms.

Gathering recalls the domestic act of folding sheets with maternal figures on a Sunday afternoon, an act that is part of Black oral traditions. The video is a contemplation of the moments in-between the motion of one sheet corner as it approaches another; the space where a curious question may be asked or information shared. As a child, the act of folding sheets became a time to access knowledge. Throughout this exhibition, Gqunta is persistent about one thing: ways of knowing.

Lungiswa Gqunta at work installing her sculpture 'Ntabamanzi', made from barbed wire and blue wool. The sculpture is designed to look like a wave breaking against the wall of the gallery.
Lungiswa Gqunta at work installing her sculpture 'Ntabamanzi' 2022. Photo: Min Young Lim.

About the artist


Lungiswa Gqunta lives and works in Cape Town. She is one of the founding members of iQhiya, with whom she participated in Documenta 14 and Glasgow International.

Her solo exhibitions include Tending to the harvest of dreams 2021, ZOLLAMTMMK Museum of Modern Art, Frankfurt; Lungiswa Gqunta 2019, Apalazzo Gallery, Brescia, Italy; Qwitha 2018, WHATIFTHEWORLD, Cape Town; Poolside Conversations 2017, Kelder Projects, London and Qokobe 2016, WHATIFTHEWORLD, Cape Town.

Group exhibitions include Ubuntu a Lucid Dream 2021, Palais de Tokyo, Paris; Living Forgiving Remembering 2020, Museum Arnheim, Netherlands; Garden of Earthly Delights 2019, Gropius Bau, Berlin and The Planetary Garden, Cultivating Coexistence, Manifesta Biennial 12, Palermo (2018).

Gqunta attended the Gasworks Residency, London; Women on Aeroplanes workshop, Centre for Contemporary Art, Lagos, and the Nirox Residency, Cradle of Humankind in 2018.

Events programme

Lungiswa Gqunta

Essays on Sculpture
Issue 80

The latest issue of our Essays on Sculpture series examines Lungiswa Gqunta’s work and the painful legacies of colonialism and the apartheid regime in South Africa.

This issue includes an introduction by the exhibition’s curator, Laurnece Sillars, alongside a new essay by Nombuso Mathibela, a cultural worker, educator and sonic practitioner based in Johannesburg. It also reproduces the interpretative wall texts that Mathibela made for the exhibition, and stunning photography of Gqunta’s work.

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Interview: Lungiswa Gqunta / Nombuso Mathibela

A series of thoughts on feelings behind Sleep in Witness.

Nombuso Mathibela: The opening image of the exhibition is a photograph of Lungiswa Gqunta’s mothers beautifully in repose at the beach in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. They are the heliocentrics of this work. Everything orbits around this matriarchal lineage. The intimacy archived in this photograph finds itself in the way the work deals with water and dreams as wildfire moments of anti-colonial joy and restoration. Poet and playwright Derek Walcott (1930-2017) saw the sea as history, a history contaminated by colonial violence where it became the symbol of Black people’s suffering and survival. Writer Dionne Brand (b. 1953) spoke about water as a way of looking into the world, or our perceptions of the world. Water becomes this big vessel of the earth, an unwarranted burial site holding the contamination of white doing and a witness in itself of too much terror and catastrophe.

For Lungiswa Gqunta, water is a way of knowing and a site of concrete imagination that places us in the presence of destiny. Water is a library of the afterlife and its members who are family. Ancient elders, old lineages, unknown faces only recognisable through resemblance found in a grandmother’s facial expression when she says: ‘you look like my mother!’; voices that hold us with familiarity and call and whisper our clan names into wakefulness. Water is the archive that holds the responses to aching and persisting collective grief, and the algorithm, patterns and formats for our reinvention. Gqunta’s Sleep in Witness is an arresting gesture for us to think about other ways of doing knowledge or coming into consciousness. It calls for the abandonment of sight as the central way of knowing how to live in the world. Life is understood here, as a cycle of different continuities and dualities, and death is positioned as a change of space, environment and flesh, not the end of life.

Sleep in Witness signals novelist Toni Morrison’s (1931-2019) idea of a working practice that is returning to discredited information, discredited ways of knowing and discredited people. Gqunta’s work appeals for an examination of sources of knowledge and it speaks directly to Toni Cade Bambara’s (1939-95) salt eaters, to those eating their own tears discreetly with much shame and self-persecution for conditions that happened to them. Weeping for things that they found here and are being subjected to. Things that will not let them rest. Persisting messages and symbols that wait for sleep in order to knock upon and open doors that give us new reasons for our existence as Blacks in a world that has spent centuries hollowing us out.

Photograph of Lungiswa Gqunta's mothers, mid-1970s. Courtesy the artist.
Detail of Lungiswa Gqunta's installation 'Zinodaka', showing two amophous glass sculptures, one blue and one clear, resting on a bed of dried, cracked clay.
Lungiswa Gqunta, 'Zinodaka' 2022. Photo: Rob Harris.

Sleep becomes a space for reviving our consciousness as Black people. It becomes a refusal and an epistemic recital of subjectivity. Slumber is a channel to the unconscious – a conduit of sorts – of spirits, elders, mountain waters, blue and white beaded feet and voices of the afterlife wailing out blessings for our reinvention. The water in Gqunta’s work is about reinvention as a return to self and restoration. It is a pilgrim-esque act of remembrance and a refusal of the tragedy of forgetting. Anti-forgetful revolutionary theology reminds the conquered that we have a value system outside the catastrophic logic of domination. The wars against oppression are also fought and pleaded for in the spiritual realm. By honouring the rituals of the spirit in the physical realm we secure different ways of being free in the material world of white doing.

The title ‘Sleep in Witness’ sounds different every time I read it. It has this instructive element to it and then it also sounds as if you are the witness in this aesthetic relation. The witness in a dream. The witness to different ways in which knowledge formats itself for digestion. Or the oracle, calling for those in the space to examine sleep as a site where the radical alterity we seek resides. All I know is that this work makes me hopeful.

Lungiswa Gqunta: It started as ‘Sleep as Witness’ and I changed the wording as it was really about being a witness in sleep. I wanted to give people a clue or hint that you don’t have to be awake to witness things and many of us witness a lot of things in different states of being, and one of them is when we are sleeping. I have been thinking about sleeping, the act of sleeping itself and how layered and thick it is. I was thinking about the different places in which we learn or under what conditions we are capable of learning things. Sleep in itself holds a lot of information.

NM: It really does. We sleep to acquire knowledge; it is not only about resting the body. It is about the encounters that take place in altered consciousness. ‘We need a new consciousness!’ said the voices of Black consciousness, a new soul reformatting, one that matches who we are in our resistance to ill-treatment. This capitalist colonial regime also stole our sleep by commodifying our waking moments and tying survival to wage – early mornings and late nights. The brutality of this labour regime goes to our core ability to spend time in dreams and this otherworld where mountains and water are inseparable entities.

Lungiswa Gqunta, 'Gathering 5.11.19 #1' 2019. Courtesy the artist and WHATIFTHEWORLD Gallery.
Detail of Lungiswa Gqunta's installation 'Zinodaka', with a woman standing on a bed of dried, cracked clay. We can only see her black trainers and leggings covering her ankles, and the shadow she casts across the ground in front of her.
Lungiswa Gqunta, 'Zinodaka' 2022. Photo: Rob Harris.

LG: In the first room of the exhibition, I want it to be dark: this is the room where the ground is cracked clay with glass water droplets or rocks. Some will be stacked and some will just be laying on the ground. I want there to be concentrated light shining directly onto the glass to allow for these beautiful watery reflections on the walls, on the floor and on the ceiling, to feel like you are in water but also on land at the same time. I want an environment that feels like it was inhabited by something, that feels like it has been lived on and not necessarily by people but by something. It needs to feel like there is something living or alive in this space at all times even though there is no presence of human figures or anything like that, but it’s always important for me that a trace of something living exists within the installation.

NM: People generally use clay on their face to signal something, an example being the Eastern Cape people known as ‘Amaqaba’, who were ostracised and cast aside by the colonial state and the Christianised groups among the Xhosa people. Labelled as uneducated and ignorant for their refusal to take up Christian education, they chose to hold tight to their traditions, philosophies and aesthetics.

I think of this group that refused negation, dressed in their clothing and wearing red ochre on their faces as a signifier of their freedom. Clay has always represented that quiet collective strength and supreme performance of subjectivity. It is about acceptance of self and the gifts of wisdom, ancient knowledge and technologies of living that come from this act of self-recognition. So, to see it in this work, whether intended or not, reveals a lot of wisdom about parts of us that are unconquerable and those aesthetic representations.

LG: The reason I arrived with clay is because I had been working with soil and natural elements for a minute now. I work with water in terms of it turning into rust and in all kinds of other ways. In a previous installation, Riotous Assembly 2019, the walls were painted brown and a video was projected. The ground was soil, with these weird offcuts that I had dug up from this ceramic thing where they recycle clay – it was just a bin of clay. So I dug and hammered whatever I could out of it. I put the chunks I had hammered out, like mining for something, and took whatever I found and laid it within the soil.

Lungiswa Gqunta, 'Riotous Assembly' 2019, video, soil, clay, fabric, mandini paper, chalk. Courtesy the artist and WHATIFTHEWORLD Gallery. Photo: Gert Jan van Rooij.
Close up photo showing coins withing Lungiswa Gqunta’s sculpture 'Ntabamanzi', made from barbed wire and blue wool.
Lungiswa Gqunta, detail of 'Ntabamanzi' 2022. Photo: Rob Harris.

I wanted to do something similar for this first room and I wanted to change its consistency so it moves less. The way I used it first, the soil travelled – it moves with the people that are walking with it. After time, this happens with grass – that’s how paths emerge. With soil, it hardens into a rock-like form which is quite beautiful and so, for me, I wanted that rock-like thing. I wanted to have hardened soil in the space and, depending on the kind of soil, once it dries for it to become dustier and move in a different way. I have been thinking about soil and how it interacts with people, how it changes form under people’s weight, walking, running, whatever.

NM: Thinking about how people move is an ongoing appeal of the work, whether it’s lawns, gardens, barbed wire or petrol bombs – motion is being interrogated from different vantage points. The conditions upon which people have access to either beaches, gardens or dreams all collide to express the ongoing struggle for space in all its senses.

The second room is also an aquatic interrogation of space. There is an inherent anchoring feeling that one is in water in every sense and there is a shrine-like presence of silver coins and wire wrapped in varying tones of blue that cascade into the room like water. These objects represent a range of feelings that invite the viewer to be in oneness with the blues and contemplate movement, colonial conditioning and self-invention. The sonic in the installation Gathering 2019 is a continuation of this appeal to movement and the fugitive. Voices inhabit the space at all times. Like the clay and water that move, contaminating each witness, the voice is also a material instrument and conduit for feelings that language often fails to account for.

LG: I try to work with feelings and emotions and if I can resonate with people in terms of that then I am fine. Emotionally, I feel a great need to do so because that is the language I am trying to wield as a way of communicating, as a way of making and sharing ideas. I want to do it through emotion, through feelings. I am using the visual to help, but really the main source is sharing feelings and sharing spirit with people.

NM: The silver coins, wrapped wire and different shades of blue, cracked grounds, rocks, water and mountains are gestures that reveal an anti-colonial posture of Feeling that is ever-present in Gqunta’s work. Creating an aesthetic from this place allows every act of it to be heard, seen and received in the afterlife and the ongoing world of elders as acts of sacrifice, recognition and radical freedom.

Nombuso Mathibela is a Johannesburg based cultural worker, educator, writer, sound practitioner and vinyl collector.

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