donna Kukama

donna Kukama was born in 1981 in Mafikeng, South Africa. In this interview, Kukama talks candidly about her artist and academic trajectories, the themes that inspire her performances, and more.

Author: Laura Burocco


Can you tell us a little about your artistic trajectory?

When did you start and where did your desire to devote yourself to art come from?

I have always had an interest in art, and at some point, in early high school, I knew I was an artist.  When I started my higher education, I ended up studying industrial engineering, which was kind of horrific. I dropped out, and for the first time I took art seriously. My initial interest was in the two-dimensional media. I did painting, photography, and printmaking, but considered myself a painter. When I grew tired of the medium because I found it limiting, I started making long looped video recordings from everyday bodily actions, like breathing and swallowing. At the time I had no idea about performance art, and it was a kind of intuitive response to painting, with the videos taking on a very painterly aesthetic.  

I had no references to performance as a medium, and I really thought I was inventing something completely new and never done before! When Marina Abramovich gave a talk at JAG and I came across her work, I thought “Oh wow! This is kind of like, what I have been doing!” Soon after, Ingrid Mwangi came to give a small workshop where I was studying, and for some reason I was not invited to join the workshop, but I kept an eye and followed at a distance, also researching her work on my own. This further added to my realization that what I was doing had a name. I was like “Ok I am a performance artist!”


And how was the experience of developing your own language at that time in South Africa?

At the time (late 90’s, early 2000’s) identity politics were an important topic, especially for artists who were just a generation above me. I did not feel that my work had to immediately follow that route, and I was particularly uncomfortable to speak of my identity while being surrounded by white lecturers, who were pushing for the identity stuff in ways that I felt were superficial. As a response to that, I was also presenting nails as sculptures, or paintings made of hair, in a tongue-in-cheek way of saying “here is the ‘identity’ you are asking for”, but this in itself only dug me deeper into a box, and the only way I could regain control was through “live art”, where audience and place could add interesting layers to the work.

In 2005 – after I had finished my bachelor’s degree and I was teaching for a year and an half in Pretoria – I had just registered for masters and went on an exchange program in Switzerland. I stayed and gained a Master of Arts in the Public Sphere. I think that moment was helpful, because for the first time, I did not have anyone asking me to work with my identity, and somehow, I found ways to arrive at my subject matter on my own, and on my own terms. During those studies I also became increasingly interested in site-specificity and context-specific work. When I came back to South Africa, my interest grew towards history, public monuments, and memorials, acts of protest, and thinking of my body in public space in relation to all these historical questions. I was moving from an interest in fallacies within economic and value systems, and now looking at who is represented in public, and how they are represented.

... and their last words became an unwritten song 2019, Graphite, oil pastel, acrylic, lullabies, and erasure on canvas 181.5 x 162.5 Image courtesy of the artist and blank projects, Cape Town.
The rain clouds gathered, knowing how their tears would become a violent storm in waiting... 2019, Graphite, oil pastel, acrylic, solidarity and fingernails on canvas 218.5 x 189 cm Image courtesy of the artist and blank projects, Cape Town.

Two performances you made in that period are Not Yet (and nobody knows why not) made in Kenya in 2008 and The Swing (after after Fragonard) in Johannesburg in 2009, can you tell us more about them?

In 1998 there was the bombing of the US embassy in Nairobi and a lot of Kenyans were affected. I was there ten years after the bombing and really interested in how we collectively memorialize those events. It was clear that every year, the entire world would remember 9/11 and I am not saying those lives that were lost do not matter, or that the trauma is any less. What I am pointing at is the opposite, that there was kind-of this hyper memorializing of an American tragedy globally, and then complete silence on what had happened in Kenya, to Kenyan citizens, at an American embassy there. I was thinking of the invisibility of this particular event, and when I visited a memorial that was built for it, I was deeply disappointed because again you have this very basic architecture for the memorial that was built as a memory of the lives lost and those who were injured. Outside there was a plaque with the names of the victims and when you walked inside there were photographs from the event, with a lot of the people with blood on their faces, in distress, running. I found this dehumanizing and very insensitive to the families, to have to see these kinds of images in a national monument. I felt there was a problem with how Europeans deal with public memories, and how we have adopted this system, which can feel inhumane and is very different to cultures of bodies gathering in space or the passing of oral histories.

At the same time there was this protest by Mau-Mau veterans who had fought for independence against the British during the 1952-1960 Mau-Mau rebellion. Their gathering was at a park called Uhuru Gardens, and they were there to raise concerns about how the Kenyan government did not recognize their contribution to the struggle for Kenya’s independence. I was interested again in returning to this question of erasure or not being recognized and seeking a language that would sit between visibility and invisibility, so in Not Yet (And Nobody Knows Why Not), I stood at the park entrance where people were arriving and later departing, walking in and out of the frame of vision. I did not want to do anything to ask for too much attention and just started to cover my face with red lipstick. I was also thinking that as a South African I cannot tell a Kenyan story, so in that moment, I was simultaneously reflecting on my own history and my own disappointments with our so-called freedom. How the moment is seductive and full of promise, but very soon turns dark, bloody, and at the same time an anti-climax. Nothing happens. Time passes.

The work is also an archive, capturing some of the faces, monumentalizing their existences in some way, but doing so in a way that does not rely on “permanence”. They are just passing, encountering me for a short moment, and then I am left to only exist in their mind. I think this was one of the beginnings of my thinking about memories and memorialization, and how this might look from a performance perspective, thinking about time-based media as opposed to fixed structures that over time could become irrelevant to the places where they were erected.

The Swing (after after Fragonard) – The Swing was more related to art history and the presence of women and how they are represented, particularly by male artists. I was also reflecting on the historical moment of Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s The Swing, 1767, this image of frivolity at the time of the French Revolution, and relating it to the area and context in Johannesburg where the work was created. The work is very layered, and I could go on for a long time about the multiple layers in it.


There is also the art work The Swing (after Fragonard) by Yinka Shonibare  made in 2001, this was the reason why “after after”?



What are the moments of your artistic trajectory that you think have had the greatest importance in defining its path and why?

I think for me the decision to move to performance art was the most important because it allowed me a freedom that 2-dimensional media could not offer at that stage of my career. The switch happened with the frustration of painting. I was so young, and at the time I was just frustrated that it was also so expensive to paint, I could not afford to continue painting with oils, but I still felt that I had to express something as an artist. It was only much later that I discovered what possibilities performance art offered as a medium.


Nobody taught you at that time at the school of art in Pretoria Technikon (now called Tshwane University of Technology) about performance?

No, there were no classes or anything in the curriculum that were dedicated to performance art. There was painting, sculpture, ceramics, glass, drawing, printmaking, photography, textiles, and that kind of stuff. It was still a good foundation. 


Do you know if this changed in the curricula of the School of Art?

I don’t know if they offer performance now… What I do know is that at Wits University, where I taught from 2011 until 2021, there was no class dedicated to performance art until I arrived to teach there.

The walls refused to forget their bright bullet-shatters and loud-blood-splatters 2019, Plasma cut steel (steel, heat, memories) Approx 190 x 190 cm Image courtesy of the artist and blank projects, Cape Town.
The walls refused to forget their bright bullet-shatters and loud-blood-splatters (2019), Plasma cut steel (steel, heat, memories), approx. 190 x 190 cm (installation view)

Who were the figures that you think influenced you the most?

At the beginning of my career, I was really depending on myself a lot. I figured most things out on my own. It can sound arrogant to say that, but honestly, I had no references. As a young student, I was surrounded by white South African men and women, and they were not a source of influence. I was really constantly looking internally and when I came across Frida Kahlo’s work I was moved but can’t claim that she influenced me directly. There was something not typically western about her work that drew my attention. I remember also thinking how important it was to start seeing people like myself in the South African art scene – a new wave of artists who were speaking of their identity – even though I still could not find influence from their work. I think my journey as an artist had a very lonely beginning, with a lot of internal work. I have people whose work I respect, and who I feel belong to the same universe as I do, but who are not necessarily an influence.


What would you like to be said or not said about your work? 

I do not want my work to be called “African art” or “women art” (although the latter is not so commonly used).



I think these terms can be very condescending sometimes, even when they are used with the intention of promoting or highlighting what has been left out of Art History. It can also be a way of harboring many assumptions that are limiting. Of course, I am African and of course, I am a woman and of course, I make art from those perspectives, which are personal… but to add prefixes like that to artistic practices often kills other possibilities that are in the work, and limits possible meanings and readings that go beyond the obvious.


Your works manifest themselves in different artistic languages, which one do you feel closest to?



How do you use performance as a strategy?

A strategy to what?

My performances are not too far removed from the reality, so as a storyteller I disturb what is considered to be the norm (particularly the reality that is shaped by coloniality and hetero normativity, etc) and constantly find an escape route to create alternate realities. It is a strategy to speak my truth, in the realest way, in a setting that seems fictional but is not. 


In the description of your work what keeps my attention is the remark to history and the necessity to destabilize those histories, as to leave the viewer confused. Confuse or aware? 

I think is more about destabilization. I do not necessarily want to confuse, nor do I do the job of “awareness”. I think that I really want to introduce a series of glitches to this apparently functional system, which is really dysfunctional, so maybe the work is a reflection of the dysfunctions that already exist in my own reality. I do not think that my intention is to confuse my audience. It’s fine if they do not understand fully, or they are thrown off by the unpredictable moments, because for me, it is like that sensation that happens, you know, when you’re like “Oh my god, I was going along the street and I came across this very bizarre situation…” or “I went to a lecture and something happened in a way I never expected”. When I make work, every time I am also thinking about the place where I am making my work.


Ok, so you are saying that while you are creating works you think about the space where the artwork is made…  Can you tell us a bit more of your solo exhibition “mooood” held at the “blank project” in Capetown in 2019?

Blank project is an art project space that transitioned into a commercial gallery during 2012. How is your relationship with commercial art galleries when your aim is to promote a disobedient work?

In the “mooood” exhibition, it was the first time that I was thinking about the invisible material as part of when you look at the list of materials in the artworks, there are some materials that are visible and not tangible. For example, a painting can have its materials listed as acrylic, oil, moonlight, on canvas. There is a tradition of how paintings are presented mainly by saying material, title, and date. I wanted to mess with what the material is, what it means when material such as “black anger” is sold with the work. The exhibition text was another space where I intervened by creating a poem out of all the work titles, which was printed for visitors to take away. Each title of each work was also written over and over on the canvases, to a point of illegibility, while at the same time becoming the “image” on the canvas. 


Due to their history and configuration, Johannesburg and South Africa have a strong influence on the artistic production of the people dedicated to art, and in general to cultural production, who live there.

How much of these places do you think your work carries with itself?

The experience of having lived in South Africa will always be a huge part of the way I conceive the world, there is no doubt. 


You dedicate yourself to your artistic career but at the same time you develop an academic work.

Which of the two started first and how do you combine them?

If you combine them, and/or are interested in combining them. 

My artistic career definitely came first, but they have always stayed side by side and I do combine them when I think of myself as a creative researcher. Sometimes my pedagogic interests present themselves through my performances, and my academic research takes on very creative forms. So, definitely yes there is a link.

The Swing (after after Fragonard) Mai-Mai Market, Johannesburg 2009 Image by Matthew Burbridge
Chapter P: The not-not-educational spirits EOTO Library, Berlin 2017 Image by F. Anthea Schaap, 10th Berlin Biennale

“The History Book for those who absolutely need to be remembered” is a project that begun in 2014. The following year the FMF started at WITS University in Johannesburg, preceded shortly before by the Rhodes Must Fall at UCT in Cape Town. The two South African student movements that exploded – in my opinion – the discourse on the decolonization of knowledge, not only in South Africa but in the world. Movements that then moved to the UK, which appropriated it, and to Europe. How much, and if you think, the FMF has influenced the origins and development of this project?

The origins of the history book were not influenced at all by the student movements, as it began its formation way before FMF and RMF. However, one of the chapters, “Chapter F – Free School for Art and All “Fings Necessary”, was in direct conversation and in response to the FMF movement. I was thinking about myself as an academic within this university [WITS] as someone implicated, but still in solidarity with the students, and more than in solidarity because I was also not able to continue my Ph.D. there because of fees. The chapter was a very personal need to create a space that was outside of the academic walls of WITS. In that framework, I invited people that I knew to come up with a topic and to share in any form that they wanted and present it in public spaces, in parks, and in private spaces, to a non-paying group of participants. The idea was to activate what free decolonial education might look like. So, the book itself is not inspired by the FMF movement despite there being a strong connection and conversation with the movement in this single chapter.


Can you tell us a bit more of “The History Book for those who absolutely need to be remembered” as your creative research Phd project?

As a full-time University educator in South Africa, one of the requirements is to have a PhD. After I was looking at forms that are not colonial for the doctoral research as an artist.

I was continuing to think about how academia has intentionally excluded other forms of knowledge production, more precisely oral history, and how those could not be documented and acknowledged. I was also looking at performance as a tool for writing, insisting on calling this project a book, even if there were no pages but a series of performances. 

I really wanted to challenge this idea of hierarchies in forms of knowledge. The book is a provocation around how knowledge is produced, and how books in general remain inaccessible to the majority of South Africans, yet there is so much knowledge that is passed on from generation to generation that has been completely not recognized because it is not in a “book” form.

So, in order to address historical erasures, I also wanted to use a form of historicizing that has been somehow disregarded, or a transference of knowledge that is not recorded in written forms. I was asking myself why, if we’re going to talk about colonialism, we still have to go back to colonial methods.


How do you see this discussion in Europe?

I think it is necessary for Europe to reflect on themselves in relation to the legacies of colonialism, to be active in the conversation, and not to leave all the work to those who have been negatively affected by Western imperialism. It still happens that – not in all the spaces but in some of them – this being a “hot topic” that is used by institutions to remain relevant, everyone is “decolonizing” without a deep understanding of any actions that need to come alongside the conversations, and without any long-term sustainable plan. Thinking again about structures – forms of engaging such as conferences are extremely colonial structures to discuss coloniality. These are spaces that were constructed to exclude, so it feels to me like there’s a complete lack of understanding of how we can potentially live and fully embody anti-colonial practices. I get a sense that sometimes people read about these topics in a book, regurgitate what they have “researched”, and as so-called “experts” on these topics, they travel from one conference to the next speaking about ideas that they do not actively live.

That is how I feel sometimes. I am interested in seeing how we can go a little bit further in embodied practices of decoloniality, not just a ‘hot topic’ we must discuss.


Do we need books to remember? 

Absolutely not. (laughing) 

The history book for those who absolutely need to be remembered is not written at all, totally not! What is written is its proposed structure, which is a house (laughing). I am writing the house, but the book will never be written. It should not be written.


The project moves from violence to healing

Do you think these two extremes can meet?

And if yes, how?

I think how they connect is related to how I was defining the book for myself. In the beginning, I was really interested in uncovering this history of violence but subconsciously, maybe just in the gesture or in the way I went about the work, there was always an element of wanting to heal as well, that perhaps was not articulated enough because I was so focused on the violence that had happened. It is only later that I started to foreground and name the healing aspect. I thought that, still, it was important to include the element of tragedy and to mention the fact that the project started off by focusing on violence. Making this transition visible is important. In any case, healing and violence have always somehow coexisted. Where there has been violence, there is a need to heal. I think that one of the few ways that I feel comfortable with sharing histories of trauma is through some kind of transformation of that trauma into something else especially amongst those to who this violence speaks to directly. I do not want to retraumatize or repeat the trauma that has already happened. It needs to transform somehow. Maybe that is what this transformation from violence to healing is all about.


Your last solo exhibition at the WITS Art Museum in Johannesburg last year is titled Ways-of-Remembering-Existing, it seems to respond to The History Book. Is that so? How are they related?

Yes, they are completely linked because Ways-of-Remembering-Existing is taken from my PhD title, which is also the container of The history book for those who absolutely need to be remembered


The other solo show you did, titled mooood, which was at blank Projects in Cape

Town closed at the end of 2019. How was your 2020?

How did the pandemic affect your art practice?

2020 was interesting and challenging, I guess, as it was for anybody else. In my case, particularly with this site-specific ongoing project [ The Book ] that was traveling and happening in different places… the pandemic meant that I could not travel anymore, and I was forced to be in one place, and every gathering was happening online, especially on Zoom. I began thinking about Zoom site-specifically, as a place where people were connecting while in many sites simultaneously. I was also using the Zoom interface as a “stage” and a space where my performances considered and worked with its “architecture”, using those moments of glitches to speak about a world that presents itself as a glitch for certain bodies. I was aware and interested in the failures of the tool and how one can present multiple timelines by playing with what is previously recorded and what is live. I wanted to work with an aesthetic of dysfunction, while also continuing to think about visibility, presence, and “being heard” by sometimes appearing and disappearing on the screen or distorting the sound from the microphone. So, in these live performances, the site was the mechanical function or rather, the dysfunction of Zoom, and the audience was everywhere. I didn’t want to force an interaction. I did not want to create a stage as if people are sitting in the same room while I perform over there. I instead was looking at the flatness of the screen, and creating these moving, speaking digital paintings.

That was the kind of direction that the pandemic forced my work into, and I appreciate that shift.  

I was also writing a lot, and at that point, I re-registered to continue my Ph.D. research with Transart and Liverpool John Moores University. Even though I had excellent supervisory support, the institution(s) failure to respond with care to a series of race-related encounters led me to transfer my research to the University of Plymouth, where I am currently continuing with the PhD. The nature of my work has also allowed me to continue doing research, whether or not I am affiliated to an institution. It is also work that I am learning cannot be performed, shared, or exposed where there is a lack of care or where I feel unsafe.

Chapter H: When Hundreds times Thousands met Multiples, and More Performance now v.8:
Where are we now? - University of Western Macedonia (online performance) 2021

You did move from South Africa to Germany.

What is lost and what is found? 

Moving from South Africa to Germany in 2019 was very different from the first time I moved to Europe as a student doing my masters in Switzerland, 2005. I was navigating as a “professional”, this time around, I am fully aware of the space I occupy socially and economically. I was invited as a guest professor at HBK Braunschweig in 2019, where I taught until 2020, while living in Berlin. I was at the time on sabbatical from WITS University in Johannesburg, where I had been teaching for ten years. In 2021, I resigned from WITS and started as a guest artist at HEAD Geneve, where I did workshops and one-on-one tutoring until now (2023). Last year (2022) I started as a professor of contemporary of art focusing on the Global South at KHM, the Academy of Media Arts in Cologne. All of these “social identifiers” change how I experienced moving to Europe, and I know it is not the same as a black student or a migrant with a different social status. 

Going back to your question, what is lost is really a sense of community, the love, and the closeness that there is within the art community in Johannesburg, but also the possibility to greet strangers, pick up random conversations in a queue at the shops, or to ask for help without feeling like you are invading or taking away from someone’s time. Also, generosity. I think there is just so much that Joburg and South Africa has to offer. When you leave all that warmth and you come to this, I do not know the word, the coldness that exists here…. It can be quite uninspiring. 

What was gained I suppose is the possibility of movement as a resident here, and I think this is the main thing for me, especially because mobility is so important for my work. It is a relief to not have to worry about applying for a visa every single time I need to go somewhere, and no matter how many times you have been in a place and will still go, each time getting the exact number of days you need for your travel, and an excruciating amount of scrutiny by paranoid officials.  Yes, I think that it is what is gained. I’ve gained a break from that nonsense.


Binyavanga Wainaina who was a good friend of yours and a talented Kenyan writer who passed away in May 2019, in a presentation to the African Studies Association UK in 2012 said: “I am a Pan-Africanist, not an Afropolitan” What are you feeling with regards to Afropolitanism?

And would you define yourself as an Afropolitan?

No! I am with Binya on this!


So, you would define yourself as a Pan-Africanist? 

Absolutely, Yes Afropolitan has a such strange connotation. It is an unnecessary self-removal for me.  As someone who has lived most of her life on the continent and is quite rooted in their identity and position as an African, it sounds superficial to call myself “Afropolitan”. It would be different if I had perhaps been born and raised somewhere else.  I do not want to say that it is rubbish in general, but for me it is, because it does not define my context.


This opens another conversation that could be another interview, the relation with the afro diasporic. Would you define yourself as diaspora? 

It is the same. I would not define myself as “diaspora”. It really does not matter where I am currently, because I am still really rooted in where I come from, which has shaped how I think. The diasporic of course exists, but for me personally, it could be a removal or self-erasure. I do not want to dismiss people who are out in the diaspora at all. Maybe if I have children and they grow up here, they will call themselves afro-diasporic afropolitans. 


How are you feeling about the growth of interest in African art in Europe? 

I believe that Europe has been always interested in Art from Africa since the moment that objects were stolen and brought up here to museums and private collections. There isn’t a growth of interest, but rather a shift from stealing to appropriating, and now some form of appreciation, which is also suspicious. Knowing the history of Europe, you cannot look at anything without an eye of suspicion. I sit more on the side of suspicion, but with all that said, I also believe that representation is important. It is also important to acknowledge that that artists from Africa are using their own agency to be where they want to be, say what they want to say, and challenge what needs to be challenged. It’s okay to want to exist and be seen in spaces that we are interested in, whether they are in Africa or somewhere else, and this does not require Europe to have an interest. I think it is important to have meaningful non-tokenistic representation, and to redirect art history and make space for other ways of being and existing. I am also suspicious of maintaining this hierarchy of Europeans having an interest in art from Africa instead of imagining that African people have the agency to make work on or off the continent, without centering Europe. 


What is your impression on the art scene in South Africa? 

I have mixed feelings. The South African art scene has always been exciting, and I think it is one of the fastest-growing I have ever seen, but also, I haven’t lived enough to be knowledgeable of all the art scenes in the world. At the same time, what worries me it is the tendency to commercialize art too early in artists’ careers. When entering the space for selling too soon, before an artistic language is fully formed, there is so much potential to kill one’s creativity.  You have very amazing young artists getting stuck in this trap quite early in their careers, where they then end up reproducing the same work for the rest of their life because “this is what sells”. This is my only concern. There is so much energy and potential but as a visual artist, the only possibility to exist and survive is through the commercial gallery system, and that unfortunately sucks creativity dry, and can close the possibility to grow as an artist, especially if you’re still young. I wish there were more options and funding available, so people are not trapped by selling for survival.


Could you briefly say which issues you want to address within your practice? 

I want to address the issue of knowledge production by looking particularly at how and whose histories are told. How our ancestors’ production of knowledge has been dismissed so much that it has created a lot of mistrust in ourselves. I want to rely on forms of producing knowledge that are not necessarily harvested within academia. I want to create space for dreams, superstitions, rituals, and things that are not solid or deemed “reliable” as sources of knowledge. I am interested in leaning towards our own spiritual technologies and forms of alchemy as part of thinking about the body as an ancestral archive, and memory and breath as tools for writing history. 


Feature Image: Not Yet (and nobody knows why not), Uhuru Gardens, Nairobi, 2008. Image by Justus Kyalo.

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