Oratile Papi Konopi O Tshwana Le Ênê

Fikile Mali

Distance has many faces. A depleted data bundle or low battery. A closed door or lost key. A highway, border or large body of water. Gwababa. A language barrier or generational gap. Unresolved or inherited conflict. A difference in beliefs. Apathy, denial and incomprehension. The number you have dialed not being available.

A multidisciplinary artist, Oratile Papi Konopi is fixated on distance and the ways it manifests in social, spatial and linguistic spheres.

Unfolding to the public since 2017, the artist’s practice takes on the form of a visual anthology and embodied being we call Ênê. A shapeshifting, almost omnipresent entity, Ênê was first introduced as a platform to visualise Konopi’s questions and findings around gender. Some months later, once familiarity was established, Konopi introduced Bua Le Ênê: an ongoing series inviting audiences to speak to, study and complicate Ênê’s findings. Taking on the form of performance, scene painting, sonic collaboration, installation, text-based mixed media posters, billboards and a Whatsapp hotline, the engagement has been ongoing for the last four years.

Titled O Tshwana Le Ênê, Konopi’s latest exhibition and chapter to the Ênê anthology is derived from the Setswana statement used to draw physical or habitual parallels between people. Although the articulation asserts the presence of a likeness between us and Ênê, beneath the statement is an invitation to compassion, to acknowledge the similarities.

A staging, O Tshwana Le Ênê gives the gallery’s audience the access, proximity and immediacy that Konopi first encountered through theatre. But probing and blurring the lines between the spectating public, willing performer and unlikely participant, O Tshwana Le Ênê’s function is otherwise.

“It’s phenomenology. It’s orientation. It’s interrogating orientation and observing how the body understands and responds to spaces based on the objects that occupy them,” says Konopi.

From lived and remembered observations, Jay Pather’s site-specific and site responsive performance research, all the way to Sara Ahmed navigating feminism as a question of “how we live our lives given that the structures we wish to transform are structures that persist”, Konopi’s references work together to make an extensive, multilingual and code-switching visual vocabulary.

Multidisciplinary: Konopi’s practice makes for multiple access points. Recently introducing the public to painting as a part of his arsenal, Konopi’s golden night time scenes play out under Apollo lights. Set in residential spaces at a time with no daylight, the paintings further contribute towards Konopi’s desire to bring hidden things to the surface for the sake of access, transparency and vulnerability.

The personification of a contemporary Black experience in Johannesburg, Konopi’s practice and its multiplicity is directed by necessity. An artist in motion, migrating daily from Johannesburg’s South, into its Central, to get to the city’s North, Konopi’s work moves with him, adopting the city’s lexicon, codes, colours, inhibitions, freedoms and pessimisms.

Through the title’s incitement of empathy and the glorification of often invisible objects from our everyday, what was covert is brought to the fore for an overdue bridging.