PYDA NYARIRI:

PRESSING UP FROM BELOW

CONTEMPORARY SOUTH AFRICAN ARTIST  |  ARTIST WRITE-UP  |  CLAY

Pyda Nyariri  |  Pidgin Tiles Set 1 ( Detail )  |  2019  |  Fired Earthernware Clay

Nyariri’s work is concerned with the hubbub of hybrid communities, intertwining diasporas finding common tongues, sharing myths, and building solidarity.

BY CAITLIN MACDONALD

Pyda Nyariri (b. 1991), born in Harare and raised largely in Cape Town, creates works of collaborative fiction through installation, sound, and imaginary alphabets. Coming of age, in the fledgling years of South African democracy, Nyariri’s work is concerned with the hubbub of hybrid communities, intertwining diasporas finding common tongues, sharing myths, and building solidarity. Their award-winning work has travelled widely, showing at several galleries in both the United States and South Africa and they have completed residencies with Braunschweig Projects in Germany in 2019 and the Artist Alliance in New York in 2018.

Pyda Nyariri_Artist Room

Pyda Nyariri  |  Artist Room, SMAC Gallery, Cape Town. |  2021  |  Image courtesy SMAC Gallery

The room has been painted the colour of a womb, a clay-like red. It is swollen with the sound of birdsong, the growling of an engine, horns lowing, flickering in and out of silence, electronic fuzz, the plucking of a mbira, layers of human voices in itching staccato and smooth mothering harmonies. There is a faint smell of earth. Small clay tablets are inscribed with marks that curl and blister like ritual scars. The worming markings are the signs of Pidgin, a spirit who vibrated beneath the earth and pushed an alphabet upwards through the red dust. In the field notes provided, you are told that Pidgin gestated in cocoons – tents and arches or wallhangings made from swabs of gauze coated in clay, hanging grids of paper-thin brick.

This false memory is a scene from Pyda Nyariri’s 2021 SMAC exhibition, Pidgin: A Tale from Nyakayembiza, a project which asks its audience to trespass on an imagined history. It asks its audience to encounter a language without recognisable words, a language still in flight. This work is a product of a mercurial collective: Pfimbi Yemashoko, a Shona phrase that translates to “the place where the words are kept”. This group is a partial fiction, sometimes populated by imaginary collaborators and sometimes acting as host to a shifting cast of real contributors. In this iteration, working from Nyariri’s prompts, Precious Mhone, has contributed a piece of flash fiction and the musician, Monthati Masebe, has contributed two sound pieces. Nyariri’s alphabets emerge in cycles of sound. First, when listening to music – often the sounds made in the initial groundswell of African independence, often pidgin music, often Fela Kuti – Nyariri pulled their letters from the clay, trying to place the sweep of sound into form. The forms were then given to the sound artist who transliterated the form into a new composition. In this way, a shared language is fashioned through collaboration.

Pyda Nyariri  |  Pidgin’s cocoon as sounded out with inverse intonations  |  2021  |  Clay Slip, cotton gauze, plywood, hardware  |  300 x 147 x 100cm

It is swollen with the sound of birdsong, the growling of an engine, horns lowing, flickering in and out of silence, electronic fuzz, the plucking of a mbira, layers of human voices in itching staccato and smooth mothering harmonies.

Pyda Nyariri  |  Artist Room, SMAC Gallery, Cape Town. |  2021  |  Image courtesy SMAC Gallery

The conceit of A Tale from Nyakayembiza is that a member of Pfimbi Yemashoko has been sent to a disused Northern Zimbabwean mine to study the effects of a “Pidgin event”, collecting specimens and recording observations. The exhibition text is presented as an excerpt from the ethnographer’s diary. In the narrative, language-making acquires a mythical skin. The miners’ echoes have been swallowed by silence and slowly the workers ceased to talk at all, falling to Izwi Rakabiwa (“the curse of the stolen voice”). Pidgin seeps into the noiselessness as a red mineral residue that stains the official ledgers, as clouds of red dust, as sounds emanating from cocoons.  The exhibition borrows the grammar of a museum display. The artworks and sounds are the carefully assembled findings of an imaginary archaeological dig, artefacts in wait for human noise to give them meaning. The exhibition viewers stream in drenched in their own languages and fill an absence. They join the story at the precarious conclusion of the exhibition text:

“I called out to the void and I did not hear myself but I felt as though I was being watched, seen. I am excited and yet at the same time apprehensive. There is a lot for us to learn from Pidgin but are we ready for what it could all mean?”

Nyariri’s work insists upon remaining an open text; it is a question or invitation or starting point. In this way, the work mirrors the muse, pidgin languages. A pidgin is a form of survival in the byways of empire; it is a joyful, resistant response to the suffocation of indigenous languages or the ramshackle assemblages made by trade and labour. With the fever to communicate across linguistic divides, people scavenge for tools, the scraps of each available dialect are borrowed and bent or the dominant language is reconstructed to fit more comfortably between the teeth. Deep below the surface, down mine shafts, in hushed tones, these tongues are forged. On undulating trade ships and in crowded harbours, words have lapped against new tongues, languages have been spat together and made into tunnels between dialects. These languages are sometimes called “broken”, a misunderstanding of the frenzied hybridisation which upon further inspection far more closely resembles the act of mending – industriously patching, stitching together, and plugging holes.

A pidgin is a form of survival in the byways of empire; it is a joyful, resistant response to the suffocation of indigenous languages or the ramshackle assemblages made by trade and labour.

Pyda Nyariri

Pyda Nyariri  |  Residual Trace 784, Red, Brown, Blue  |  2021  | clay slip, cotton gauze on canvas  |  110x193cm

On undulating trade ships and in crowded harbours, words have lapped against new tongues, languages have been spat together and made into tunnels between dialects.

Pyda Nyariri

Pyda Nyariri  |  Specimen 2, Cocoon. Sounding out self articulation  |  2021  | Artist room: SMAC Gallery  |  Clay Slip, Cotton Gauze, Wood, Hardware  | 370 x 200cm

It is at this point of transformation that Nyariri is most attracted to language.

“I’m particularly interested in that space where the language has not yet been formalised,” Nyariri explains, “when it’s still in its own flights of fancy – spontaneous. Rules come and go, words come and go; it’s quick and it’s sharp.” 

This malleability of pidgins is expressed in Nyariri’s attention to the materiality of clay. If you were to run the cocoons’ membranes through your fingers, the powdered remnants of the unfired clay would cling to your skin. Nyariri’s use of clay-coated gauze ensures that any attempt at solidifying the material in a kiln would be to destroy the work. Just as when a language becomes standardised by text – given a dictionary, enshrined in law, canonised – it can no longer be a pidgin. These works are in the process of becoming, hardening slowly. In Nyariri’s work, this attention to pliant language invites questions. How do we speak with the softness of clay and the delicacy of gauze in the aftermath? How do we dismantle the hierarchies of language, brick by brick? What is the chattering, hybrid language of utopia?

In Nyariri’s work, this attention to pliant language invites questions. How do we speak with the softness of clay and the delicacy of gauze in the aftermath?

All images courtesy of Pyda Nyariri & SMAC gallery.

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