To Repel Ghosts

This essay by Nkhensani Mkhari was conceptualized through the seminar »Existential Hope and Maturity» by Thomas Monyihan of the New Centre for Research and Practice. In reference to Zibuyile Zinkisi, which means »The return of the Nkisi« (Nkisi, plural Minkisi, is a spiritual object), this work is a continuation of Mkhari’s artistic and curatorial practice in excavating lost indigenous practices and modalities of the Bantu cosmogony and the creation of speculative archives from oral histories. 

by Nkhensani Mkhari — Feb 7, 2022

Photographic collage of a person carrying a stick, head bust and face sculpture.

Photographic collage of a person carrying a stick, head bust and face sculpture. Envy by Thato Toeba © 2022

Let me humbly begin with the history of the Universe. Western science has provided us with a myth of origins in the Big Bang theory, which locates the beginning of all things in a primal explosion from which the stars, moons, planets, universes, and even humanity are birthed. Because Western science’s obsession with cause and effect has focused on the process of contraction and expansion in the universe (mirroring its colonial and neo/post-colonial conceits), it is the role of another kind of science to interrogate the metaphor in the term »Big Bang.« Indeed, »science« in the Jamaican vernacular is a synonym for »bush magic« or the occult.

– Louis-Chude Sokei, Doctor Satan’s Echo Chamber, Chimurenga Chronic 1

About a year ago Akademie Schloss Solitude invited me to a residency to produce a work titled Zibuyile Zinkisi. The title of the residency was »Muntu Maxims,« a collective transcultural web residency exploring plural futurities. Zinkisi appear in two different forms, as assemblages of nondescript objects or wooden figures carved in the form of humans or animals, pierced with iron nails. The word possesses no direct English translation, but it roughly means »power object.« These figures are said to be embedded with »spiritual powers« that can be activated by a Nyanga and bring about physical or spiritual healing to the patient consulting the Nyanga. Nkisi were also capable of imbuing social balance and justice, and keeping societal moral codes and the well-being of the Kongo Village. 

My thesis for this work was looking at technology through a Bantu-Kongo cosmogonical lens, arguing that the Nkisi is an advanced ancient technology whose function was erased by colonialism. My practice primarily looks at cross-cultural pollination and Indigenous technological modalities in search of symbiosis, tracing the evolution of technology from ancient to modern civilizations, which is never a straight line but a rhizomorphic multimodal wreckage riddled with prejudicial projection and the cognitive bias brought on by colonialism. In a review of the Muntu Maxims exhibition by Dehlibased Bhariya studio, Martand Khosla noted how »Zibuyile Zinkisi then becomes a time capsule reemerging from the present memories of a precolonial past, whose belonging depends on the users, and whose »purpose« surpasses the passive viewed object to the collaborator – a muntu, whose maxim is formulated by the user, practiced through figurative invocations.«2 

When I think about post-planetary futures and the maturity of our civilization, I always wonder where these Indigenous peripheral histories stand. What gradient do they occupy? How do these fringe technological modalities figure in this utopian future and our collective imagination today? The answers to these questions are incredibly complex and scarce. Rationalism, scientism, and enlightened thinking often stand in the way of disentangling African history, especially through the lens of technology. What happens when technology is entangled with spirituality and what has been often termed mumbo-jumbo? 

Mostly green collage image with men in uniform, a car, and a satellite image of a small town

Mostly green collage image with men in uniform, a car, and a satellite image of a small town. Parade by Thato Toeba © 2022

Technology Dreams of Being Magic 

The history of technology, from industrialization to cybernetics, from robotics to AI, has in fact been replete with this type of casual parallel between humans and machines, nonwhites and robots, technology and social, cultural »others.« The history of science fiction has served to rationalize and naturalize those parallels in such ways that issues of race and difference – including sex and immigration, as Levy reminds us – are central to the genres software, so much so that they always already make sense in our consumption of such narratives.  

– Louis-Chude Sokei, Machines and the Ethics of Miscegenation 3

My aim is to weave a new thread in the narrative Sokei so elegantly explicates in Machines and the Ethics of Miscegenation. This thread is often spoken of, mostly unwritten, and this brings me to the issue of language as a technology; a psychoacoustic technology of sonic fabulation. Language is an incredibly efficient colonial tool; for most Africans colonialism meant that tonal language was replaced by atonal language. Since all sub-Saharan languages (except Swahili) are »tone languages,« in the sense that the meaning of words depends on the tone or pitch in which they are said,4 this phenomena extends beyond tonality. In Nguni languages, we see how the Nguni perceives the individual as a multiplicity of all those that came before through the greeting rituals, whereas in the English language we see the individual as just that, an individual. Objects are seen as having a sort of consciousness and agency. In isiZulu we see this personification in words such as copper, which is called ithusi, which directly translates to »the helper,« we also see this personification in the word ntsimbi, which directly translates to »the bad metal.« We find a particular philosophical and moral awareness connected to the object. In the Zulu man’s world, their seraglio is language; take this away and he has nothing. 

From a metaphysical standpoint, language and magic share many correlations. We not only cast spells; we spell words. Magic has a grimoire; language has grammar. We write and do magic rites. We bind with spells; we also bind books. Our model of the world is made of words; the world is a tapestry of description. We have minds co-creating the mantle, weaving our reality through language. Our mind is indispensable in experiencing the formality of existing; this is what quantum physics teaches. Were entangled with language and its open-endedness; thats what differentiates us from the wild ones. The observable world is syntactic in its nature. Language is the software of culture; it helps exteriorize our ideas and turn them into tools. It is our primary technology, helping, as Noam Chomsky noted, »the process of free creation; its laws and principles are fixed, but the manner in which the principles of generation are used is free and infinitely varied. Even the interpretation and use of words involves a process of free creation.«5 Therefore were confined, quarantined by this inheritance, our language. We take lines of flight, methodical, toward a shimmering tower of data, sharing knowledge; the only barrier standing in our way is that this transference is dependent on an author’s direct and subjective experience. It seems as if the key to our liberation from this linguistic quarantine is the separation of language from the individual, into some kind of rhizomorphic multiplicity. 

Language is no longer the privilege of human beings. With the advent of AI, the rapid development of NLP and the increasing digital omnipresence in our lived experiences, language seems to be slowly slipping away from the human mind into that of quantum computer chips. With the recent release of GPT-3 and rapid development of AI, its possible there will come a time in our lifetime when well see machines capable of producing poetry, novels, and other multiple syntactic forms and even computer code. However, we have a problem. And the problem isnt automation; the problem is us. 

Photographic collage with a two people hugging and one speaking

Photographic collage with two people hugging, parts of the body, and one person speaking. Cold Embrace by Thato Toeba © 2022

Cosmic Refrain

Africa, the signified which could not be represented directly in slavery, remained and remains the unspoken unspeakable »presence« in Caribbean culture. It is »hiding« behind every verbal inflection, every narrative twist of Caribbean cultural life. It is the secret code with which every Western text was »re-read.« It is the ground-bass of every rhythm and bodily movement. This was – is – the »Africa« that »is alive and well in the Diaspora.«

-Stuart Hall, Cultural Identity and Diaspora 6

It feels as if throughout the early 2000s until now, the entire globe has been caught between that which is and that which is to come. A cosmic deadlock tittering at the edge of our oblivion. We hope to escape this extinction by making plans to leave the surface of the planet, to reach escape velocity and take our seat in the galactic tribunal. And this makes sense. No technocratic, expanding civilization can survive on the surface of a planet indefinitely. Many African cosmogonies agree with this standing, conceiving of Earth as a womb planet. The question is, what’s standing in our way? Fear or stupidity? Or is it the prejudicial projection of the colonial enlightened imperial gaze and its narcissistic tendency to sideline what it doesn’t understand, what it refuses to understand? One cannot look at tribes like the ancient Sumerians, or the empire of Kemet or the enduring Dogon tribe and their numinous and expert cosmologies and deny that there are blind spots in our perception of the world and the cosmos beyond.

This blind spot is caused by the dominator superiority complex of conceptual frameworks – capitalism, materialism, nation states, individuality, perpetual war, rationalism, surveillance – holding up the slippery edifice of Western civilization and its techno-liberal dreams. I think it was William Burroughs who said that English is a virus from outer space, and I feel the same way. The language we use to create our future determines how that future looks. Today we find ourselves facing Artificial Intelligence that carries prejudicial biases toward historically marginalized groups because this gaze persists throughout the world we live in through the language we use. The real colonialism in Africa and beyond has been a linguistic one, which transforms consciousness and erases and bars anything outside the periphery of the reality which the English language has a word for. I believe the key to our collective liberation is linguistic and the first step outside the cosmic refrain is a symbiosis. A symbiosis of language and the deconstruction of syntax, recentering the root of language as a central motif in how we conceptualize and structure the world around us and the future beyond us.

Nkhensani (b. 1994) describes their work as a queer meditation on transience, aesthetic sociology and redemptive futurologies; an abstract machine nomadically migrating through contemporary culture. Exploring what Individuality is, what collectivity is and what it means to share space. A study on migration, myth and cultural practices of (re)memory, rooted in counteractive ways of seeing and modes of hearing. Outside of their practice, Nkhensani currently works as a curatorial assistant at A4 Arts Foundation. 

  1. Sokei, Louis-Chude. Doctor Satan’s Echo ChamberChimurenga Chronic 

  2. Martand Khosla, Bhariya studio, Muntu Maxims Review 

  3. Louis-Chude Sokei: Machines and the Ethics of Miscegenation 

  4. G. Kubik and Donald Keith Robotham: »African music,« in: Encyclopedia Britannica8/4/2016. 

  5. Noam Chomsky: »Language and Freedom.« Lecture, University Freedom and Humane Sciences Symposium. Loyola University, Chicago (08/01/1970). 

  6. Stuart Hall: Cultural Identity and Diaspora (1996). 

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