Dust of the Zulu

This immersive installation incorporating sound, photography, and video brings twenty-five years of award-winning ethnomusicological fieldwork in South Africa to life.

March 8 – April 15, 2019

Collaborators: Duke MFA | EDADuke Music, Duke ArtsConcilium on Southern Africa

Image by TJ Lemon.

The Dust of the Zulu installation in the Rubenstein Arts Center invites visitors to step inside the visuals and sounds at the heart of this critically-acclaimed book published by Duke professor of music and cultural anthropology Louise Meintjes.

Dust of the Zulu: Ngoma Aesthetics after Apartheid (Duke University Press, 2017) is the fruit of twenty-five years of ethnomusicological fieldwork on a tradition of Zulu men’s singing and dancing called ngoma. A competitive form of music and dance rooted in the twentieth-century system of southern African migrant labor, ngoma in South Africa is a public spectacle associated with homecoming times in the rural province KwaZulu-Natal and Sunday afternoons at men’s hostels in the cities.

Dozens of photos from the South African photojournalist TJ Lemon enrich Dust of the Zulu, allowing readers vivid glimpses of the performers’ energy and interrelationships. For this installation, TJ Lemon’s work is pulled off the page and brought to life. Photographs and videos incorporating layering, texture, movement, and juxtaposition—principles of ngoma aesthetics— illuminate the art form in its social and aesthetic complexity. Sound will surround visitors, making them feel they stepped into a ngomacommunity performance.

Meintjes and Lemon documented ngoma in the years 1990–2015, a period that encompasses the end of apartheid, the peak of South Africa’s HIV/AIDS epidemic amid continuing violence, and the waning of interest in South African music following its global success in the 1980s. These dynamics crucially impacted a style of performance that celebrates bravado in the body and the voice. Dust of the Zulu was awarded both the 2018 Gregory Bateson prize from the Society of Cultural Anthropology and the Society for Ethnomusicology’s Alan P. Merriam prize.

This installation draws on the music production and sound design expertise of ethnomusicology graduate students Jonathan Henderson and Cade Bourne. Duke MFA EDA student Jonghwan Choi and visual journalist Bridgette Cyr assisted in producing the stills and video. Photo by TJ Lemon.


What was the inspiration behind this exhibit?

Louise Meintjes: It’s a presentation of what ngoma singing and dancing looks, sounds, and feels like in rural KwaZulu-Natal. Hopefully people who come to see it will get a sense of who these singers and dancers might be. We want people to understand the pleasures that this dancing has for those who participate and also to have a glimpse of their artistic skills and life experiences.

I grew up in South Africa and completed a music degree there before I came to the United States. My focus gradually shifted from music to anthropology, where I learned that one could treat expressive forms ethnographically. As an ethnomusicologist I now span these disciplines. After collaborating with photographer TJ Lemon for some years, we published Dust of the Zulu: Ngoma Aesthetics After Apartheid (Duke University Press, 2017), which is the foundational material of this exhibit.

Jonathan Henderson: The idea was to evoke a sense of the practice, histories, and local context of the ngoma art form. It’s not meant to teach so much as to evoke a feeling of the place.

What was it like translating the book into an immersive exhibit?

LM: It’s a generous compromise on TJ’s part to have his color photographs produced in black and white in a small book. That’s not his arena. I was curious about how to sustain the ethnographic element while “remixing” the relationship between scholar and photographer.

JH: Last April, Louise and TJ put together a seed exhibition at the Frederic Jameson Gallery in the Friedl Building, with soundtracks made by undergraduate students to be played on iPhones. Cade and I were walking through that exhibit and imagining what it would be like to be immersed in a sonic environment while taking in these images. With headphones, you aren’t able to move around and allow your position in the space to shape your sonic experience.

Louise talks about how there’s an aesthetic of layering and overlap when ngoma is taking place and we tried to recreate that. It also strikes me that Louise’s writing makes wonderful use of juxtaposition, which is something we tried to echo in the exhibit space and in the photos. Even as the work turned from a book into this collaborative process, her original writing still resonates in the space.

How did you create an immersive environment?

JH: It wound up being a fabulous collaborative process. We pulled together a great team of sound editors, video editors, photographers and theater technicians. We had all been working in parallel: Cade and I edited the audio score while both the video editors worked on their pieces, all while TJ was curating a batch of slides. On the week that we were hanging the show we realized that we were telling two different stories. The audio score had a morning to night arc and TJ’s slides told a story of migratory movement to and from Johannesburg. We realized we needed to make some adjustments in order to accommodate each other, so we ended up adding the piece that you see at the beginning with images of Johannesburg accompanied by city sounds drawn from Louise’s field recordings. That section wound up feeling like a particularly nice moment.

“We couldn’t have done it without the Ruby. The Ruby is designed for collaboration. It’s designed to support student-faculty interaction, which was essential for our project. We could never have done this exhibit in the time that we had without the Ruby’s technical support.”

Louise Meintjes

What challenges come with putting on an exhibition like this?

LM: When you’re making an immersive exhibition, there are several challenges. For example, what do you do about giving people names when images and sounds are moving fast and you’re trying to steep visitors in the sense of it all? What do you do when there’s no room for translation of what the people are singing? The dancers don’t want to just be presented as poor people struggling against the legacy of apartheid, even though that is part of their reality. So another challenge is finding ways to provide that context while featuring the way the dancers would like to present themselves.

An important strategy for us was to include a more explanatory register on the wall outside the exhibition gallery. There we gestured towards the ideas they’re singing about with translations of a few Zulu lyrics, and we named people in captions to their images on the wall (in contrast to the immersive part of the installation), and we offered historical and demographic summaries.

Dust of the Zulu collaborators Jonghwan Choi, Louise Meintjes, Cade Bourne, TJ Lemon, Jonathan Henderson. (Bridgitte Cyr also participated.) Image by Robert Zimmerman.

What are your next steps with this project?

LM: We’re in an experimental moment in anthropology and in ethnomusicology, prompted, in part, by developments in the digital humanities and sound studies. In a way, Dust of the Zulu fits right into that. It’s made me want to do more projects like this and to do more experimental writing, too.

We’d like to try some version of this exhibit in South Africa, particularly in Johannesburg. Additionally, in December last year, TJ and I hung a permanent exhibition of some of his photographs in the community where the dancers live. They have a new meeting house and it is a beautiful space. So perhaps the next component of this multimedia experiment will be to create a version collaboratively re-conceived with ngoma dancers for a South African public.