Akash Dewan/MiC.

A double-edged spear was situated so seamlessly parallel to my face as I stood practically unnerved by its presence. Immensely immersed in the present — distracted by a diverse set of sounds, many of which erupted from the same source, belonging to the same contraption as this weapon of war — I couldn’t help but forget the fatal sight right before my eyes. Yet Zimbabwean interdisciplinary artist Masimba Hwati, in his ongoing quest to combine sound and sculpture, brings together the auditory and the visual in a remarkably novel manner.

Akash Dewan/MiC.

Hwati’s latest work, the Ngoromera, now featured at the University of Michigan Museum of Art (UMMA) as a part of the African Art collection: We Write to You About Africa, remains one of his many means of multi-modally enriching our sensory experience. This sound sculpture, suspended from the ceiling, steel at both ends, reeling you in with the trust that it is no trivial trumpet, is lumped together with a couple of chimes, bells, brass bugles and a barrage of golf balls which are only as beguiling as the brash, exuberant reverberations from which it originates. A mouthpiece and a small sound processor facilitate this experience of sensational experimentation. In performance, the Ngoromera, which translates “to struggle or contend with opposing force; to fight” vibrates with a bold, brazen vigor. With a drummer manipulating the piece’s tempo and a saxophonist instigating conflict in their dissonance, Hwati’s sound ultimately conveys a crass kind of coherence in its discordance, instigating conflict. The three storytellers, caught in the midst of a collective musical improvisation experience, take us to an altered state of consciousness through a narrative of struggle and strife denoted by the ebbs and flows of the performance’s dynamics. It is here that we hear and witness what Hwati dubs as “everyday rituals of resistance.”

In a lecture prior to his performance, Hwati describes how thinking critically about the nature of sound can allow us to understand the crucial role it plays in our lives: the micropolitics of listening, the right to loudness along ideological lines (who is allowed to be loud) and the notions of negotiation and navigation all come into play when considering how sound shapes not only our societal structures but our individual experience. We can witness this occur spontaneously in the many instances of collective musical improvisation where — as seen in the performance of Hwati and Co. at the show — the melding of minds enables all musicians involved to operate as one. They negotiate with each other, not with spoken word, but instrumental sounds, jointly navigating on a journey through space and time, tempo and rhythm, volume and verve. 

Within the scope of the sculpture, we can see how the Ngoromera acts as a site (and sound) of negotiation and navigation as well. The integration of the brass instruments, often associated with European military conquests, in tandem with the tokens from Zimbabwean culture speak to a “negotiation of power” that repurposes and redefines the essence of the objects. Hwati regards sculpture as intersecting ritual and sound. The energy of an object, as informed by its cultural, socio-political and historical connotations and relations dictates our disposition towards the thing itself. Hwati invites us to listen with our whole being and consider the ways in which we are trained to hear sound.

“What sound is louder in the room, what sound is the most inaudible? Why is this sound louder than this one? What is the relationship between the sounds?”

Additionally, Hwati hones in on the importance of finding a center — in the artistic process, in performance and beyond. As we discussed during a post-performance interview in which he elaborated on his multidisciplinary approach, cultivating a center allows one to seek out grounding in an affirming idea. To him, this affirming idea during musical improvisation can be a note that speaks to or inspires him and then resolves to find connections and constellations from there. With Hwati’s objects, such as those he uses in his sculptures, he singles in on one particular item and searches for ways to connect it to other things, whether that be utilizing its sound-making capabilities and/or visual, ritualistic significance (such as the double-edged spear), in a meaningful way. He likens the search for a center to a finding of feeling.

“It’s a feeling that I’m looking for,” Hwati claimed, “and if I can get a hold of the feeling, I feel confident enough to bring other things in.”

To find such center, Hwati expressed the necessity of knowing the Self. To him, this self-knowledge arrives in part to our relationship with of course, our Self, but also with others and to God. He claims that in the communal art-making experience, we make revelations in the presence of those we trust, close friends and family who allow us to be vulnerable and take risks, reveling in the comfort of their company.

Hwati expressed, “There are people that I play with — I always know that I am so relaxed around those people that I begin to discover new things about myself.”

Beyond our relationship with others, we can become grounded in our self-knowledge and grow in our capacity to find a center by making ourselves familiar to what he describes as the four existential questions:

  1. Destiny: what is going to happen after you die
  2. Origin: where do you come from
  3. Morality: a system of knowing right and wrong
  4. Purpose: why are you here

To Hwati, these questions, deriving from his father and faith, are answered when we evaluate our relationship with God and others. He maintains that his mediating of these questions is materialized in his performance in a multitude of ways. He deems it his destiny to put together and perform, as marked by the all-consuming energy and thrill he derives from working with his pieces, which ultimately imbue him with purpose

“I know that I am born to do this thing that I do. I have so much energy when I am doing it. It is more than just a profession or a hobby but a consuming desire to do something,” Hwati stated.

Akash Dewan / MiC.

These musical improvisations connect back not only to an Afrikan root but a cosmic origin. In these numinous notes and notions, Hwati and his audiences transform and transcend as the blending cacophony and congregation of sounds move and meander conspicuously through the space. The tempering of tone and tempo, variations of intensity, and the immensity of the instrumentals allows for morality to manifest in our reflection of nature, the spirit and the essence of these sounds. In our contemplation, and in our critical listening to these sounds and the sounds all around, we can develop better ways of knowing the self, of finding our center and of practicing every-day forms of resistance.

MiC Columnist Karis Clark can be reached at kariscl@umich.edu.

MiC Photographer Akash Dewan can be reached at abdewan@umich.edu.