GeoSemantics / Soil, Land, and Abstraction in South African Contemporary Art / Gabriella Nugent

Moshekwa Langa, Drag Paintings, 2016. Soil on canvas. Courtesy of Moshekwa Langa and Stevenson.

In 2022, the South African artist Inga Somdyala (b. 1994) created a series of twelve individually titled paintings, or “smearings”, in ode to their execution, whereby a combination of ochre, clay, red oxide, compost soil, and rocks was pushed by hand into the fibers of each canvas. For these works, Somdyala sourced soil from Komani (formerly known as Queenstown), a town in the Eastern Cape, and Cofimvaba, a town located about fifty miles east of Komani.1 While the artist was born in Komani, Somdyala’s family is from Cofimvaba, giving these sites a specific significance. Somdyala also sourced ochres and soil from mountains surrounding Gansbaai, a coastal town in the Western Cape, as well as clay from the dry riverbeds in the Karoo, a semi-desert region that stretches across southern South Africa.2


Figure 1 and 2. Inga Somdyala, series of twelve “smearings,” 2022. Installation view from ADAMAH at WHATIFTHEWORLD, Cape Town, September 12–October 22, 2022. Photographer: Paris Brummer. Image courtesy of Inga Somdyala and WHATIFTHEWORLD.

In Makhosonke, the canvas is covered in an orangey-brown combination of “homesoil,” ochre/red oxide and compost. “Homesoil” refers to the soil that Somdyala collected from his mother’s yard in Komani and from his family home and its surrounding environs in Cofimvaba. Somdyala also adopted “homesoil” from Homesoil in My Blood (2017), a collection of poems by the South African Tswana poet, journalist and political activist Keorapetse Kgositsile (1938–2018).3 Kgositsile lived in exile from South Africa between 1962 and 1990, so the book’s title suggests an enduring connection to land, which pulses through one’s blood even after one leaves it. In Makhosonke, the canvas contains spots of lightness and darkness depending on Somdyala’s application of the “homesoil,” ochre/red oxide, and compost. Flecks of gravel are visible on the surface. There is no perspective or sense of space; we are not looking onto a landscape, rather the works appear to capture the earth from an aerial perspective, itself associated with a kind of abstraction through its viewpoint from above.4 However, Somdyala challenges the association of the series with abstraction. He pointedly describes the smearings as “literal.”5 Because these works are made with the stuff of the land, they cannot, in this way, be abstract.

Somdyala’s interest in soil does not occur in isolation and without precedent. Several South African-born artists, including Moshekwa Langa (b. 1975) and Lerato Shadi (b. 1979) have turned to soil in recent years. To pay attention to the material substance of soil against the context of South Africa wherein the land has been a site of contestation, extraction, and projection for political and cultural identities seems like a radical gesture. The Dutch and British colonizers fought to claim the land and subsequently the mineral wealth that lay underneath it. Next, the apartheid regime divided up the land into white-only areas, townships, and Bantustans, as in the rural settlement camps where millions of Black South Africans were forcibly relocated. While the end of apartheid liberated the land, it continues to be overdetermined by colonial afterlives. In other words, soil is rarely allowed to be just soil. Langa and Shadi give further credence to Somdyala’s rejection of abstraction, connecting it to a certain colonial logic.

Figure 3. Inga Somdyala, Makhosonke, 2022. Photographer: Paris Brummer. Image courtesy of Inga Somdyala and WHATIFTHEWORLD.

Shot in the artist’s village of Lotlhakane in Mahikeng, Northwest Province, Shadi’s video Motlhaba Wa Re Ke Namile (2016) captures the artist eating soil in reference to a type of mask enslaved African people were forced to wear by white slave owners in the United States that prevented them from committing suicide through the consumption of soil. Dispossessed of their own land, enslaved African people consumed this earthly material in despair, offering one final act of opposition to their displacement. Over the course of the video, Shadi eats red earth from her own homeland as if compensating for the enslaved people’s loss of land. She eats the soil against her own will, gagging yet consuming more as she goes, while tears stroll down her cheeks.

Figure 4 and 5. Lerato Shadi, stills of Motlhaba Wa Re Ke Namile, 2016. Single channel video projection with audio, 7 minutes 30 seconds. Courtesy of the artist and blank projects, Cape Town. © Lerato Shadi.

Like Shadi’s video, Langa’s Drag Paintings were similarly created in the artist’s hometown of Bakenberg situated in the country’s northern province of Limpopo. The works emerged from Langa’s desire for “the landscape to draw itself,” challenging the exclusion of Bakenberg from apartheid-era maps as well as conventional systems of mapping that arbitrarily abstracted and divided this land.6 Working with a small team, Langa pierced the canvases and attached them with rope to the back of a car, dragging them through the town’s dirt roads. The resultant canvases are marked with red dirt in varying degrees of intensity that recall the act of making itself. When each canvas was dragged by the car, it was pulled in certain ways that created tension and folds, meaning some sections of the fabric were more exposed than others, creating mountains of debris. Langa subsequently lacquered the canvases to preserve these marks. They are exhibited attached to the kind of map holders seen in classrooms, suggesting a different kind of orientation.

Langa had originally wanted to drag the canvases through the whole of Bakenberg in one continuous take, but the gentrification of the town has produced tarred roads that made such a journey impossible.7 This gentrification is connected to Anglo-American mining interests in Bakenberg given its location on the country’s platinum belt.8 Homes and graves have been relocated to accommodate the mining sites. Langa himself has not witnessed any of these changes. He left Bakenberg as a child, and the dirt roads are connected to his memory of the place.9 He had to search for them on the town’s outskirts to make the work.

When Langa’s Drag Paintings are shown in a white-cube space, they are detached from their original context of making, leading to other associations. Their large-scale and reddish-brown color call to mind color field paintings, a style of painting that emerged in New York City in the 1950s and 1960s. The term was originally applied to the work of Abstract Expressionist painters such as Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko and Clyfford Still, who were championed by the American critic Clement Greenberg for the way they collapsed figure and ground, rejecting the painterly tradition in which a form or mass stands out against a background.10 Rooted in early twentieth-century German Gestalt psychology, the theory of figure and ground refers to the brain’s organizing tendencies in the way that it distinguishes an object from its surroundings. To look again at Shadi’s video, Motlhaba Wa Re Ke Namile captures the separation of African peoples from their land. “The loss of indigenous name/land,” writes Hortense Spillers, “provides a metaphor of displacement for other human and cultural features and relations.”11 M. Ty has suggested a parallel between this unsettling of figure and ground, apropos European regimes of slavery and colonialism, and modernist abstraction.12

Drawing on scholars such as Fred Moten and Saidiya Hartman, Hannah Black has similarly described the search for modernist abstraction as a product of gendered and racialized capitalism, which abstracted individual subjects and land into property for the extraction of their value.13 Indeed, Marx believed that capitalist accumulation could only operate effectively when abstraction was established as a social norm.14 In his investigation of the commodity, Marx names abstraction as the process whereby things effectively cease to be themselves: “If we make abstraction from its use-value, we abstract also from the material constituents and forms which make it a use-value. It is no longer a table, a house, a piece of yarn or any other useful thing. All its sensuous characteristics are extinguished.”15 Abstraction allows Marx to chart the transition from use to exchange values, the latter of which obliterates material specificity.

The process of map-making engages in the same kind of abstraction described by Marx, erasing the sensuous characteristics of the landscape. In South Africa, the creation of maps coincided with the spread of European influence, meaning that these objects were intrinsically linked to the navigation, dispossession, and control of land.16 Langa’s Drag Paintings tie together the process of map-making with the mining interests that led to the production of tarred roads in Bakenberg. The discovery of the country’s mineral wealth further abstracted the land in search of what lay underneath it.17 From maps to mines, these processes transformed soil into property and capital. However, Langa’s Drag Paintingswork against a painterly abstraction that was connected to a wider cultural mindset. For him, the works are “landscape paintings” or “drawn landscapes.”18 Langa is not interested in the reduction of things to pure form and color. Rather, the figure is literally the ground, a claim that subsequently echoes in Somdyala’s series of smearings.

Building on Langa’s proposition of figure as ground, the works discussed in this essay call our attention to the materiality of the earth, denying its abstraction into something else. There are specks of gravel on Somdyala’s smearings, while Shadi chokes and gags on chunks of soil, emphasizing its thingliness. Mountains of debris from the red dirt road collect on Langa’s canvases, just as the same dirt is tarred and excavated in other parts of the town to make way for the mining industry. For each of these artists, the significance of soil as a material substance lies in its connection to collective and individual memory. Somdyala’s smearings emerge from the relationship between ancestors and land; Shadi mourns for those who were dispossessed of their land and for whom it became only a memory; and Langa chases a memory of his childhood through Bakenberg’s dirt roads. Moving beyond a parasitic and extractive relationship with the land, the selected artists suggest a different kind of orientation to the earth, one premised on memory and the traces of those who previously occupied the landscape.

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This is part of the cluster GeoSemantics. Read the other posts here. 

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  1. The name of Queenstown was changed to Komani in February 2016.
  2. Email correspondence with Inga Somdyala, February 27, 2023.
  3. Keorapetse Kgositsile, Homesoil in My Blood: A Trilogy (Midrand: Xarra Books, 2017).
  4. On the aerial perspective and abstraction, see Zahid R. Chaudhary, “Desert Blooms,” October (2019): 92–109.
  5. Inga Somdyala, interview with author, November 8, 2022.
  6. Moshekwa Langa, “Corner of the Eye: Léna Monnier, Josh Ginsburg, Moshekwa Langa & Nora Schultz,” filmed 2016, video.
  7. Langa, “Corner of the Eye.”
  8. Moshekwa Langa, interview with author, March 23, 2023.
  9. Langa, interview.
  10. See Clement Greenberg, “American Type’ Painting” (1955/1958), Art and Culture: Critical Essays (Boston: Beacon Press, 1965), 208–229.
  11. Hortense J. Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” Diacritics, vol. 17, no. 2 (Summer 1987): 64–81 (73).
  12. M. Ty, “The Riot of the Literal,” Oxford Literary Review, vol. 42, no. 1: 76–108.
  13. Hannah Black, “Fractal Freedoms,” Afterall: A Journal of Art, Context and Enquiry, Vol. 41 (Spring/Summer 2016), 4–9 (5–6).
  14. Ty, “The Riot of the Literal,” 85.
  15. Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume One, trans. Ben Fowkes (New York, Penguin Classics, 1982), 128.
  16. Andrew Duminy, Mapping South Africa: A Historical Survey of South African Maps and Charts (Johannesburg: Jacana, 2011).
  17. I have argued elsewhere that colonial-era photographs circulated by mining companies shifted attention away from the occupants of the land to the mineral wealth that lay underneath it. See Gabriella Nugent, Colonial Legacies: Contemporary Lens-Based and the Democratic Republic of Congo (Leuven University Press, 2021), 138–140.
  18. Moshekwa Langa, “Mine,” filmed in 2016, video.