“Hiving and HUMing”: cross-pollinating ideas about bees and non-verbal communication

Pro Helvetia Johannesburg, Art+

Remartga: Questa artitgel è disponibla unicamain per englais.

Together with a swarm of multidisciplinary collaborators, “Hiving and HUMing” explores alternative methods and modalities of apiculture that centre bee logics and sensibilities.

“Hiving and HUMing” is a long-term, process-oriented multisensory project by visual artist Dunja Herzog (Switzerland) and beekeeper Thembalezwe Mntambo (South Africa) exploring the relationship between bees, plants and humans. Central to the project is the idea of “swarm logic”, a collaborative methodology for working together with a range of local and international beekeepers, gardeners, and artists to research and cross-pollinate ideas about indigenous and non-extractive approaches to beekeeping and beehive modalities, as well as sound and resonant instruments to tune in to bee vibrations and non-verbal forms of communication.

Supported by a Co-creation grant, “Hiving and HUMing” emerges from a collaboration that began during Dunja’s 2022 residency in Johannesburg. Having worked with beeswax for copper and bronze casting and as a sculptural medium, Dunja was interest in learning more about bees through the lens of her long-term artistic interest in the intertwining themes of mythology, healing, the resonance of materials and mineral extraction. This led to a serendipitous meeting with Thembalezwe, who for his part, was shifting away from conventional extractive, production-focused methods of beekeeping towards fostering a deeper relationship with bees, guided by sensitivity and consciousness of their presence and nature.

Together, they began exploring alternative forms, materials and processes for hives and beekeeping to the commercial square Langstroth hive, which was introduced to Southern Africa by Western missionaries. The collaboration brought together shared interests in materiality, building, environment, sensitivities about vibrations and joy in collaborating with others. Additionally, bees and beekeeping became a metaphor though which to consider questions about access to land and resources in South Africa as well as broader socio-economic histories of extractivism and colonialism, and by extension, the complexities of artistic collaborations between Europe and the Global South.

The collaboration took form through womb-like ceramic vessels and accompanying sound installation, resonating bees’ multidimensional significance and symbolism in mythology, folklore, spirituality, fertility and nature. The sculptures, made with ceramicist Cosmas Ndlovu using clay dug from the riverbank in Soweto, derived their form not only from aesthetic factors, but from the materials used to make them and the needs of the bees who would inhabit them. At once works of art and objects of use, the multilayered sculptures remind us of our interdependent relationship with nature. The soundtrack likewise referenced circular ecologies, with the instruments having first been modelled in beeswax and then cast in brass salvaged from electric waste in Nigeria. Dunja teamed up with percussionists to record the sounds made by her instruments, which became the sound bank from which music was composed by Adey Omotade, Damola Owolade, Dion Monti, Gugulethu “Dumama” Duma, Elsa M’ba- la, Grace Kalima N. / Aliby Mwehu, Jill Richard, Rikki Ililonga. Following the presentation of “HUM” at Victoria Yards in Johannesburg in 2022, the clay hives were relocated outdoors to become homes for bees.

Ceramic beehive sculptures exhibited on plinths.
HUM. Victoria Yards, Johannesburg, 2022. Ceramic beehives and multi-channel sound installation.
A ceramic beehive placed outdoors.
After the exhibition, the hives moved outside to become homes for bees.

In “Hiving and HUMing”, Dunja and Thembalezwe continue their multidisciplinary and multisensory exploration of apiculture with an increased swarm of collaborators. The project progresses along two distinct and intersecting strands: alternative hive modalities and sonic vibrations. Their research in hive design turns to grass and weaving, in dialogue with master weavers Angline Masuku and Jan Maselela, beekeeper Klaas Vlegter and archaeoacoustics researcher Neil Rusch. Grass also leads them into the world of plants and encounters with different types of gardeners. While in the realm of sound, they are interested in understanding how vibration, sound waves and accumulated electronic fields are sensed. Bees’ non-verbal communication, concepts of call and response, repetition and feedback are ancient practices of communication triggering muscle memory, ritualistic and rhythmic acts that connect us across species. Together with artist Simnikiwe Buhlungu and musicians and instrument builders Farai Matake and Thobelike Mbanda, they will explore resonant instrument-making tuned to the vibratory frequency of bees.

In collaboration with curator Amy Watson, POOL becomes a hive for the project to engage with the public through various workshops, events and gatherings. The first such public programme took place recently in Cape Town. The programme included a beehive making workshop led by Klaas Vlegter and hosted at the Ikhaya Kulture Garden in Khayelitsha, instructing participants on how to fabricate low-cost beehives using reclaimed and sustainable materials in order to support bees. On day two Dunja and Thembalezwe hosted a talks programme at Field Station in Green Point with social engineer Xolisa Bangani, indigenous plant specialist Simangaliso Ngalwana, artist and farmer Vuyo Myoli, beehive maker and beekeeper Klaas Vlegter, earth artist Izabeau Pretorius, beekeeper and researcher Neil Rusch, visual anthropologist Aladin Borioli, and artist Simnikiwe Buhlungu.

The project, Dunja and Thembalezwe explain, “invites us to strengthen our kinship and renew sensitivities to the natural world through listening, observing, feeling and through acts of solidarity, in doing so we aim to demonstrate our interconnectedness and catalyse a continuum of eco-systemic symbiosis.”

A man is giving a presentation in a vegetable garden about how to make beehives from reclaimed material.
“Beehive making a different way” workshop, March 2024
Two people are making a beehive from wood.
A closeup of a person's hands weaving with dry grass.
Woven grass beehives on a table.
A group of people pose for a photograph in a vegetable garden.

Biographies

Dunja Herzog creates installations in which a larger spectrum of stories in their complex interrelationships of matter, material and their transformation and relationship to people, is made tangible and enables new perspectives. Working with natural materials is integral to her practice. Having worked on the African continent for the last twenty years, Dunja’s practice is rooted in different forms of exchange and collaboration. Inherent in her projects is an awareness of her own position and carefully addressing the complexities of the deeply unequal post-colonial societies in which she works.

Thembalezwe Mntambo works in the fields of urban beekeeping, food and climate justice and landscaping. Over the past seven years, he has established and supported food resilience and sustainability programmes in Johannesburg’s inner city. He follows a multi-dimensional exploratory approach, considering history, mysticism, sonics, ritual and process as physical and metaphysical pathways to symbiotic coexistence.

Co-creation grants

This pilot measure was launched in 2023 to support collaborative projects by tandems of artists from Switzerland and the regions of the liaison offices. Applications can be submitted until 1 June 2024.