Leila Dougan

[intro]It’s art season in the city of gold and Khehla Chepape Makgato’s exhibition, titled, ‘The Heroines of Southern Africa’, is a must-see collection of mixed media collages that pays homage to historical black women warriors. Portraits currently on display at the Market Theatre include Queen Nandi Mhlongo, mother of King Shaka Zulu and the Rain Queen dynasty.[/intro]

“I was brought up in and around community led by women, so I’m interested in looking at the leadership and brilliance of African women,” said Makgota who has created a series of mixed media collages which are colourful as they are informative of historical figures that are rarely celebrated today.

The Heroines of Southern Africa celebrates 18th century icons such as The Rain Queens. The legend of the Rain Queens have been told for centuries and she is responsible for bringing rain, as well as holding and leading annual rainmaking ceremonies. There have been six Rain Queens to date, with the last, Rain Queen Makobo Constance Modjadji VI passing away in 2005.


Previous Rain Queens include: Rain Queen I Maselekwane Modjadji (1800-1854), Rain Queen II Masalanabo Modjadji (1854-1894), Rain Queen III Khetoane Modjadji (1895-1959), Rain Queen IV Makoma Modjadji (1959 – 1980), Rain Queen V Mokope Modjadji (1981 – 2001) and the most recent, as mentioned above, Rain Queen VI Makobo Constance Modjadji (2003 – 2005).

The artist’s work is beautifully composed with individual portraits made up of colourful collages. Facial features are unrecognisable, but remain true to a sense of history that the artist attempts to rebuild into our everyday narrative, bringing the fragmented history of our colonial past back into our present understanding of the essential role women play in our society. Makgato also brings the narratives of the past back to life by recalling the story of how the first rain queen came to be.

The father of [Rain Queen I Maselekwane Modjadji] prophesised that his daughter will succeed him and he will bless her with the rain charms. In the early 1800s the first Rain Queen, who had both political and ceremonial power, was inaugurated and Zulu king Shaka paid tribute to her because of her rain power.


“I am also paying homage to one of the most uncelebrated warrior queens from the Southern African continent, Manatatisi – The Tlokwa Warrior. Manatatisi fought to preserve her tribal lands during the wars between Matiwane and Shaka Zulu in the 1800s. She succeeded in protecting the heritage of Batlokwa, a tribe of my forebears,” said Makgato.

Represented in this exhibition is also a portraiture of Nongqawuse (1840s – 1898) the Xhosa prophetess whose prophecies led to a millennialist movement that ended in the Xhosa cattle-killing catastrophe of 1856–1857, in what is now the Eastern Cape.

The story goes that in 1856, Nongqawuse and her friend Nombanda went to fetch water from a pool near the mouth of the Gxarha River. When she returned, Nongqawuse told her uncle and guardian Mhlakaza, a Xhosa spiritualist, that she had met the spirits of three of her ancestors. She claimed that the spirits had told her that the Xhosa people should destroy their crops and kill their cattle, the source of their wealth as well as food. In return the spirits of the ancestors would sweep the British settlers into the sea. Nongqawuse was then captured and arrested by the British authorities and imprisoned on Robben Island, presumably one of the first female prisoners incarcerated on the island. After her release, she lived on a farm in the Alexandria district of theEastern Cape. She died in 1898.


Makgato also pays special homage to Queen Nandi Mhlongo (1760 –1827), Mother of King Shaka Zulu who was a daughter of Bhebhe, a past chief of the Langeni tribe.

Khehla Chepape Makgato was born in Kensington, Johannesburg and raised in Makotopong village, outside Polokwane in Limpopo.

The Heroines of Southern Africa is Makgato’s fourth annual solo art exhibition and is on display at The Market Theatre until the end of October.

Images courtesy of the artist.