Zilande – Temporal Nomadism in African Ecopolitical Social Practice Art

Nomusa Makhubu, The Times of a Just Transition
Project status

Temporal nomadism is conceptualised in this research as the practice of disrupting historical ecological disasters of dispossession and displacement to explore the recovery time from the logic of capital. It focusses on social practice art – a combination of itinerant, collaborative, participatory and activist art that is primarily geared towards social change. African artists offer distinct provocations, especially in relation to eco-justice, to the economy-centred global environmental sustainability discourse. The latter, which often focuses on the consumer lifestyle choices, is hinged on the hope that consumer behaviour and the sanctioning of producers through commercialising pollution would not only slow down the pace of destruction but would reverse the impact. This impossible compromise between continued mass production and pursuit of environmental justice is one of the issues taken up by African social practice artists, where the ideological reversals, suspensions, accelerations and decelerations of time in the imaginings of possible worlds are questioned in relation to the materiality racial, gendered and class differentiation.

Using the notion of ukuzilanda, literally to ‘fetch oneself’ [through time] by reciting one’s genealogy, this research develops the concept of temporal nomadism as a creative strategy in ecopolitical social practice art that addresses Africa’s ‘expulsion from history’ (Sollors and Diedrich 1994, 5), or the dispossession of space and time. In this way, Ukuzilanda registers as a practice of reclamation and reparation. The concept is applied in this research to understand artists’ interventions that ‘allow for the manipulation of time, to go backwards and forwards, to conflate, to chop up and put seemingly unrelated things together […] like writing: the process of narrating, of making a story, destroying a story, and opening up stories’ (Gresle 2015). The strategy of temporal nomadism shows how time is integrally bound to the exercise of power.

It is in this framework that I reflect on contemporary art collectives and networks, which operate across differentiated communities, through intra-Africa trans-border movement and collaboration. The key objectives of the proposed research include the development of a database collating interviews and photographic documentation, mentorship/ capacity development, academic publications as well as popular accessible multilingual publications aimed at young audiences. The idea is to use the archival material on environmental and cosmological concepts of space-time to formulate what might constitute justice (ecological, epistemic, or poetic). The ideal is to translate this material into accessible multilingual publications. Preliminary case studies of artists and art collectives whose art is based on public intervention, collaboration, community engagement or service and advocacy include Congolese Plantation Workers Art League (C.A.T.P.C.) (DRC), Invisible Borders (Nigeria), Ozhope Collective (Malawi), MADEYOULOOK (South Africa), Open Restitution Project and The Nest Collective (Kenya), Nucleo de Arte (Mozambique), Colectivo Pés Descalços (Angola) and Les Petites Pierres (Senegal). This research builds on my ongoing social engagement work of Creative Knowledge Resources (CKR) - a platform for the study of African social practice art.

In South Africa, research will also be expanded to art interventions focussing on eco-racism in and around townships (an example is Evaton, in Southern Gauteng). Evaton, unlike most townships which were built during apartheid, was a freehold area where Black people owned land since at least 1906 predating the infamous 1913 Land Act. It became a self-sustaining agricultural area with rivers and well-preserved wetlands. But then it faced systematic dispossession which intensified in the 1970s under the apartheid regime. Currently, Evaton is polluted, barren and collapsing under the weight of municipal corruption and mass closures of former iron and steel industries. In the case of Evaton, ‘movement’ or temporal nomadism is taken as mental liberation by using past narratives, ukuzilanda as time-space recovery, to shift out of the township paradigm.

The research will also draw from concepts developed by artist collectives such as Invisible Borders. This collective, led by Emeka Okereke, proposes trans-Africanism, which is focussed on grassroots artistic intervention through an in-transit community. Okereke (2012) explains that ‘the prefix Trans- by definition connotes “going beyond”, “transcending”, and in some cases implies a thorough change’. While it is about change (transformation), between (transit), conversion, passage and adaptation (transition) or temporariness (transitory), it is also about the necessary and inevitable political antagonisms in pursuit of justice. Trans-African, refers to space, time and the body, the three main loci of colonial theft. It can be conceived of as the transcendence of colonialism and its new insidious forms as the theft of bodies (slave trade, massacres and forced labour), theft of space (land dispossession and resource extraction) and theft of time. It situates movement (against private property) and communing as generative ideas for thinking about nomadism and ecological sensibility in exploring alternative approaches to sustainability and social justice.


Braidotti, Rosi. 2010. ‘Nomadism: Against Methodological Nationalism’. Policy Futures in Education 8, no. 3–4: 408–418.

Demos, T.J. 2016. Decolonizing Nature: Contemporary Art and the Politics of Ecology, Berlin: Sternberg Press,

Green, Lesley. 2013. Contested Ecologies: Dialogues in the South on Nature and Knowledge, Cape Town: HSRC Press,

Harvey, David. 1996. Justice, Nature and the Geography of Difference, Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell Publishers,

Makhubu, N. 2021. “Capturing Nature: Eco-Justice in African Art,” The Routledge Companion to Contemporary Art, Visual Culture, and Climate Change, Demos, T.J., Scott, EE and Banerjee, S., New York and London: Routledge, Pp. 283-294.

Makhubu, N. and Ruiters, G. 2020. “This Land is not for Sale: Post-1994 Resistance Art and Interventionism in Cape Town’s precarious publics,” City, Culture and Society, vol. 23, np.

Makhubu, N. 2018. “Strange and Bitter Crop: Visualising Eco-racism in South Africa” for the book Theatrum Botanicum, Shela Sheikh and Uriel Orlow (Eds), London: Steenberg Press, Pp. 277-286.

Makhubu, N. 2018. “The Poetics of Entanglement in Zina Saro-Wiwa's Food Interventions,” Third Text, vol. 32 (2-3): 176-199.

Makhubu, N. 2018. “Art by any Other Name: Mediated Performance Art and Temporality in Early Nollywood Video-film,” Critical African Studies, vol. 10 (2): 226-244.

Okereke, Emeka. 2021. ‘A Volatile Negotiation Between the Past and Present: Invisible Borders Trans-African Project’. Field: A Journal of Socially Engaged Art Criticism. Issue 17. http://field-journal.com/issue-17/a-volatile-negotiation-between-the-past-and-present-invisible-borders-trans-african-project .

Smith, Neil. 2007. ‘Nature as Accumulation Strategy,’ Socialist Register, 3

Sign up to our email newsletters