South Africa, Visual Arts, 2023, in Berlin


Helena Uambembe, Performance Villa Romana Florenz (photo: Giulia del Piero)

Helena Uambembe is a storyteller or, as she describes herself, a keeper of (hi)stories. She is a guardian of her family’s personal stories, traumas, and happiness, of the collective amnesia shared by her community members and their families. Her primary material is (hi)stories and silences shared with her father.

Uambembe was born in Pomfret, a desert town in South Africa inhabited primarily by former soldiers of the 32nd Battalion1 of the South African Defense Force. The 32nd Battalion and her Angolan heritage are predominant themes in her work, exploring narratives surrounding history, place, and time, and interweaving symbolic elements, archival material, and fiction.

Her interdisciplinary practice comprises textiles, printmaking, photography, performance, and text. Four conceptual elements form her vocabulary: archives, memory, body, and language. The body holds special significance in her practice – it is a receptacle of knowledge and a barometer of residual trauma. It speaks across geographies, territories, and temporalities, and is the measure for understanding the many identities that she embodies.

Language is memory, it is performed and (re)invented. In her use of text or in sonic installations, Uambembe reclaims the oral tradition, mixing hymns in different idioms – South African, Angolan, Namibian – to form an enriched personal vocabulary that connects to her ancestral lineage and open possibilities of being in-between.

For Uambembe, the archive is both a lived space and a space for enquiry and production. It is constantly being made and unmade through her interactions and interferences with the material she encounters and through the lived experiences of her community. In a photographic series, she inserts herself in historical imagery, as if by intervening in certain events, she could change the course of history. Time is bent. Those gestures and interferences consider how embodied life shapes and brings together disparate events. Whether working at a domestic (personal) scale or with collective archives, Uambembe’s work maps the ideological and intimate space crafted by historical events that link Angola, South Africa, Namibia, and global histories.

Her recent work moves towards notions of repair, restitution, and collective healing, emerging from silences and voids. Each piece, whether a video, drawing, or installation, functions as a frame taken from a more comprehensive narrative that confronts the fractures and erasures resulting from unspoken legacies of war that still shadow the present. While confrontation can be poignant, Uambembe’s work reminds us that political processes are neither personal nor disembodied. Her interests lie in finding common ground, in the performative aspects of memory, in the power of art to bring us together, and in the human ability to transform and heal.

Text: Paula Nascimento

1 32nd Battalion was a force in the South African defense force comprised of Angolan men, who fought in the Namibian War of Independence. Helena’s father was a soldier in the battalion, and she grew up in a community of ex-soldiers.


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