Presenting an introductory workshop to isiBheqe soHlamvu at Umuzi, Pule kaJanolintshi, an artist and linguist, projects an image of what appears to be an “upside-down” map of Africa onto the wall. Someone in the audience quickly remarks that the map is facing the wrong way.  “You mean, the right way round… We’re in the South why can’t we be at the top? Whether the map is the right or the wrong way around depends on your orientation”, Pule pushes back. Decolonisation in practice, Ditema tsa Dinoko, challenges us to recondition and develop ways of understanding beyond conventional Western practices. Much like the disputed map, isiBheqe is an exercise in reimagining and reconstructing.

Developed over the past three years by a team of linguists and designers, isiBheqe soHlamvu, also known as Ditema tsa Dinoko, is a syllabic writing system, meaning the symbols are expressed as syllables as opposed to individual sounds like alphabetic letters. The system is informed by indigenous Southern African symbolic design traditions, considering Sesotho, isiNdebele and isiNguni symbols, like the beading artform ibheqe.

IsiBheqe soHlamvu makes use of triangular forms prevalent in these traditions that can create patterns as a means of communication. And while isiBheqe is a writing system the triangular symbols aren’t like conventional alphabets but, like music, representations of sound. Also known as a featural writing system, isiBheqe symbols are informed by articulation – the use of physical organs such as your lips, tongue and jaw when pronouncing the syllables of words – the way words sound.

The first featural writing system of the 21st century (featural writing systems, such as Korean Hangeul, date back to the 15th century), the developers of isiBheqe hope to encourage the use of the writing system through their website isibheqe.org which boasts an isiBheqe keyboard, and eventually have isiBheqe recognized by the Unicode Consortium.

Bringing isiBheqe to life, Umuzi in collaboration with Afropunk, an influential community of young people of all backgrounds speaking through music, art, film, lifestyle sports, fashion, and photography, present Ringa, an exhibition exploring  the concept of language in Southern Africa as a complex singularity, rather than languages as separate entities.

On 5 October, as part of the Braamfontein’s First Thursday programme, a group of Umuzi young artists, partnering with Sandile Radebe and Pule kaJanolintshi, will use Isibheqe, an indigenous writing system for Southern African languages, as a medium to convey an everyday, pan-lingual experience.

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