“It was a brilliant integration of science, aesthetics and culture,”
Prof Michelle Fine, Puleng’s supervisor at the Graduate Centre of the City University of New York
Puleng Segalo received her PhD (which was awarded with double distinctions) in Psychology from the City University of New York. She is a Fulbright scholar and a National Research Foundation rated researcher.
Her research work analyzes South African women’s narratives of survival and resistance pre, during and post-apartheid. She does this by analyzing embroidered stories that women stitch onto fabric to tell another tale of survival and resistance.
Puleng has dedicated her work toward the advancement of women in South Africa, at the level of economics, education and also their deep psychological sense of purpose and community. She has received recognition for her research work in the form of awards and invitations as a guest speaker at a number of national and international academic forums and popular media. In 2016 she was selected to be a member of South African Young Academy of Science (SAYAS).
Art as a language and a way to healing
I use visual imagery in the form of embroideries (which allow space for ‘counter-narratives’) as research tools that people can use to narrate/tell stories of their lived experiences. As South Africa continues to heal from its painful past, many people seek spaces and ways in which they can heal.
Asked about Puleng’s work, Michelle Fine, whom Puleng considers a mentor, explained the way in which she was amazed at how beautifully the women of the collective had articulated their life stories, which were rife with struggles and trauma, for bartering purposes. She was just as impressed by how well Puleng was able to interpret, distill and present those art pieces in the scientific realm.
Contribute to healing
“Although I was studying in the US, I wanted my study to be based in South Africa in the hope that it would contribute to the healing of my nation.”
She chose ten women over the age of 50 from Etwatwa, near Daveyton in Gauteng, to participate in the project.
These women had all experienced the brutality of living under the apartheid regime and carried the hurt from those days, to one degree or another, around with them.
The women also were part of an embroidery collective and therefore were practiced in a skill that they were comfortable enough with to not only create an art piece, but to also use as a tool to express their feelings of hurt.
“Puleng curated a museum of these embroideries, both in South African and here in the US,” said Michelle. “Her analysis was quite brilliant – her dissertation was considered with distinction because she managed to open up the field of social psychology to a deeper exploration of aesthetic methods being used to tap into the stream of deep psychological, relational and political experiences.”
Puleng felt honoured that the women of the collective were willing to share their stories with her, especially as some of them had never told another soul about the traumatic episodes they endured. For Puleng, their stories reminded her of her own childhood – bringing about a lot of self-reflection, memories and driving home the point of ways in which apartheid had impacted on peoples’ lives.
Puleng was struck by the resilience of the participants throughout those trying times and was amazed at how they never completely lost hope for a better future.
Irene Ntombela was one of the brave women involved in the study.
“I left my home in Natal to go work in the kitchens (white neighbourhoods) of Gauteng, but while I was still knocking on doors looking for a job, a van came from behind, sped past and then stopped,” said Irene.
“A white policeman and a black policeman walked towards me and just demanded my pass, they did not even greet. I was confused but I gave it to them. The next thing, they put me into the back of the van and took me to the police station where they stamped my pass and told me I had seven days to get out of Gauteng and go back to Natal where I came from,” she recalled.
Irene continued that the policemen threatened to lock her up in jail if they found her in Gauteng after the seven days were up. She had no money to get back home though, and in the end her mom had to come to her rescue. “I will never forget those days, how scared I felt.”
Another woman, Rhoda Mpuqa spoke of her childhood and how being separated from her parents had affected her, causing her to carry the pain of that separation around with her all her life. “My parents had to leave our village and go far away to work, so they left me behind with my grandparents and later I was passed on to my uncle and aunt, whom I felt did not love me like I was their child, like I should have been loved.”
“Why did my parents leave me?” she kept thinking while growing up.
“This embroidery I am doing of my life story is helping me make sense of my childhood,” she said. “I understand now that there were political and financial circumstances beyond my parents’ control that forced them to make the decisions they made, so now I can forgive them and move forward.”
Impacting the youth
Since her PhD, Puleng has been involved in various projects and interventions she is hoping will have a positive impact on South Africa and her youth. One of those is a community outreach in Pretoria and surrounding areas that aims at providing mentorship and career guidance to high-school learners.
Another project Puleng is passionate about is the NRF-driven mentorship programme which is geared towards promoting and encouraging students to pursue postgraduate studies, and more specifically PhDs. The programme consists of one-day workshops facilitated by people holding doctorates in different disciplines. They explain their academic journey towards achieving their PhDs, discussing the highs, lows and benefits of getting a PhD with the aim of encouraging the postdoctoral students to continue their studies.
“It is imperative that more students carry their studies through to PhD level,” Puleng said, as these studies add to the country’s knowledge production. “There is a dearth of professors actively involved in academia, especially black people, which is a pity because these courses help people to think critically and innovatively.”
Puleng said that a reason why students are not continuing with their studies is that the pull of the market might be too great after having studied for a few years already. Women might get married, fall pregnant or financial resources might not be available to continue with studies.
Another reason might be that students do not know of the various financial aids that can help them complete their PhD studies. This is why she is so keen to be a part of the NRF mentorship programme which brings these to the attention of graduates.
If women can be made aware of their options, perhaps in 50 years’ time they will be producing art that pours out the positives in their lives instead of the trauma.