A vernacular lens brings iconoclasm into focus

He's an ad man by day and an illustrator by night. But Pola Maneli intends for both his design work and his drawings to affect social behaviour. He picked up a silver Loerie last year for a feeding campaign that solicited aid through feel-good vibes rather than guilt. But it was a series of illustrations of South Africans, using iconography and symbols to illustrate stereotypical characters, that won him the gold. 

Think of a bearded man with mealie-cob moustache and a sheep against a fence as a hat, or a dark-eyed youngster adorned with broken glass vials, bones, a handcuff and a pit bull. 

Maneli's signature style combines elements of pop culture and social commentary "viewed through a vernacular lens". His work, he says, "is somewhere between poppy and Afrocentric – like life is for a whole generation of black youth; identity is not cut and dried. I myself am a hodgepodge of different people."

Which is why the Port Elizabeth-born illustrator finds stereotypes so intriguing: that nationalities and cultures can be illustrated through visual symbols. Yet by doing this, shortcomings emerge. 

"There are so many preconceived notions about, for example, black Xhosa males," says Maneli. "I just like presenting it out there. It's especially interesting when I try to take on my own stuff – my own perceptions or prejudices. In Unforgivable I tried to think of less obvious imagery for a portrait of an older Afrikaans male. While I tried to stay true to the stereotype, was there a way of not coming across as racist? 

"How the same image would be viewed if it had not been made by a young black male also interests me. Would it cause offence? In Armchair Activist I'm looking at myself – and yet am I the stereotype of a young Xhosa guy, or is it the unemployed kid on the street corner? It shows up the limits of stereotyping." 

Maneli is one of 42 "emerging creatives" to feature on the 2014 Design Indaba Expo – not a bad trajectory for a 23-year-old. 

He completed a BTech in applied design at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University last year, and is pursuing a related goal of becoming an advertising art director (he works for agency Boomtown). But in his free time he draws, honing his visual language. 

He's drawn ever since he discovered, as a "podgy" kid, that being able to render dragons and dinosaurs had social currency. He's graduated from crayons to computer vectors, but still "draws people in cafés" to keep his basic skills alive.  

Maneli's drawings have commercial currency now. He plans to continue exhibiting in galleries, using his own name rather than the pseudonym he employed as a student, Paolo Maneli (amusingly, he says, using a name that sounded Italian helped to get him some early commissions). 

The illustrations appeal not only to his "bubble" of peers, but also sell to "middle-aged white ladies". 

His latest work, on show at the Expo, remains socially conscious; it tackles HIV stigmas. The vernacular, Afrocentric style is still evident, but employs a touch more nuance, because "no one is overtly one thing".  

Although treatment programmes are everywhere, says Maneli, what about campaigns for those living with the virus, who have to deal with prejudice? 

"Why is it that if a person says they have HIV, people look down on them a little, yet if you then say you were born with the virus, attitudes change and people see you as innocent?" 

Once again awkward perceptions – for instance, that an HIV-positive person has been promiscuous or careless – are drawn, questioned and, with a bit of luck, erased.

Pola Maneli's work will be on show at the Design Indaba Expo at the Cape Town International Convention Centre from February 28 to March 2

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