The image of a versatile artist

In painting, filmmaker and actor Mmabatho Montsho found a different medium to express the need to create, propelled by urgent messages that haunted her from the other side. She spoke to Milisuthando Bongela about her paintings of Methodist Church women

Are you religious or spiritual?

I am both. I practise the African religion as understood through Bo Ngaka.

Why did you choose to focus your eye on Methodist Church women in your paintings and photographs?

Sometime late last year, in the dead of night, the image came to me. Like it was haunting me, it would not go away. First I thought it was a demand for a story, a script and so I wrote the script, thinking I will find peace. But the image was still there, haunting.

I started to sketch it on paper and only then did I find peace. Like that, one thing led to the other. So, in a way, it was not so much the focus of my eye but a struggle with an image that was haunting me.

What is it about the way black women prepare themselves for prayer and worship that makes you want to document them?

Although the struggle to find peace with an image that was haunting me ended up in a painting, the truth is, in my head, it was never about documenting something of an experience of people out there, black women in particular. I don’t deny that it could be read that way. In any way.

I’m not a stranger to those experiences. I have interacted intimately with those experiences. The women in my family have always been worshippers themselves.

I always want to give the observer of my work the freedom to decide what the image does to them. That is the way of the artist.

But I couldn’t say I was documenting experiences that I had come across as much as documenting a struggle with an image that was haunting me.

This is expressed in the painting by how I isolate them, often in empty canvases so that they are not read in relation to objects but rather in their relationship either with themselves, with each other and with the frame.

Do you find any significance in the style and colours of the Methodist uniforms compared with others like the Presbyterian or Zionist uniforms?

Red, black and white — in that specific combination — are colours that speak to my own journey in ubu-Ngoma or Bo Ngaka. Although there are other colours that can be found in ubuNgoma or Bo Ngaka, the ones that speak volumes to me are the combination of red, black and white.

Maybe it’s something about my own spirituality or even the spiritual epoch that we as a people find ourselves in. But also, red is decidedly a colour of fire that represents renewal. Red is also a colour with political connotations.

Something is to be said about a group of women wearing the colour red in religious attire. While colours like blue, green and yellow may represent calm serenity and peace, red oozes action, passion, courage, daring, audacity and also truth. And those are the most-needed qualities today.

There’s an “our mothers’’ element that is so strong in these paintings. As a black person observing this, it’s as if I didn’t know that my mother could be the subject of a painting because she’s my mother. But you have managed to do both — retain that element while elevating them into works of art.

I couldn’t say I have elevated the women into painting. I want to insist that these works have very little to do with experiences that I’m transposing into the frame, or that I am documenting. It is for me the release of an image that was haunting me. I was chasing peace.

As a filmmaker, I appreciate how a medium can change or influence how we perceive things, so I find your observation intriguing.

Again, depending on our own experiences, we will look at the images and feel and see a whole universe that will differ from one person to the other. The power of an artwork is precisely that I must surrender it to be experienced in that individuality. So your reading of “our mothers” into it is a gift I thank you for.

Have you always painted or is this your “coming out’’ work?

I have always been interested in fine art. I have taken art classes since primary school and, in my high school years, art history as well. So I have always painted. I wouldn’t say this is my coming-out work.

I have never exhibited or sold any of my work, nothing like that. I have always painted because I am drawn to resolve a struggle that I might have with images, stories, thoughts, feelings and experiences. I have also given away paintings as gifts to loved ones.

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Milisuthando Bongela
Milisuthando Bongela is the Mail & Guardians arts and culture editor. She is a multi award-winning writer, blogger and collaborator. She has experience in the arts having worked in fashion, music, art and film as well as a decade-long career in consulting, entrepreneurship, blogging and cultural activism. She is also directing a documentary about hair and black identity, a film she calls the report card on the rainbow nation project.

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