Nakanjani, Dada Khanyisa’s got a good feeling

No matter the time. No matter the resources. No matter the place. Contemporary multidisciplinary artist Dada Khanyisa has committed their life to actualising visual stories, “nakanjani”, by all means necessary.

Box heads know them for the miniature cartoonish sneaker models they made in collaboration with Nike. Queue marshals and taxi drivers remember seeing their taxi wraparound illustrations of a crowd hailing a minibus in 2015. Their 35m Afropolitan Tea Party (2017) mural at Constitution Hill (where a party of seven is seen taking pictures of their tea and confectionery date) had them tagged in countless posts on Instagram. Art collectors associate the name with the oil paintings and cartoon strip-esque sculptural works mounted on the walls of the Stevenson gallery.

It’s no wonder it takes two weeks of emails, a dm and getting friends to put in a good word for me to finally have Khanyisa on the line. “Uuuhm, I’m actually in the process of touching up the pieces that are gonna be sent to Jo’burg,” says Khanyisa exactly a week before the premier of Good Feelings, their first solo show in Johannesburg. The title comes from Khanyisa’s urge to share “things that made me feel good” such as the gradual normalisation of gender fluidity, intimacy that isn’t necessarily sexual and communication that is easy.

Good Feelings is Khanyisa’s second solo exhibition after the Cape Town solo that gave Johannesburg art enthusiasts fomo: Bamb’iphone (2018).

To “make a Dada Khanyisa”, the artist follows a loose formula that they refer to as “nakanjani”. This technique sees them drawing, painting, carving and building with various woods, acrylic paints, rubber and everyday household textiles that, in addition to giving their work material familiarity, speak to the everyday material we use.

The scenes begin as a series of two-dimensional sketches where, as Khanyisa explains, “the idea has to be resolved”. After drawing a solid sketch, the artist translates it into bite size puzzle-like pieces. These pieces then go on to be used as a guide for the different parts that need to be carved. “I don’t walk in knowing exactly what a piece is going to look like, I respond to the opportunities that the shapes give me,” Khanyisa adds. Once the pieces are carved Khanyisa assembles them into a three-dimensional depiction of what started on paper.

No meticulous measurements and calculations go into Khanyisa’s work. Instead the artist’s strong sense of dimension comes from learning how to build objects (including slingshots and scarecrows) by watching their older brother figure out how to do so without an assembly handbook and specialised tools.

“The work that I make has to do with being curious about my capabilities, none of it comes with instructions on how to create and assemble so I have to figure it out.”

An example of a piece from Good Feelings that fulfills the curiosity in their practice is their wooden sculpture of lifestyle personality Noxolo Mafu. Although there has always been a three-dimensional element to Khanyisa’s work, they were yet to carve a character whose features could perform three-dimensional functions. As a result, the Mafu sculpture surpasses the functionality of all Khanyisa’s characters, because it has the ability to hold a phone.

Each piece in the Good Feelings show can be read individually or in relation to the others. Each character’s narrative can be understood independently, and together they form a community that feeds into one shared plot. Good Feelings uses this technique, along with levity, to comment on the increased sense of community and isolation that comes with being part of a youth working toward shedding South Africa of its condemning morality and conservative pretence.

It’s been seven years since they left home for the Michaelis School of Fine Art at the University of Cape Town. The move was prompted by Khanyisa’s search for tools that would help them merge the characters they had developed (at the National Electronic Media Institute of South Africa) with compelling narratives.

Khanyisa explains that while they appreciated the practical skills garnered from studying animation, it didn’t give them the conceptual tools that they needed to actualise their practice. “People with [Bachelor of Arts] degrees were saying things that made me go ‘hmm’,” Khanyisa chuckles in hindsight. “I know it sounds simple but I wanted to learn how to say things like that and the first thing that was appealing was art school far from Jo’burg”.

The artist’s visual language stems from their need to make work that people can connect with before it is intellectually justified. Stevenson’s press officer and arts writer Sinazo Chiya echoes this by describing the artist’s aesthetic as one that is charged with South African visual cues that are “unprecedented in the context of contemporary art” in 9 More Weeks. Published by Stevenson in 2018 alongside a group show of the same name, 9 More Weeks is a collection of essays and interviews with and about the participating artists’ processes and their navigation of Africa through contemporary art. 

This is achieved by depicting scenes, characters and settings that exist in many black people’s lives. These narratives belong to us all, but the droopy eyelids, exaggerated button noses and defined jaws of the characters in their sketches, paintings and sculptures make for a visual interpretation that belongs solely to Khanyisa and allows their work to be identified before it’s signed.

While this is influenced by animation school teachings, where an illustrator uses their caricature as a signature, it was also a means for Khanyisa to address “some dude who was copying” their work. “I understand that this is a community of referencing, but I was offended and had to push myself to make something that was going to discourage duplications.”

Even though the wait was long, the timing of Khanyisa’s Johannesburg exhibition is serendipitous. Barthélémy Toguo’s Bilongue is showing at Stevenson in Cape Town. BKhz has just opened their all-womxn sculptural group show and Lazi Mathebula made his solo debut at Kalashnikov galley in Braamfontein. Although it may be coincidental, the sculptural direction that contemporary art spaces are starting the year with presents an opportunity for indulgent conversations about the discipline and the possible directions it could go in.

Good Feelings opens February 1 at Stevenson art gallery, 46 7th Avenue, Parktown. For more information visit stevenson.info

Zaza Hlalethwa
Zaza Hlalethwa
Zaza Hlalethwa studies Digital Democracy, New Media and Political Activism, and Digital Politics.
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