The rebirth of Lazi Mathebula

‘This is year zero.” In spite of his prolific portfolio as an illustrator and art director, Lazi Mathebula has decided to wipe his artistic slate clean and start all over again. That’s what he said during the closing walkabout of his first solo exhibition, Shadows of My Freedom, at Kalashnikovv Gallery in Johannesburg in January.

Six years ago, Mathebula met Kalashnikovv’s co-owner, MJ Turpin, in Braamfontein. “We just got to speaking at an opening one night,” Turpin recalls. “He wanted to know more about the ways in which so-called gallery artists conceptualise and produce work.”

Not too long thereafter, in 2013, Mathebula made his gallery debut at Kalashnikovv in a group show titled Illustrator’s Show.

This week sees Mathebula making his debut at the 2020 Investec Cape Town Art Fair (February 14 to 16). His work will share the Kalashnikovv booth with artwork from the likes of Conrad Botes, Ayanda Mabulu, Yolanda Mazwana and Alfred Thoba. Leading up to the fair, the Mail & Guardian caught up with him about the decision to restart his artistic practice. 

With the exception of him cashing out his street cred to establish the streetwear brand, Beautiful Boys, in 2017, the better part of the 2010s saw Mathebula take on countless commissioned work. In this visual communication space, he was known for depicting contemporary scenes of blackness in urban South Africa, using geometric shapes and luminous colours. His style earned him opportunities to work with brands such as Nike, Legit, Boogaloos, Supreme­ Being, Ricoffy, Flying Fish, Auto Trader, Red Bull, Martell Cognac and Castle Lager.

Although he acknowledges the capital that comes with working with these brands, Mathebula is quick to list where the hype falls short. 

“I can’t hold on to something that’s branded as Nike. I made it but that copyright belongs to them when they commission me,” he sighs. There’s also the fact that “the work becomes obsolete as soon as the billboard gets taken down or the activation ends”. 

In addition to issues of ownership and longevity, Mathebula says he grew tired of how brands continue to “use creatives as tools” and are yet to see the importance of the practitioners who turn their messages into something tangible — whether it’s new packaging, a billboard or redesigning a logo. He says the corporate strongholds that run the brands create a Hunger Games-like environment where they pit practitioners against each other to see who can give the most compelling concept at the most reasonable price. “We have to live off a template that suits the corporates and be good at playing their social sports to stay visible and commissioned,” he says.

This is why Mathebula decided to take a break from the corporate world to return to the contemporary art space. 

To mark his rebirth, Mathebula has chosen to work with metal. He says this was the obvious next step because he had already tried to make people take digital art seriously. “I failed at that,” he says, laughing. “Maybe it’s because there was information that was missing from my execution. We’ll never know.”

Coming from a place where his work either lived digitally or on paper, Mathebula says he needed to re-establish himself using a medium that strengthened his aesthetic and challenged his abilities. The decision to work with metal came after he spent two and a half years experimenting with concrete, plaster, resin, plastic, wax and metal.

Mathebula showed Turpin his works made from the various mediums that he was experimenting with. Turpin says they settled on metal because “his line-and-pattern style translates perfectly into steel.”

And when the sculptures are positioned against the Kalashnikovv Gallery’s white walls the black metal works look like pen on paper, a seemingly serendipitous nod to Mathebula’s artistic foundation as an illustrator. 

To describe his current practice, Mathebula says he “solves problems of contemporary expression using domestic and industrial solutions”. 

To learn how to work with metal, Mathebula approached the blacksmith who had come to fix his gate at home. “I bought a welding machine and he taught me the basics in one day.”

Once he had mastered the art of interpreting his designs into pieces of metal that he could cut and weld together, his process moved to the finer details. 

“I was frustrated with the metal because it wasn’t giving me the texture that I had when I was working with paper,” he says. 

To resolve this, Mathebula gave the sculptures a grainy feel by making use of salt, sweets and braai pap before adding a few more layers of paint to the sculptures. The result is Shadows of My Freedom

Consisting of 10 metal sculptures, Shadows of My Freedom argues that even though capitalism and neo-colonisation have done their best to disconnect black people from one another, in democratic South Africa the degrees of separation are not as great as they appear to be — much like the distance between an individual and their shadow. 

To depict this, Mathebula has fashioned characters that he identified in everyday Johannesburg. They include: Mathebula; his wife wearing xibelani (a Tsonga woman’s skirt); a sneakerhead; a “slay queen”; and mme wa seapharo (a woman of the cloth). 

“With all these characters, it’s either you know them or you are them,” Mathebula says. 

He places characters who are unlikely to be seen together (such as the boxhead and mme wa seapharo) close to one another.

The uneven and grainy textures in the sculptures add to the theoretical aspect of Shadows of My Freedom. “The textures symbolise the fact that we’re all camouflaging something. We’re covering our essence, the true colours that make us different,” Mathebula says. 

When asked about the difference between what advertising offered him and what the gallery is giving him, Mathebula says working in the contemporary art space has afforded him the agency to tell the stories that he wants to tell on his terms. “No one dictated Shadows of My Freedom. It was just me,” he almost whispers. 

On the subject of going from one form of power (corporate) to another (the white cube), Mathebula says Kalashnikovv has taken the story he wanted to tell and validated it by giving it room to exist on a reputable public platform. 

“People are listening to me, I don’t mind them getting a share of my earnings in return. Who else was going to take me to an art fair in my first year?” Mathebula asks. 

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

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