While in Port Elizabeth over the weekend I took up the opportunity to meet visual artist Pola Maneli. When we meet outside his apartment, he comes out dressed in a pair of Nike Cortez sneakers, a pair of faded black skinny jeans, a white t-shirt, one silver stud in each ear and what looks like a two week-old haircut. Much like his outfit, Maneli’s demeanour is as casual as it is cool.
Our meet-up took place shortly before I had to catch a bus back to Johannesburg and before Maneli was due for a Skype call with Masande Ntshanga. So there was very little time to interact. With only enough time for an impromptu walkabout — at his Nelson Mandela University studio — before a rushed exchange of goodbyes and well wishes; Maneli and I settled on a virtual conversation through emails, a copy of his Master’s dissertation and WeTransfer links.
In 2013 Maneli was about to complete his bachelor’s degree in applied design when he was overwhelmed by existential angst that led him to create the illustration series If the Shoe Fits.
With confidence in his skill but no job prospects, he figured that “the best way to make a name for myself would be to try to win some high profile awards”. So he submitted the series to be considered for a Loeries award.
The illustrations of half-human half-sneaker figures depict the dehumanisation that comes with stereotyping people on racial lines.
Instead of skin, the figures’ faces are decorated with patterns that reference a racial group. For example, the figure depicting black people has an Afro with an ox in it and its face is covered in the patterns associated with the Ndebele.
“The series depicted South African racial stereotypes with the hope of shedding light on how absurd they actually were,” explains Maneli, who ended up bagging a gold Loeries award for the series.
In his current reflection on If the Shoe Fits, Maneli draws on post-colonial theorist Homi Bhabha’s collection of essays, The Location of Culture (1994). Bhabha argues that stereotypical representations cause harm because they remain rooted in colonial classifications.
“I was also making it harder for people to see themselves as well as others in a more nuanced and considered way,” Maneli admits.
Instead of trying to distance himself from If the Shoe Fits, no matter his current thoughts on it, it seemed more worthwhile to use it as a point of departure for something new. So Maneli sought to find out what would happen if he did the work by “re-articulating” his own blackness.
The result of the hypothesis is the multimodal body of work, An Indigenous I/Eye. It’s a figurative attempt at visualising blackness that is open, fluid and boundless based on his experience.
Through more than 20 works in different mediums such as acrylic on wood, black perspex, chalk, ink, graphite and photoshop, Maneli has attempted to depict the ways that capitalism, masculinity, intimacy and spatial planning play out in a contemporary black South African’s life.
There are two types of illustrations in An Indigenous I/Eye.
In one, Maneli portrays his subjects through minimal portraiture. This is especially evident in the series A Canon With No Sound (2020), which consists of portraits of significant cultural figures such as Santu Mofokeng, Edna Lewis, Mongane Wally Serote and Noria Mabasa. He uses a type of line-drawing that is reminiscent of aerial views of intricate mazes.
In the second type of illustrations the subjects are depicted either where they live or in clusters that seem to represent communities within blackness. One such piece is Mountains III (2019). A group of 12 black people, who seem to be doing things independent of one another, are captured in a single frame, as if standing in the formation of a choir. This type of illustration demonstrates his understanding of dimension through the way he uses shading to communicate depth and the spaces between people where there seems to be none.
With regard to figuratively presenting capitalism in a black context, Maneli spent time “reading about the economic disparities between South African racial groups” to append his personal notions of how capitalism does not have the same effect on all of us.
In Discipline & Pleasure (2018) Maneli comments on the pressure for black folk to always be on the grind to stay alive and to avoid prejudiced microaggressions in the workplace. He asks what happens when the reward of having a consistent output creates the compulsion to constantly be productive, even when it results in fatigue and isolation. The work is based on Vicky Osterweil’s 2016 essay of the same name, in which where she likens the addiction to video games to the obsessive ambition to constantly achieve at work.
The subject in Maneli’s Discipline & Pleasure sits in bed in an unkept room, which looks as much like an office cubicle as it does a dormitory or a hospital cubicle, playing a video game but neglecting themself and their surroundings.
Speaking about the challenges of this project, Maneli mentions how one of the problems unveiled itself after he had completed the work. While installing the work, Maneli says he found himself constantly asking himself whether he felt seen, represented in his own representation of himself. Having put the time, skill, material, academic and conceptual resources into the work, the answer was a fatigued “yes”. Maneli says it could never be an unwavering “yes” because: “How do you make work that touches on your identity — especially if you’re black — without other people (regardless of their own race) projecting their own meanings onto it?”
Given that the work was about reimagining or broadening ideas of blackness, it was also important for Maneli to make the audience aware of their own complicity in upholding ideas about blackness by showing them “how we all project our learned assumptions and meanings” onto people. One of the ways he does this is through the Projections (2020) series. Using black perspex Maneli fashions five faces that could be anybody. This allows the audience to fill in the gaps by projecting their own ideas onto the images, based on the narrow visual cues that the artist offers in the figures’ stencil-like faces.
Keeping in mind that Maneli’s current work, An Indigenous I/Eye, is based on a critique of his own representations of blackness, his thoughts about other artists was bound to come up. Maneli touches on how Athi Joja referred to Zanele Muholi’s portraiture as self-fetishistic in the essay Provisional Commentary about Vusi Beauchamp’s Paradyse of the Damned (2016). He also mentions how Kwanele Sosibo described Ayanda Mabulu’s depictions as hypermasculine and combative in the Mail & Guardian article headlined “Ayanda Mabulu’s art of plundering phalluses: Rape, Mandela and his ‘guerilla warfare’”.
“The one commonality throughout all of these examples is a depiction of blackness primarily in orientation to whiteness,” Maneli adds.
He then says that his notions on Muholi and Mabulu and his previous work aren’t so much a critique as they are an act of pointing out how “a hegemonic structure [such as one where blackness is not the standard] will subsume all activities in relation to it” even when the work is defiant.
“How can I access this image if my socialisation prohibits me from seeing it?” Maneli asks to drive his point home.
Looking at the current visualisations of blackness in contemporary art, it seems that making figurative representations free of stereotypes and projections is an impossible exercise. In addition to Maneli approaching his work with a perspective that isn’t without blemishes, the viewer’s lens of the work is out of the artist’s control. Many of our perceptions are deeply ingrained, so they seem natural.
Having said that, the gentle reverence and pride with which Maneli depicts black people leaves me feeling that I’ve been seen.