Unique style: Where meaningful artistic conventions are born

As much as the power of expression has played a role in dehumanising, its ability to humanise and restore has a more profound impact. The visual languages that shape our worlds either impose our belonging in a space or exclude us from it, which makes art so impactful as a channel that leads to remembrance or propels the visionaries within us.  

We took the time to reflect on the images, spaces and objects created by artists, designers and curators who refurbish our imaginations and normalise our identities and human experiences as part of the scale of natural occurrences. We caught up with award-winning artists, a ceramic artist, a designer and a curator to unpack the nature of their practices. 

Bonolo Kavula 

Bonolo Kavula challenges tradition in every sense. The multidisciplinary artist’s experimental approach to print-making focuses on turning mundane objects into provocative, abstract explorations and allows audiences to resonate with her work in a way that’s unique to them yet true to her expression. 

In her work, Kavula combines print with design, painting and sculpture to create meticulously measured strands of thread that emphasise her dynamism and ability to see her works through with intention. For Kavula, art has always been a restorative practice that she nurtures studiously to channel works that offer viewers a moment of pause. 

Kavula opened her first solo exhibition at Cape Town’s SMAC gallery in March 2021, and has been featured in a number of group shows and showed at Art Basel Miami in 2021. She has also been nominated for the 2022 Norval Sovereign Art Prize.

Where do you usually begin with your artwork?

My artwork has a set formula and is very process-driven and because of that, the beginning of any of my artworks is the most tedious part: I have to prepare the work with thread and it has to be extremely perfect. So I don’t require any inspiration or ideas, I just have to start the hard work. After the hard work is done I’ll imagine certain colours and patterns, which is the fun part. So I begin by motivating myself to begin the hard work. 

What is your relationship with perfection?

People closest to me know that I am a bit disorganised at times and my handbag is a mess. I’m only a perfectionist when it comes to my craft and I think that’s just because I value the work and the idea so much that I wouldn’t take any shortcuts. Printmaking as a discipline requires that you do things right and pay attention to the process. Being trained as a printmaker created the perfectionist in me. 

What shapes your perspective?

I’m obsessed with popular culture and YouTubers. I live on YouTube. I learn a lot from the perspective of people who do a lot of research and present their work there. One example is Tea Noir, an American YouTuber who creates a lot of commentary on black womanhood and culture. 

What is one thing you hope audiences take away from your work?

I hope audiences can look at my work and feel a sense of appreciation for all things beautiful. There is a feeling of peace and calm you get when you look at the sunset or notice a pretty flower and you get reminded that there is beauty in this world. I want to create a stop-and-smell-the-roses moment. Despite what we may be experiencing in life, we should pause to appreciate the moments or experiences that make our lives beautiful. There is beauty in life if we stop to see or find it.    

What has been your most affirming highlight over the past year?

When my work was accepted into Art Basel Miami last year, I took that as a nod to abstract art being seen and valued. I just thought to myself, I must be doing something right, and abstract art does matter. 

What do you do when you feel uninspired but need to complete work?

The satisfaction of completing artwork and seeing it displayed in a gallery is enough motivation to get me working. I’ve made some of my best work when I was going through unpleasant experiences. The world around me could be collapsing and I’ll still lay down all that thread and cut fabric with tears in my eyes.

What are your hopes for the South African art space? 

I hope that artists won’t feel so pressured to follow what is popular. We must work to innovate and not to impress anyone for likes. And I mention “likes” because I think Instagram has shaped the kind of art that is being produced today. You see a lot of the same images, and I fear that people who want to become artists will start to believe that that is the only art that exists or matters. I see people making work that is ready to post on Instagram. Good art doesn’t always look good on a flat image.  

We must dare to create even if people don’t understand what we’re doing. I hope we leave the need to please audiences and push ourselves to dare to make something that will receive two likes today but leave a lasting impression in the South African design and art space for years to come.

Thabisa Mjo: ‘I’ve always loved history and storytelling.’ Photo: Brett Rubin

Thabisa Mjo 

Designer and creative entrepreneur Thabisa Mjo is passionate about preserving traditional skills and reflecting a world we know. Her most recent collection, Presents from Joburg, is centred on the idea of a family coming together to share a meal at the end of the day and the intimacy of sitting around a table to serve each other. 

Driven by a sense of community,  Mjo’s approach marries heritage and contemporary craftsmanship through collaboration with smaller studios and iconic artisans. She has shown at the Milan Furniture Fair with the Sacrosanct project, and won 2018’s Most Beautiful Object in South Africa at Design Indaba. Mjo’s Tutu 2.0 pendant was recently acquired by the Museum of Decorative Arts in Paris — a first for a South African designer. 

What drew you to design? 

I’ve always loved history and storytelling; I view my design practice as a culmination of these things.

What have been your highlights?

Having the courage to start my practice and to sustain it for as long as I have, I pat myself on the back for that. Also the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris at the Louvre acquired two of my products (the Tutu light and the Mjojo cabinet) into its permanent collection, so that’s cool too.

How do you decide on the materials to use for each collection? 

I always start with the form and the material is then informed by what makes the most sense to achieve that tricky balance between form and function. There are instances where the design calls for a specific material and the Hlabisa bench is the perfect example of that. The form is inspired by the rolling hills of KwaZulu-Natal and the legs are reminiscent of the legs of a three-legged cast-iron pot. As we developed the bench, with my collaborators, Houtlander, it became so obvious that we had to go back to KZN to finish it with ilala palm, the grass that is used to weave Zulu baskets. We were so incredibly honoured to have the master weaver, mam’Beauty Ngxongo, weave the bench. This was her first time working on a piece of furniture, her first time adapting and applying her technique to something other than her beautiful baskets — a thrilling time for all of us involved, and that’s evident in the seminal piece we created.

Are you able to tell us what you are working on at the moment? 

We’ve just gone live with our online store so that’s the main project at our studio. Getting that right. Make sure it’s user-friendly and engaging and also that it translates our message and our ethos well. So I’d encourage everyone to visit and shop MashT – www.mashtdesignstudio.com.

What are your hopes for the South African design space?

That we have the conducive environment to build sustainable, scalable design businesses.

Buhlebezwe Siwani explores human healing through her work. Photos: Koos van Breukel

Buhlebezwe Siwani 

Sangoma and artist Buhlebezwe Siwani uses visual devices rendered through performance art, paintings, photographic stills and installations, to explore ideas around how humans can begin to heal and navigate a world that has been built to dispossess lived and spiritual experiences. With her body central to each rendering, Siwani explores the links between ancestral rituals and life as we know it, based on her own experiences. 

The 2021 Standard Bank Young Artist Award laureate says the impact of her work lies in its ability to be engaged emotively and inspire audiences to dig into ancestral knowings, making way for the future by processing the past. Siwani has presented her works at Art Fair Basel Miami, Artissima International Fair, Arco Madrid and Lisboa, Art 021 Shanghai and the Louis Vuitton Foundation. 

Where do you usually begin with your artwork? 

I usually begin with something that I’d like to question and draw from that. Sometimes I feel like the work decides what it wants to be — a video, live performance, sculpture, photograph, painting or an installation. I free the work from wherever I had boxed it in or me being narrow-minded: I free the work of myself. 

What is your relationship with perfection?

I’d like to think I believe in things being imperfect, which then leads to perfection. But I am admittedly a bit of a perfectionist and don’t like things that look unfinished. I do my best to get to the end in the way that I envisage something — even personally, when I begin something, I see it to the end, which can sometimes be to my detriment.

What shapes your perspective?

I have many perspectives! The way that I grew up: I didn’t grow up with my parents necessarily, even though they were there, they were in and out. So when they say “it takes a village” I feel that I epitomise that because I was raised by my communities and everyone played a role in shaping the perspective that I have now. I also respond to the way society has looked at black women, spirituality and the continent.

What is one thing you hope audiences take away from your work?

I always hope they learn something new.

What has been your most affirming highlight of last year?

Being awarded The Standard Bank Young Artist Award, without question! 

How do you navigate being uninspired but needing to complete or submit work? 

I take time out to clear my head, silence myself and my spirit – finding myself in the stillness – then refocus on my viewpoint and why I started in the first place. 

What are your hopes for the South African design or art space?

I think that the South African design and art space is very difficult to navigate; there is a lot of competition and you kind of have to create your own “table” because there are no “seats at the table” for you. I hope that we can create a culture and spaces that are not necessarily institutionalised where people can be appreciated for the things that they make and have their expression engaged with fairness. 

Anelisa Mangcu’s recent work remembers a time of wholeness. Photo: Johno Mellish

Anelisa Mangcu 

Curator and interdisciplinary art practitioner Anelisa Mangcu’s work takes you to a time when we are whole. In her most recent showcase, aptly titled Everything Was Beautiful and Nothing Hurt, co-curated with Jana Terblanche, viewers were brought into a space where joy, intimacy, freedom and relaxation were woven into the fabric of every piece. 

Also the cofounder of The Victory of the Word, an organisation that works on funding and investment strategies to stimulate and preserve art entities such as Lovedale Press, Mangcu challenges audiences to imagine perfection as an heirloom. 

She has curated booths for FNB Art Joburg, Investec Cape Town Art Fair, 1-54 New York and Latitudes Art Fair. She is also the founder of Under The Aegis, which offers curatorial and art advisory services, and facilitates the relationship between artists, collectors and institutional collections from the African continent and the diaspora.

What sentiments inspire your imagination?

Working on projects that draw connections between the historical and contemporary is the root of my imagination. Many of the mediums explored in contemporary art are somewhat primaeval methods of art-making and I am always interested in how those practices are re-imagined. I’m fortunate enough to be close to many of the artists I work with, and this allows me to be privy to their lives and even their unspoken source of inspiration.

Why do you think it’s important to reflect on heritage?

Heritage provides us with clues about our past and provides us with insight into how we have evolved as people. In reflecting on the past, we gain an awareness that would not be possible without deliberation. Formal and informal art training requires artists to study the masters, modify their ways of art-making while exploring a unique style. That is where meaningful artistic conventions are born. 

What has been your most treasured highlight of the last year? 

The most treasured highlight of this year was the opportunity to no longer be employed but to work full-time on my business, Under The Aegis. It’s the portal to the incredible projects I have lined up, to curate shows for established brands, galleries and fairs as an independent curator.

What draws you to an artwork?

The spirit of the artist is what draws me to an artwork. The artists I have worked with all have one thing in common, and that is a deep attachment to their work. I try to connect with the artist once their work catches my eye and build a solid relationship (if time and space allows). I believe it makes me a more empathetic curator. 

What is your favourite thing about contemporary art at the moment?

The Black portraiture movement. I was able to witness, first-hand, Black people’s faces lighting up when seeing themselves reflected on the walls in a positive, authentic and empowering light.

One future manifestation you have for you and your peers in arts?

That we place ethics and the integrity of the artist before greed and sales. 

“I pay attention to every detail they inspire and I try as much as possible to capture the essence of what I want my work to convey.” (Photo: Richard Nkila)

Zizipho Poswa

Cape Town-based ceramic artist Zizipho Poswa makes bold declarations of African womanhood through large-scale ceramic pieces. Poswa sees the work that she does as paying homage to heritage and tradition while forging her way ahead. The cofounder of bespoke studio Imiso Ceramics, Poswa studied surface design at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology, and she draws on this technical know-how as well as ancestral knowing to bring her visions to life. 

With her initial series, Umthwalo, Poswa paid tribute to the practice of rural women walking long distances while carrying heavy loads of fire wood or water. With her second series, Magodi, she explored sculptural forms of traditional hairstyles and the role of hair salons as meeting places for women. Her debut solo iLobola looked at the spiritual exchange at the centre of lobola negotiations. 

Poswa’s work has been acquired by the Philadelphia Museum of Modern Art in New York as well as the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. This year, she’s shown at Exceptions d’Afrique  and Ceramics Now, also in Paris. She is currently presenting at Miami Design.

Where do you begin with inspiration for your art?

Different pieces have different journeys. Some pieces are conceived through my sketchbook, inspired by a wave of ideas that I get. Many other pieces start through dreams. These are impulses from my ancestors who inspire me to transmit important messages through my work. These are some of my most formidable works. 

What is your relationship with perfection?

I am not a perfectionist, I am a realist. What may seem like a perfectionist approach to my work is nothing but a reverence of the detail of the ancestral messages that inspire my work. I pay attention to every detail they inspire and I try as much as possible to capture the essence of what I want my work to convey.

What shapes your perspective?

The reality of Black life has a major bearing on my perspective. My perspective is hinged on my lived experience and this has a huge impact on my work. The foundation for the quality of my perspective and the impressions that are created through the forms, the shapes, the textures and the colours of my work,  can be directly linked to my cultural and spiritual orientation. 

This dates back to my upbringing in Mthatha where I was socialised into a strong cultural experience by very strong matriarchs in particular. I grew up playing with clay near a river and these childhood experiences shaped my perspective. I majored in textile design at school and little did I know what plan my ancestors had for me: to be a ceramic designer and to use clay as a healing and teaching medium. 

What has been your most affirming highlight last year?

It has to be the iLobola solo exhibition, which was held in March 2021. This was an important affirmation of my path in Afrikan cosmology. I already had my own spiritual affirmation before the work was even presented to the market – there was a great energy about this collection of work and much of the success register with that exhibition was preordained. The exhibition was inspired by the significance of building solid Black family structures and understanding. The show was technically sold out before the official opening. This was most affirming from a market perspective. 

What do you do when you feel uninspired but need to complete work?

I must say I am never uninspired but I do need to, from time to time, step away from the clay, divert my attention to other things, think and reflect and get re-energised. When I’m immersed in my work, I get distracted by the flood of my own ideas. Stepping back helps me synthesise ideas and complete my work in the way directed by cosmic energies. 

Why must culture and identity be reflected in your work?

Culture is an essential part of my identity. My work has to reflect who I am, a Black woman proud of my Xhosa heritage. My culture is not just a tool I use for my location but it also helps me with navigation. Through my culture I am also debunking the negative stereotypes about Afrikan aesthetics. I am presenting my work at a quality and design excellence that can stand its ground against design across the world as a way of restoring the dignity of Afrikan identities. I want my work to be as Afrikan as I am and yet be compelling enough in its design and creative merit. 

This article was commissioned for #OnTrend

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