Johannesburg-based artist Malebona Maphutse (25) artistic viewpoint is a symbiosis of different disciplines. Her work includes paintings, silk screen printing, poetry, video and performance and asks us to rethink our understanding of our histories, cultures and bodies in a complicated world. We also discuss her residency at Wiels, time travel, and making art for the masses.
Can you tell us a bit about your background?
I’ve been working with filmmaking and installation for the longest time. By printmaking I mean silk screen-printing and linocut. It was one of the quickest and cheapest ways to make work, because while I was in art school I didn't have a lot of access to cash, so I couldn't make more expensive work such as painting. I was part of a collective called Title in Transgression and we used to make work together and focus on our own practice. It was also a network of people that we created to help support us within the institution because it was quite a white institution.
Recently I started working with digital posters. Some of these posters would serve as notices for performances. But the public performances would happen and be recorded and translated into video work. I don’t perform in gallery spaces or commercial spaces, just in the streets of Johannesburg. I wouldn't say I commit to one way of making work. I decide what I'm trying to say and then decide what works best for what I'm trying to say. A lot of my work is multilayered, with different meanings. I don't necessarily say it or write about it. If people get it, they get it. A lot of work comes from my own personal experiences as a Black woman in Johannesburg. The issues that have to do with hair, microaggressions, politics of the body. You can see all of those things throughout my work.
Your performance work is partly constructed around the character of Mamoloyi, a time traveller who engages with important historical moments.
Since I created the character, her purposes have developed overtime. At some point she was an institutional critic. At some point she went into an archive, one of the biggest archives in Africa. She went through all the artifacts that are stored there, and spoke about what the purpose of the artefacts are, and how they contribute to the colonial project by being stored in these archives, presented in a way that sort of speaks back to curiosity cabinets and this idea of collecting objects.
You did a residency at Wiels in Brussels, what was that experience like?
For the residency in Belgium I had planned to create a comic series. But due to it being a residency of only three months I haven’t had enough time to execute everything while I was there. The experience was about getting to know the space, speaking to people and learning how people navigate the city. At some point I visited the Africa museum, which pushed me in another direction. I also wanted to work on paintings that map out Mamoloyi interaction with King Leopold II within the city of Brussels. The comic book will be about that, but in a more extensive narrative. There's this character called Biscuit Head in Mamoloyi’s universe. Biscuit Head is pretty much any white supremacist, any colonial figure that she interacts with, regardless of who it is. In this instance King Leopold is Biscuit Head.
Coming from a space that is radically aware of its colonial history, but still is struggling to deal with institutionally and structurally, I might have had that kind of energy thinking that people have the same way of dealing with the colonial history as in South Africa. It has been interesting to see how colonial history is celebrated and not necessarily has a negative connotation. The residency has given me the opportunity to explore all these facets and viewpoints from both people of Congolese descent and white Belgian people.
What was it like for Mamoloyi to discover the dynamic in a country such as Belgium?
For Mamoloyi it was a painful and jarring experience. Most of the time she wanted to avoid being triggered and heal. But you have to expose the wound to clean it. It's been a very intense experience for her at the moment. Making the work is a point of coming together and thinking through the process of all the emotions and traumas. It will show in the work, but it also about taking your power and making sure you're in control.
“Most of the time she wanted to avoid being triggered and heal. But you have to expose the wound to clean it.”
Do you see any similarities between the remembrance of South Africa`s apartheid history and Belgium`s colonial history?
Both in Belgium and South Africa colonial history is celebrated with monuments. People still visit them and the rhetoric surrounding is still very celebratory, and not necessarily shunning, even after a lot of protests that were calling for these colonial images to come down. Another similarity would be how Belgians see the current framing of colonial history as part of their history and feel that reframing how it is currently presented as being robbed of their history. A similar sentiment exists among white South African people.
In terms of producing work, how do you decide which medium to use?
It depends on what I’m trying to achieve. If I have a public performance, it's easier to work with silk screens presented than it would be to use paintings. If I want to put up pamphlets and posters around the city silkscreening is a cheaper medium to use. The medium depends on who I’m trying to reach and what I'm trying to say to them. When I’m doing a public performance it's for the public and not for the galleries. So the audience plays an important role in what medium that I use, because they are who I’m looking to interact with. This is true for Mamolyi, the videos and the posters. They are all directed to the public. Other works are directed to people who go to galleries. It's about processing information and consumption.
Why is it important to bring your art wherever people are?
My art is informed by my experiences and observations. They are similar to everyone else`s within the city. To share this way to make a statement and have a conversation about things people may or may not have noticed around them. Making art for me isn't just about galleries and showing it to people who have “the language” to speak about the work. Sometimes I feel like conversations end there sometimes. Everyone deserves to be stimulated in different ways.
“Making art for me isn't just about galleries and showing it to people who have “the language” to speak about the work.”
Would you say there's a particular medium you enjoy more than others?
I enjoy them in different ways. Performance and video are forms related to my love for action movies, comic books, and my background in drama. But at the same time I enjoy the more formal and structured way of working on paintings.
Malebona Maphutse is a Johannesburg-based artist