California native Eduardo Chaidez talks to EAS interviewer Victoria Ayala about the role of historical research in his art, the challenges of representation, and his long journey from dropping out of high school to becoming a Masters student at School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Now you are working toward a Master’s degree in Visual and Critical Studies at the Art Institute of Chicago. What has your experience been so far now in graduate school?
It has been cool. I have lived in Oakland my whole life; I did live in Berkeley for one semester, but moved back to Oakland, so I have been in the Bay Area for 32 years. I was privileged and lucky enough for this opportunity to go to graduate school. Chicago is amazing, huge, and there’s always something to do. I don’t get to do much yet because of the school work, but I really like Chicago, the city, and my school. The students in my class are cool, and the program - Visual and Critical Studies - let me do what I am interested in. It is an interdisciplinary program, so I can take classes in different subjects. Next semester I will take a class in figure painting, and a class to develop my thesis. I am really glad to be attending this school, and to still have another year to go.
Do you have a preferred medium? I’ve seen mostly oil paintings and charcoal. How do you choose your media?
I started with drawing, then charcoal. I stayed in black and white for a very long time, I was terrified of color, and still am. Then I took a painting class, and I really fell in love with oil painting, so that is where my focus is now, in oil painting and representational art.
I try to stay away from acrylic painting because it dries too fast. What I like about oil painting is that you can keep working it. I am often indecisive, and with oil I can go back and erase, or zone out on a glob of paint. It is meditative, because it takes time, and generally, with work and schedules, I don’t have the freedom to ‘take time’.
Sitting down, working with oil paints, mixing all the colors, the whole process is really great for me. I also like drawing, and I am interested in digital art.
Some of your works have the feel of old photography with muted palettes, and the pixelated style is also reminiscent of pop art, others are definitely in the realist or neorealist tradition. Are there artists whose style or mission inspires you?
Yes, there are! I don’t even know where to start… I think I have always been attracted to political posters, with flat, simple graphics that are very striking; everything that needs to be there is there, in the most simple way.
I was inspired by painters like Gustave Courbet, whose works are very realistic, and Diego Rivera, who painted the struggles of everyday life, which I feel connects to political posters. So I have been trying to find a way to combine Neo Realism, meaning realistic depictions, and flat political posters, with thick outlines and whatnot, but I’m still working on it.
Which of your works did you have the best time with, and enjoyed making the most?
I like the fact that every oil painting is a process, it is always about figuring it out. I start with an idea of what I want to do, but then the work kind of takes on its own life. I can mix a color differently, and then see that it actually works with what I am doing, but then I have to find the other colors that will work well with that one. Things change and shift, and I really enjoy this whole process of oil painting. That is what keeps bringing me back.
What are your weaknesses and strengths as an artist?
I like being comfortable, like everybody does, so it’s hard for me to do the hard work required by experimenting. Sometimes I find it hard to do representational painting, because it can be somehow boring to immediately know what the painting represents on the surface, like a reclining nude, for example, or some farm workers. I feel that I am good at it, but it is also hard to experiment with it because of fear or hesitation.
I think it would be my stubbornness, which plays into the weakness of not wanting to change, but that stubbornness also keeps me going.
What direction would you like to expand your work into next?
It's easier to talk about what I am working on now, and eventually I can see how it develops, because this is usually the way it goes. Right now I am studying the history of portraiture and the history of representation of people of color through portraiture, photography or painting.
Portraiture is what I am trying to do the most with my oil paintings. I feel that if I want to speak this language, to portray people, I should know some of the history of it. This is what my graduate work will be investigating, it is the history I am looking into, and then I can be free to develop what I want.
What advice do you have for Emergent Art Space in its effort to foster understanding through art among artists from different countries and cultures?
This maybe ties back into my other answer about building community. It is not easy to do it on a global scale, but that’s what EAS is trying to do, and definitely social media have shown that it is possible. A few weeks ago an artist posted a question on the EAS website. I thought that was pretty cool, trying to engage people to talk about something they can relate to. It would be cool to include more of that, like prompts that start a conversation on how an artist would represent a certain topic, because it would be easier to know what to begin with, and in what direction to go. You can bring up general issues, even more specific ones, considering everything that is going on in the world right now that people can respond to….
Join us in an interview with Spanish artist 233 (Ramon Blanco Barrera), who visited our office in San Francisco last Winter, during his residency as a visiting artist at the University of California, Berkeley. Here he talks about his past projects and his experience as a socially engaged artist and worker.
It is through art that I engage with human rights issues and approach people in different communities, offering a creative way of addressing issues that concern them. I see my projects as ‘democratic artworks’, because they are generated by the communities I work with, exchanging ideas and experiences, discussing the difficulties, and finally creating something proactive.
Being a socially engaged artist is not easy. What is the hardest thing for you about being this kind of artist?
My projects address social and political issues that can be considered controversial. I encountered different problems with each project, depending on the situation or the location, because people are different, as are the conditions that concern them. When making this type of art it is very easy to get in trouble. Sometimes the problems stem from the audience, sometimes from the people I work with during the process; they can feel a bit uncomfortable because of the controversy of the projects. You have to try your best to generate trust to be able to work together and interact productively to address the issues they care about.
I consider my projects ‘democratic artworks’ because of the way they are created with the people who participate in them. I try to offer people, in the communities where I work, a creative way of reclaiming their rights. It is the ‘creative’ aspect that makes them comfortable and willing to get involved in the projects. Becoming friends with the people I work with is also extremely important, it makes a big difference. I am still in contact with many who participated in our various projects.
Aside from any difficulties, my experience as a social artist has been wonderful. It would be difficult to define it in only one word or phrase, because it would fall short of how meaningful it has been. Consider how one person having an experience on their own can feel so passionate, and then you imagine that same experience with other people: its potential enhances exponentially, with no limit, and this is what motivates me to continue in my work.
What are the conceptual approaches, techniques and media you use in your projects?
My approaches and techniques usually depend on the project; I am very open to any type of medium. For ‘INTEGRAÇÃO’ (Brazil, 2014), for example, we used a large metal fence as the structure for a big word shaped by LED lights. For You Can Decide (England, 2009) I used painted wood to spell out words meant to be seen from a bird’s eye view. Sometimes I make videos, like ‘Traversing the Wall’ (Western Sahara, 2011). It is kind of funny because you never know what kind of materials you are going to end up using each time. So, everything depends on what fits best with the people you are in collaboration with as well as availability.
Can you tell us what governs your creative decision-making? And maybe describe some of your recent projects?
As I mentioned before, there are many aspects to consider for each individual project. ‘INTEGRAÇÃO’was conceived as a special event, open to all who wished to participate, for promoting integration in the favela of Mangueira, in Rio de Janeiro.
The work created was a low energy lighting installation manufactured with white LED, shaping the word 'INTEGRAÇÃO' (INTEGRATION), 2 meters high by 12 meters long. By day it was off and by night it was on. Sadly, the lifetime of this piece, in perfect conditions, lasted only three days because it was attacked with irreparable cuts into its LED wire, turning the whole piece off. Some local neighbours saw two policemen next to the artwork during that night. The policemen claimed that it could be confused with drug dealers, or terrorism, and that it had to be completely off. Like I said, it is easy to cause controversy.
For the series‘Who are you? What are you doing? What can you do?’ I tried to launch an invitation to the viewer to reflect on their own situations at that moment, and the circumstances they were experiencing. The artwork ‘You Can Decide’ was installed on the roof of the workshops of the De Montfort University (DMU) in Leicester, United Kingdom, so it could be seen from all 10 floors of the Art building in front of it. . 20 minutes after it was installed, some colleagues told me that the security officers were looking for me and the best option was to disappear for a while. When I went back, the Head of the School was waiting for me at his office. At that time I was doing an exchange program at this institution. He told me that what I did was forbidden and therefore they were considering to open a disciplinary proceeding. After the meeting with the Head of the School, my tutor told me secretly that what I did was a real artistic work, and congratulated me for it, but he couldn’t do anything to help me. I wrote a letter of apology addressed to the entire institution, and after a deliberation week, they decided not to undertake any action against me, allowing me to finish my Degree of Fine Arts.
The installation ‘Sahara Libre Flag’ was a project I realized in 2011 with the community of the ‘Dajhla’ Saharawi refugee camp, in Tindouf, Algeria. It is a large flag made of stones, sand, cement, and paint. It represents the identity of the people of the refugee camp, and it denounces the permanent violation of their right to a land which is occupied by force, but which will be always belong to those who are their rightful owners: the Saharawi people. Viewed from the sky, and pointing to its undisputed place of origin, it sends a symbolic message to the world.
Other projects, like ‘Burgos’, in Ramallah, Palestine, and ‘The Universal Game’, in Ottawa, Canada, have been published before by the EAS website [you can see them here and here].
The spectrum of socially engaged visual art spans from reflection to action, as in the works of William Kentridge and in those of the Guerilla Girls. Where do you place yourself and your work in this spectrum and what is the relative importance of the two roles?
I don’t see myself outside or separated from the public. With this I mean that trying to make something (the process) is for me related to making it with other people as often as possible. I can always make pieces of art on my own and offer them to a certain audience. But actually, I never make art without reflection, except if I am doing something just for myself. There is no action without previous and post reflection. But there is reflection with no action, so we need to escape from that as well.
Who are the socially engaged artists, present or past, you admire most and why?
I will name just three, one per tense. Past: Santiago Sierra. His involvement with current workers’ issues in Spain has been controversial, but very interesting. Present: Nuria Güell. I do like the way she decided to move from the individualistic ideal of artist to the socially engaged ideal of artist. Future: Manuel Korr. I really believe in him. He is working for the Government, but manages to remain critical and independent in making his art. Coincidentally, they are all Spanish and they are all alive.
What are your thoughts about the Internet as a place for disseminating socially engaged visual art? Do you have any specific thoughts or advice for Emergent Art Space?
The Internet is the place for this dissemination, since it is the most open and more rapidly available means of communication that we have today, and probably for the near future. This technology has revolutionized our lives. And I think that Emergent Art Space is doing a very good job in using a website and virtual galleries to give exposure to young artists and to disseminate their art. Art is the foundation of everything. We are humans, emotions, feelings. We are not machines, but we are using them to our advantage. Perhaps an app for some mobile devices would be a really good idea to improve the access to EAS in the future.
Thank you very much for inviting me to this interview. I am really glad, honored and grateful to be here.
233 (Ramon Blanco Barrera) is pursuing a PhD in Art at the University of Sevilla. He is currently a Visiting Scholar at the ‘Centre for Ideas’ at the University of Melbourne, Australia, where he is doing research and exploring art practices related to those communities with students and professors working at the Centre.
Kolkata based artist Throngkiuba Yim, who grew up in Dimapur, Nagaland, the far Eastern state of India, is here in conversation with Paola Loomis, EAS contributor.
First I want to thank you for the consistency in your art. It goes right to the point and presents itself as a concrete document which we directly engage. In your work the dichotomy of nature versus culture is rethought artistically, finding occasion for dialogue and exchange. This is the way your project speaks to the viewer. Hence some questions:
When and why did you begin to focus artistically on the environment ?
The focus of my work started to shift to environmental issues after I moved from Kolkata to Santiniketan, which is approximately three hours away, to pursue a Master in Art at the Visva Bharati University. It was then that I started meditating on how our climate is being thrown out of balance with the increase of the human population and the extraction of resources, resulting in what feels like looming devastation. I wish to share my sense of urgency with the community, coupled with my nostalgia for my childhood days of trees and fields I wish to see again, where I played games and hung around in the wilderness. I began to feel a sense of vulnerability, both for myself and for this planet, as I watched the city expand around me, as I witnessed the lack of waste management, the pollution and the incredible amount of traffic. I wish to explore ways in which art can contribute to instill positive changes, or at the very least, to provide a sense of solace to our society.
It sounds like your childhood was deeply rooted in nature. How did your love of nature connect with your art school studies and your practice as an artist?
During my college years in Kolkata, from 2011-2015, I was subconsciously aware of the city’s expansion, rapid increase in population, noise and pollution. I noticed to a certain extent even in my home city the threat to the ecological balance due to increase of automobiles and population. But I started to focus more on this threat only after moving to Santiniketan.
The first thing that inspired me was the contrast between Kolkata and Santiniketan, contrast that introduced me to seeing both art and space from multiple perspectives. The second thing that moved me to create art around the concept of the environment, were the memories of my childhood years, at the fresh green meadows where I played games.
Are these memories of your native places? Can you tell us more about Nagaland? And when did you move from Nagaland to Kolkata?
Dimapur is the town where I grew up until I moved to Kolkata in 2011, right after 12th grade. However my native place is in Tuensang district, and that is my ancestral place. Nagaland is located at the Northeastern border of India.
The Naga territory existed with ‘full sovereignty’ before the advent of the British colonial expansionism in 1881. In 1947 the people of India and the Naga territory were liberated from the British rule. Naga had informed the British government that they would not join the Union of India, but after India regained sovereignty from British rule, India included Nagaland in its territory. Since the 1950s, and until today, the state has experienced insurgency as well as inter-ethnic conflict.
The state is inhabited by 16 major tribes. Each tribe is unique in character, language and art. Weaving is a traditional art handed down through generations. Each tribe has unique designs and colors, producing shawls, shoulder bags, decorative spears, table mats, wood carvings, and bamboo works. Among many tribes the design of the shawl denotes the social status of the wearer. Folk songs and dances are also essential ingredients as well as expressions of the traditional Naga culture. The tribal dances, for example, can give an insight into the inborn Naga people’s reticence. Unfortunately very few are kept alive.
That is very interesting. Is your art rooted in this “inborn reticence” of the Naga people?
The inborn reticence of the Naga people carries both advantages and disadvantages, politically and socially, and it is a very complex feature. Yes, my artistic work is conceptually very much rooted in this “inborn reticence”, but it is not in regard to the visual choices. The majority of contemporary Naga artists practice art in very traditional ways, both visually and in the mediums they use. Nonetheless, it is interesting to note that Naga traditional textile is very much abstract.
Looking back to your studies in art school, which were the most significant for you?
Every stage of my art studies was very important, from developing my practice and concepts, and growing as an artist, to getting to know myself better and understanding life.
I appreciate your answer because you put the focus more on yourself as a protagonist of your studies, than on the studies and art school programs themselves.In any case, I suppose that there are artists, thinkers and poets who have been important to you.
My all time favourite artists are Jackson Pollock and Willem De Kooning. I am fascinated by and I developed courage from De Kooning’s journey to become an artist, arriving to the USA from the Netherlands as a stowaway hidden in the storeroom of a ship. During the Depression many young artists were employed in the Federal Art Project by the US government, and most of them were immigrants. At that time immigrants had a better chance than today in the USA.
My early style was hugely inspired by Jackson Pollock’s automatism and by Willem De Kooning’s subconscious distortion of figures. Moreover, I was intrigued by their zealous continuous effort and strong relationships at the beginning of the Abstract Expressionist movement. Those artists would meet up almost every day at the Stewart’s Cafeteria in New York and discussed art for hours, something that is really rare these days among young artists. Our world has become too busy and self-centered.. Unfortunately I am part of this.
But you are aware of this, and that makes a difference. It is something that we can feel in your art.
Let’s take “Biggest Misconception” and its texts: what is the role of poetry in your research?
The friends who helped me in bringing “ Biggest Misconception” to life were Lavrenty Repin from South Africa, who wrote the poem following my narration, and William Clark from Philadelphia, who did the sound editing. I was moved by the crisis in Syria. Artists should always be unbiased in their artistic expression, irrespective of religion, caste, political party and race. Instead they should fight for humanity. Religion, caste, tribes, political parties and race are like different boxes in which we blindly fall, they are never the answers for peace.
('Biggest Misconceptions', inspired by the events in Syria. Toys on Wood, Fiberglass, Enamel Paint, Video)
Some materials or techniques push you tothe limit of destruction… how do you feel about the risks of using fire as a medium?
Working with fire in making art is very seductive yet risky, because of its unmerciful nature. Fire can represent our greed and egocentric pretensions. Greed has overwhelmed our genuine humble connection with nature, to such an extent that it is now uncontrollable. Working with fire as an artistic medium is not only risky but unpredictable. Sometimes the result has unexpected outcomes. Sometimes it provokes strong feelings, sometimes it destroys everything. Will I ever work with fire again? I don’t know.
I agree with what you say about the importance for artists to “be unbiased in their artistic expression”. But, tell me, is your artistic research more oriented toward an “utopian” integration among different and conflictual agents, or toward a “dystopian” representation of the disaster human beings perpetrate against themselves, above all being so blind toward the environment that enables us to live?
My artistic research is more oriented towards a representation of the disaster human beings perpetrate against themselves and nature. Therefore I consider myself more “dystopian”, as are the most sensitive artists. Nevertheless, I am also trying to be a "ecotopian" citizen, cutting down the consumerist behavior which badly affects the environment. Sometimes I talk about the environmental degradation with visitors who drop by at my studio. Unfortunately, most of them seem unaware and unbothered about the climate change, or sustainability’s development. There are artists who have turned to those issues to take a stand. Others artists engage with these topics because they are the current challenges for our humanity. Scientists, artists, government, cultural agencies, they are trying to make some effective change. But we all know that the impact of these initiatives is slow and that the awareness of climate change and sustainability is a matter of continuous practice, and of a different style of living.
What is your relation with the English language?
The English language was first introduced in Nagaland in the early 1830’s, by American missionaries and the British army. There are officially 16 tribes in Nagaland, and each tribe has its distinct language. There are sub-languages as well, comprising approximately 200 languages. But the education system is in English.
Western media has affected us in tremendous ways, both positive and negative. Our culture has become diluted because of the importance acquired by foreign cultures, which are never ours.
Yes, such a richness risks to get lost, leaving behind the complexities of cultures it neglects… That is why EAS believes that art can be a “language" beyond languages, a more inclusive way for interactions and relationships. Art can rescue what seems to be lost. What is your perspective on this issue?
There is strong evidence that participation in the arts can contribute to community cohesion, reducing social exclusion and isolation, can make communities feel safer and stronger, and most importantly can rescue forgotten cultures for a more inclusive and complex kind of culture. I think that the challenge is to get artists and cultural practitioners to use bigger cross-disciplinary platforms to make their voice heard through the language of art, through media, workshops, seminars, exhibitions and the Internet. I really appreciate Emergent Art Space for the initiatives and support it provides to young artists to realize their efforts in the creation of a more inclusive and larger vision.
Maybe this interview is eventually motivating me to subconsciously reconsider the value of my culture. I think that although the change of society through art is subtle, we cannot understate its outcome.
While working, do you tend to follow an idea or an emotion?
I follow both an idea and an emotion: sometimes ideas direct me first, and then they are followed by emotions, and vice-versa. My practice is inspired by both by Western and Eastern philosophies. However, I believe that the process and the final delivery of the work of art is more interesting and more important than the outcome.
What do you hope to find at the end of a project?
I am trying my best to create each work through processes and using material that might justify my concept. Unfortunately, but maybe fortunately, I am never fully satisfied with every piece I complete, so I kind of rip it off and try to enhance the same particular piece all over again, as in the work of Edvard Munch. He painted “The Scream” almost 20 times in different media and materials since he was not satisfied with it, visually and emotionally. I have no idea how long it will take to complete a project, sometimes I think my art will never be completed unless and until the health of our planet is out of danger. My mentor, the artist and teacher Samindranath Majumdar, always advised us not to expect anything, and just continue to create good art. If it happens, then it happens. If not, then enjoy yourself creating art and bringing solace to yourself.
Since we all hear the scream from the mute Munch’s painting… we hope that your art will be heard as a desperate scream coming from our planet, asking for more attention and love. Thank you Throngkiuba Yim, it was a pleasure to collaborate with you in this interview.
It took more than 150 years for photography to be considered an art. And maybe it is not by mere accident that it is also considered, along with cinema, the more democratic among the arts. Your work finds his place as a critical way of seeing, without losing poetry.
The first question to pose to a photographer is regarding his main tool: the camera. How do you define your relationship with your camera? Could you tell us the story about your first one?
The first camera I had was a Samsung point and shoot camera, that's where I started. But my first DSLR was canon D1000, which I still have. It gave me extra edge. It has become my thinking space; whenever I have an idea I would pick it up; most of the time I like to be by myself, and a train of thought just strikes, the camera allows to capture bits of that thought, looking at or admiring something.
In becoming a photographer, were you first attracted by the end or the means? By the pictures or by the camera? Could you tell us the story of this attraction?
The lens was my first attraction, when I studied science in High-school and I found out that it was designed as a replica of the eye.
When I was in 11th grade during a “career day”, different institutions came to the school, and I thought I wanted to become a computer technician but in the back of my mind I was really not convinced. I was very lost at that moment, I was worried about what I would study going ahead; during that time I was interested in fashion, lifestyle, I would look at magazines and a lot of fashion on TV, hahahaha...
I remember looking at an image of five people lying on the street, I was so fascinated that I then decided I wanted to pursue photography.
Any chance to see that picture? Unfortunately I don't have it.
Sorry for the interruption, What happened then?
I looked at an aptitude test I did in 9th grade, whose results suggested that my strength was to pursue a creative career. I chose photography, even though a lot of people around me weren't convinced, but I believed that I wouldn't do anything else. An interesting story is that, when I was kid, my grandmother used to say she will buy me a camera when I become a teenager, so I could make some extra cash. The story is quite overwhelming, because it did happen. It was a blessing.
How old were you? I was between 10 and 13.
How many other related technologies or techniques do you use? Do you make plans and sketches?
I use a scanner and a computer. I use Lightroom and Photoshop to enhance the images. I think I'm an intuitive photographer. With the project 'AGES' (on view here) the process is quite different: I'm an investigator on a scene, looking for evidence and clues. I want the images to leave a question mark, hence I use the snapshots aesthetically merged with constructed images. The subject demands me to be more open and decisive.
Your profile picture on the 'Artists' page represents yourself shaking a black box. It reminds me of the “camera obscura” where the images are made. Is that correct? Could you talk about this interesting portrait?
This is quite a different observation, which is interesting. That particular self portrait is actually a surreal image: it is the idea of someone with a big head, which represents their ego. It is looking at how the ego becomes uncontrollable when you allow it to takeover your personality. It is the surrealist representation of a personality which is at war within itself, and it can't balance its head.
When reviewing your work, how much time do you spent in front of your images? How do you choose the good ones? What is the most pleasurable moment of your work?
I have been training myself not to have a lot of frames for one image. So the final decision comes after the scanning, or the downloading of the images on the computer, while selecting a range of images to edit, and deciding how to convey a particular narrative with the images. Sometimes, while looking at the narrative, I see repetition, where one strong image which distracts, or there is a slippage of meaning. Having a response from people, even if it is not as critical, keeps me on my toes.
Could you tell us about the BLD collective you are a part of in Soweto?
BLD (Between Life and Death) was established in 2015 by a group of photographers who saw a need for a more collective effort to showcase and support each other within the the visual culture. It is wonderful to see it growing. We have a page on Facebook, and here you can read our statement:
When using your camera, how do you know when it is the perfect moment? What happens? Are you in search of something or do you find something?
The process differs according to a particular project or a singe image. As a student at the Market Photo Workshop I was trained to understand the difference between authorship and witnessing, so I exist between both, and as photographer I can choose.
Contemporary photographers can make decisions based on the understanding of both historical and conceptual contexts. Then the viewers can make up their own minds: I don't want to spoon feed them the interpretations of the pictures.
Looking at your images, it seems that you have been able to merge both aspects, the historical and the conceptual, and that is quite an achievement.
South African artist Pebofatso Mokoena, living and working in Johannesburg, South Africa, is here interviewed by Uji Venkat, an Indian artist living in the Bay Area, California. He discusses his work and his influences, and addresses issues of African identity, stereotypes, and what it means to be an artist who wants to communicate cross culturally.
When did you first realize that you could speak to an audience through your art?
I remember when I was in a Human and Social Sciences class, in high school. We were listening to Bob Marley. I realized that Mr. Marley spoke in metaphors and allusion, totally different from the krump music I was listening to at the time. I could really feel the fervor that he sang with. That’s when I really became interested in another form of speaking, another way of presenting my opinions - as I wasn't a confident speaker back then. I became interested in poetry, and I started to write my own (seriously romantic) poetry for the ladies, but after a while, I realized that visual art was the best form to express my growing opinions about the world to people. Speaking in images became too great of an art form to not perform.
You’ve spoken of how artists have influenced you. Who are the South African artists who inspired you?
One such example is Nicholas Hlobo. Nicholas is one of the first authentically South African artists that I studied in high school. There were many others, but I connected with Nicholas’ work immediately. There is a sense of urgency in his work. It is current. I did have the chance to see one of his works four years ago in Johannesburg. It was one massive sculpture, the entire length of the gallery. I enjoyed Nicholas’ work from the minute I saw it.
There is also William Kentridge. He says something about what it is like living in Johannesburg which I connect to. The longer I stayed in Johannesburg, the more I got interested in David Koloane and Marlene Dumas. David is just brilliant, how he is able to capture the energy and the frenetic nature of a space with just lines. It really grew my interest in drawing more than anything.
Patrick Kagiso Mautloa is yet another artist that influences me. Even talking to him you feel like he is growing you and teaching you and then you are inspired to contribute to the arts community. As I grow older my interest grows in my contemporaries, like Julie Mehretu, Neo Matloga, and Bogosi Sekhukhuni.
When did you start participating in curated exhibitions?
In varsity, while I was in second year (2014), I would work as an art student during the day - artist during the night. I would be printing my own drypoint plates during the nighttime, occasionally getting kicked out by security at the end of each night. It became fun after a while. Toward the end of my second year, I participated in a group exhibition titled Diptych and that exhibition made me realize that I really was participating in the art landscape.
Tell us about 'Diptych' and working with other artists.
'Diptych' was one of the first important shows for me because it showed me that there is more for artists after tertiary school. It is hard not to lose faith in the growth of art when your thoughts are streamlined in the school system.
Working with other artists felt great. There was a sharing of a common energy, more than ideas. That was primary. It was great to learn and great to experience. Especially because I am a lone artist, it was after I started working with other people that I realized that there are other avenues to push out your energy.
How much does your audience influence your work?
Context for me is very important: to be able to speak in a particular visual language to a particular audience, so that one’s work doesn't get ‘lost in translation’ in the spaces where the work is exhibited. I must concede, however, that my practice is a practice of the personal, through repetitive mark-making, along with a sensitivity to the material and the technique. As much as my audience influences my work, the more abstract verses of my work deal with personal strife. The audience reacts to my artworks in relation to their own experiences.
Do you like artist statements? I find that they strongly influence my experience of the artwork, as a viewer, for better or worse.
I’ve got a love-hate relationship with artists’ statements. Artist statements can become a kind of walking stick. They can take away from the overall experience of the work. But when I am confronted with a solo show, when the artist’s view is not in line with mine, I think a statement is helpful, and I think it is great to connect people to the work, so I enjoy reading the artists’ statements. Recognizable work is easier for people that are visually illiterate to connect with, but the minute your work is used as an allusion to something else, an artist statement is required to bridge the gap.
Tell us a little more about your process. Are there happy accidents?
They are a blessing and a curse. Experimentation, playing around, is a very important aspect of my practice because I think about lots of things at the same time. I put together things that are intrinsically connected in some way. The way I perceive life is a collage of everything that I see and feel. Then I just try to make a body of work that speaks to that.
If you think about it, we are all experimenting. Life is one big experiment. My interests are really quite expansive. You need the life of one thing to make another grow.You need the life of one thing to make another grow. Everything in life is connected. That is what I use in my art. Everything is connected and there are multiple life forms.
What is identity in the African context? And where you see technology coming in the picture?
I think the question of identity in an African context is a hotly debated question, because there will never be one African identity. Africa has 54 countries, meaning that there can never be one, holistic answer that encompasses everyone on the African continent - the continent is massive in its scope, geographically as well as historically - due to the sheer volumes of people, cultures, traditions, histories, colonialisms, political ideologies and so forth.
I really enjoy working on the metaphor that technology, specifically a satellite, can stand for a connection with memory. Satellites often herd communities of data, and in a sense, people are also communities of data collected through age and legacy. On the question of technology, there are many aspects in relation to global manufacturing, megafactories producing hundreds of thousands of electronics that find their way to Africa. The technological-transferring of imported equipment has an effect on the creation of locally produced electronics, which often changes the way in which people living on this continent may experience telecommunications/networks and their impact on their lives.
When talking about Africa, though, it is very important to denounce the interest in what I call ‘poverty-pornography’ that is fed out to the rest of the world, i.e. the pervading image that Africa is an uncultivated open-air veld*. It is important to visually break down the stereotypical ideology of ‘Africa, a place to scramble for.’ Cameras, for example, have a role to play in how groups outside the continent see this continent.
There are groundbreaking inventions, ideas being achieved. There are art practitioners, engineers, and even university students living and working on the continent who are working in technology fields and who are trying to redefine what technology means in the African continent and for Her people. We would be wise to pay attention to what they have to say.
You said, “I aim to tell stories about individuals searching for other humans to share our experiences and conversations of daily life globally…” Can you explain what you mean? By daily life globally, are you referring to cultural differences?
Somebody has referred to my silkscreens as “global”, which to a point excited me, because I managed to touch on matters that could be received and understood on any stage. The news have some interesting takes on stories they investigates; reading also helps to gain another perspective; talking to people about living in the world also gives me different perspectives.
Just a couple of days ago I saw someone knocked over in a car accident; yesterday, I almost got knocked by a car myself - it is these perspectives I try to incorporate in my work - create my own narratives, so to speak.
With a multilingual upbringing, I see the way I draw as a language. The way I speak is a language, spoken and written. The way I dress is a language that communicates something. It is what got me interested in being an artist. I could convey my message in multiple different ways to people that speak different languages. I could be more inclusive.
The silk screens were about how to break the generational gap. There is a lack of communication and connection. If we were to center the entire community around a common denominator, for example a cucumber farm, where everyone eats cucumbers (metaphorically speaking), who would do what is necessary to raise the cucumbers and keep the farm alive? A common interest binds people together. “Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu” is a Zulu phrase that translates into “A person is a person because of a people"
What direction would you like to expand your work into next?
I never wanted to make my work for other people, but there is a kindness to the people that understand my work. I send out positive energy and I get back positive energy from them. The more I work, the more I am able to see that there are people who are accepting of the energy in my work. At the end of the day they become friends and not collectors and curators.
In my current bodies of work, I am working with concepts of “space” and “peace.” I think about what I do as a healing project, fighting every action that we take against each other.
I’m moving more into abstract. A black artist has to navigate their art through literal space. If they veer into abstract, people don’t always buy into it. But abstraction is empowering, it allows me to counteract news after news of trauma. It is not necessarily in line with what I am “supposed” to do as a black artist. But we are making and building our own history. I am now part of the healing project. I draw peace.
*Veld: open, uncultivated country or grassland in southern Africa. It is conventionally classified by altitude into highveld, middleveld, and lowveld.
Pebofatso Mokoena, born in 1993, is currently a practicing artist at 'Assemblage' in Johannesburg. He has participated in a number of curated exhibitions including Inner Nature, Beasts of No Nation, and South African Voices in Washington D.C. His work is represented in collections such as the South African Embassy Art Collection and the Smithsonian Museum of African Art, both in Washington DC, along with other private collections both locally and internationally.