• Interview: Nathi Khumalo | Soweto, Johannesburg, South Africa

    Paola Loomis in conversation with Nathi Khumalo, a young photographer based in Soweto, Johannesburg.

    In February Nathi won the ITWeb Brainstorm calendar competition. We are happy our interview is shortly following that event.  http://www.brainstormmag.co.za/12-in-depth-analysis/12780-winning-can-change-everything


    (Click any image to enlarge)
    1st Self Portairt
    ©Nathi Khumalo, Self portrait @Mzimhlope

    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?

    ©Nathi Khumalo,Keneliwe @Old Mzinhhlope station Pink
    ©Nathi Khumalo, Keneliwe @Old Mzinhhlope station Pink

    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.

    Image Part of series Age
    ©Nathi-Khumalo, Untitled, 'Ages' series
    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?

    ©nathi-khumalo, Baya from 'Ages' series

    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.

    Nathi's profile picture

    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:


    Screen Shot 2017-03-22 at 12.46.09 PM


    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?

    Buhle Blur
    ©Nathi Khumalo, 'Play Pan'

    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.

    ©Nathi Khumalo Self portrait
    ©Nathi's self portrait


    Thank you Nathi for the interview, and congratulations for  the ITWeb Brainstorm calendar competition!


    You can see the 'AGES' series by clicking here.


  • Interview: Pebofatso Mokoena | Johannesburg, South Africa

    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.


    Pebofatso working in his studio

    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.

    'Pina ea Y2K (This Song is Going to Y2K)' - Pen on Fabriano Paper


    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.

    Flier for the "Diptych" exhibition

    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.

    Pebofatso Mokoena, Fleur de Bondt and Grace Mmabatho Mokalapa during their residency at 'Assemblage Studios', Johannesburg

    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.

    At work

    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.

    'Things that Make the Internet Work' - Drypoint Etching


    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.

    In the studio

    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.

    The Elders
    'The Elders' - Silkscreen

    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.

    Instruments of Orbit
    'Instruments of Orbit' - Silkscreen

    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.

    Work in progress

    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.