Living between Zimbabwe and South Africa, artist Michele Mathison draws inspiration from everyday objects found in places like hardware stores, markets and on the side of the road. Michele finds it interesting that people can regard the same object in very different ways and his current show at WHATIFTHEWORLD Gallery in Cape Town explores exactly that – double meanings. Using mundane objects like spades, picking axes and shopping trolleys, he considers how each material has its own language, history and power. The physical process behind creating these sculptures mirrors the nature of the materials used, which is what inspired this exhibition. “I wanted to look at a very base level of earning a living in Southern Africa and the different perceptions of that kind of work,” he says. We spoke to Michele to find out more about his work, the process behind it and his current solo show.
Tell us about your background. When did you become interested in pursuing art full-time and how did you go about making this a reality?
Growing up in Zimbabwe I was exposed to a wealth of arts and craft. These were the years shortly after independence and the country was full of optimism and creativity. Zimbabwe has a deep tradition of art; there is a stone carving on the national flag and a proud heritage of painting and stone sculpture. Some of this influence has been largely transformed into producing curio art but nearly everyone understands the connection between art and life, body and spirit.
From there it was an interesting journey through art school at UCT then working in film and television, making sandwiches, furniture and eventually back to creating my own work again. It took some time to negotiate the challenges of becoming a self-sufficient artist and it is still an ongoing commitment.
What does your choice of medium and your aesthetic suggest about you, personally and as an artist?
I work in a variety of mediums. I like to consider how each material has its own language, history and power. I suppose that means I try to get under the surface of things and situations. I identify with objects and what they come to represent just as we are representations of our histories and beliefs. My aesthetic is built from my surroundings and what I see. I find a narrative in these materials that gives voice to my ideas. Naturally, I think my aesthetic is very African because this is where I come from.
Much of your work removes utility from functional objects, often using found, everyday things in your work. What inspired you to explore this?
The narrative I work to create is a representation of time and place. I find that people and places can regard the same object in very different ways. I am interested in these double and multiple meanings because they allow me to present different sides to the story without necessarily stating my intention or point of view.
As a sculptor you can also manipulate the material in different ways with different outcomes. Arranging the objects in different ways forms different narratives. Cause and effect, offence and defence, power and struggle.
Please take us through your process.
Working and manipulating different mediums lets me engage with all aspects of those mediums. In a sense my research comes from sourcing and examining where these objects and materials come from and how they are used. This in turn exposes the world in which they exist and informs the meaning of the work. I don’t necessarily intend for the work to be labour intensive but for this recent exhibition, titled Manual, I wanted my working method to mirror the physicality of using the chosen materials.
Tell us about the inspiration behind Manual, your solo exhibition currently showing at Whatiftheworld.
I wanted to look at a very base level of earning a living in Southern Africa and the different perceptions of that kind of work. Especially in times of turmoil and transition, it is essential for survival. There are so many associations with this kind of hard work and it remains a constant struggle to find dignity in it, especially in the developing world. The irony, of course, is that we all rely on the fruits of manual labour for our day-to-day existence, even though many of us strive to distance ourselves from that toil.
Which other forms of creativity are you drawn to and how does it find its way into your artworks?
I find that I am attracted to artisanal trades. I find beauty in craftsmanship and construction in occupations such as carpentry, metalwork and construction. I respect the precision and skill of the people who design and manufacture the world around us. This plays a major role on my work because I am seduced by the form and function of the objects I use. Once again, the ability to make things by hand becomes a major part of the work I make.
Alternating between working in South Africa and working in Zimbabwe, how do you experience the creative energies in these two places?
The creative energies are very similar; we share the same social and political concerns. The difference is that there is obviously a lot more infrastructure and support in South Africa. Zimbabweans are grappling to maintain their cultural heritage but this struggle gives them a great sense of accomplishment when they succeed in producing something creative. There is also more and more cross over between the two countries because of the massive migration of Zimbabweans into South Africa. This is something that is still relatively taboo to discuss and yet you will find a skilled Zimbabwean working in almost any major industry or business in South Africa. It is only natural that artists will also travel across the border and this includes me. I hear about the same amount of Shona on the streets of Joburg and Cape Town as I do Zulu or Xhosa.
Where do you look to for inspiration?
Hardware stores, markets and roadsides. Places where people work, eat and live. Where there is life.
What are you working on at the moment?
I am gathering material for a new body of work as well as completing various commissions. I am also collaborating with a writer in Harare for a sound and video installation.
What’s next for you?
I will keep working on my studio practice and continue to be involved in various public art projects around the country. I will also be facilitating some creative workshops with art students in Zimbabwe.
See more of Michele’s work on his website.
Visit his current exhibition, Manual, at WHATIFTHEWORLD at 1 Argyle Street (Corner of Argyle and Albert Road) in Woodstock, Cape Town. On show until 15 November 2014.