Keneilwe Mokoena is a bright young visual artist based in Pretoria, with a National Diploma in Fine Art from the Tshwane University of Technology, who was recently awarded the 2015 Reinhold Cassirer Award. Though her multi-media work currently spans painting, drawing, photography and installation, she’s not content to stop there, with plans to explore even more outlets like sound, video and performance in the future. Deeply fascinated by the chaotic profusion of nature, Keneilwe works to illustrate how nature functions best between the binaries of order and chaos – thriving amidst both creation and destruction. We caught up with her to find out about her creative background, her art-making process and the recurring themes in her work.
Was creativity always a part of your life, or is it something you gradually discovered as you grew older?
I think it has always been part of my life, for longer than I can remember. My mom tells me about how creative I was when I was younger, how I used to perform on stage in plays and sing, things I don’t even remember. I mean, I have stage fright now and won’t even sing out loud even when I am alone. I remember one of the first things I made when I was younger – it was a cash register made from cardboard and various other scraps I could get my hands on at home. It’s funny now that I think about it, why a cash register? I guess I just wanted to make something. It came out alright aesthetically but in terms of engineering, it was useless. I supposed that was telling of which side of creativity I’d steer towards.
Tell us about your journey so far and how you’ve come to be the artist you are today…
If you were to ask me what I wanted to do as a profession while I was still in school, I would have never said an artist. In fact, I wanted to be an engineer or something along those lines. The idea of being an artist was not something that crossed my mind. Even though I knew I could make art, I just didn’t think of it as a career. The school I was in didn’t even have art as a subject. The closest thing I had to art was technical drawing. By the end of high school I knew I had to do something creative, yet I still felt the need to keep it technical. So I studied interior design.
Somewhere along the way I got fed up with all the technical restrictions which came with design and I left it. I wanted to be an artist, not a designer – that’s not to say design isn’t an art but it wasn’t the kind of art I wanted to study. I was too scared to study fine art at the time because I wasn’t sure I was an artist. So I took a break from studying, and picked up a camera. I didn’t study photography, it was a conscious decision since I only wanted to photograph what I found interesting and not what I would have to in an institutional setting. I became interested in capturing the art in everything, and so I knew I had to study and pursue fine art.
I could have just remained a self taught artist, but I wanted to learn more about it and grow as an artist and to take on the challenge of learning the academic side of art. Looking back, I do wish I had taken art seriously earlier, but I suppose it all worked out and I made the best decision I could’ve when the time was right.
When creating, do you plan ahead or is your process quite impulsive?
It usually starts with an idea or an emotion, and then a vision of how to materialize and communicate these ideas and feelings I have. And then I think about how to express that in physical form. But this is different depending on the medium I choose. My primary medium is photography, because it is in seeing and capturing an image, and the feelings brought on by what I see, that I get inspired to take this spark of inspiration further. So this process is often impulsive. And then there’s capturing these elements through drawing, painting or whatever medium I gravitate towards. I often impulsively create in my journals, which remain a bit more personal and intimate.
You work across photography, painting, drawing and installation. What do you enjoy about this varied approach, and how does your approach differ from medium to medium?
I don’t think one should limit themselves to one medium of expression. My aim is to express what is within in any way possible and suitable. So it is a privilege to be able to move from one medium to another. I do want to learn to do this with a lot more mediums, there’s countless forms such as sound, coding, video and performance which I would love to explore. I still have a lot to learn and this excites me.
You’re interested in the exploration of order and chaos…tell us more?
I find the chaotic profusion of nature fascinating and spiritually profound, such as how the chaotic fractal structure of a tree holds in it an order which works at keeping it alive. Our goal is to systematically simplify the nature of things, to find an underlying logic with which to make sense and gain control of our lives. In my work I explore the essence of nature, and how nature works between these binaries of order and chaos, or creation and destruction. I often find myself overwhelmed by how much these two forces govern all of existence. My struggle with depression always brings me to the core of chaos, of self-destruction, and I am constantly trying to regain some form of order back into my sense of being. Often when I contemplate life, it is easy to acknowledge the disturbing chaos and destruction that is prevalent in society and within myself, so it becomes crucial for me to also acknowledge the adverse amount of order and creativity that exists. An order striven by all forms of life, organic and inorganic.
How do your works relate to these themes?
I’m driven by the desire to capture life’s simultaneous complexity and simplicity in an image/artwork. The outcome is either a simple image with profuse complex overtones, or a complex image that implies an underlying simple order beneath. I’m always trying to strike a balance between these two binaries.
Judging by your tumblr, you seem to have a love for writing. How does this correlate with or factor into your practice?
Writing is just another form of expression, one I tend to turn to when my mind is in chaos. I don’t know why, but I’ve realized that I often write when I’m not in a good space, when I’m depressed and can’t create any other way because of this depression, so the easiest way to express myself is through words.
What appeals to you about taking self-portraits? Is this activity an investigative one, cathartic, or something else entirely?
I don’t often depict the human form, but rather the human condition. I feel like the best way to investigate the human form is by using myself as a model. After all, I know myself better than I know anyone else. Self-portraiture became a way of reminding myself that I am human and I exist.
Being a full-time artist has it’s ups and downs. What is the most rewarding part of what you do?
One the most rewarding parts is creating or capturing emotions which resonate with other people. I often feel isolated and misunderstood, so it is always a pleasure to know that someone outside of myself can relate to what I have to communicate. To be able to do this for a living is a privilege.
Speaking of rewards – how does it feel to have won the Reinhold Cassirer Award?
At first it felt surreal, and I was waiting to wake up from the dream. And it still feels like a dream, one that materialized. To be recognized for the work that I do is one of the most rewarding things to me. I’ve gone through a great deal of self-doubt and I’m sure there’s more to come, so this is a pat on the back which I appreciate. Just the idea that great entities such as Strauss & Co., William Kentridge, Benon Lutaya, BASA as well as The Bag Factory have funded this award make me feel really honored and grateful.
What are you hoping to achieve while you are in Residency at the Bag Factory Artists’ Studios?
I’m hoping to learn from the many great artists I’m sharing studios with in order to grow as an artist and to use this platform to further my artistic career.
If you had the chance to collaborate with anyone, who would you choose?
I am an avid admirer of land art and it would be a great honour to work with artists such as Striijdom Van Der Merwe and Andy Goldsworthy.
What’s next on your horizon?
I shy away from counting my chickens before they hatch, all I can guarantee is that I am learning and what is next is a better version of myself.
See more on Keneilwe’s tumblr: www.ke-neil-we.tumblr.com