Through the use of various textiles such as siShweshwe, Michaelis graduate Siwa Mgoboza‘s Africadia series explores the history of his clanfolk, amaHlubi, whilst envisioning an African future that challenges societal norms. Born in South Africa but raised in South America and Europe, Siwa draws on his experiences as both an insider and outsider to assert the idea of a newer, futuristic and liberal Africa. We chatted to him to find out about his inspiration, being a student and what the future holds.
How and why did you become interested in art?
From a very young age I was interested in doing all kinds of creative things; singing, drawing, painting. It was only a matter of time before I realised I enjoyed it more than the subjects that were supposed to ‘make’ me money.
Please tell us about some of the themes and ideas you’ve been exploring in your student work.
My work is heavily based on Afrofuturism, the idea of an African future that subverts all the norms of society and challenges/pushes boundaries. Having been raised abroad, the work is very much through the lens of an insider/outsider, and contains reoccurring themes of reality vs. fantasy, escapism, African masculinity, sexuality, race (specifically the black body) and gender. The notion of the carnivalesque and the grotesque are strong themes as well, and they provide me with arresting visuals.
How did this feed into your final project? What was the concept and how did you execute it?
The body of work I developed for my graduate exhibition is called Africadia. An ‘African Arcadia’, a land where the struggles of today no longer exist, race is forgone (everyone is multi-coloured), gender is a construct, humans and nature have become hybrids and fused together, the ‘man’ and the ‘machine’ no longer exist, the beings of this world have realised their potential and have reverted to the old ways of depending on the land.
I think what it comes down to is that I’m trying to project a positive light on Africa, the same way I’m trying imagine a positive Africa. I remember growing up and having white people asking me the most ignorant questions about my culture, and I thought to myself, “How can we change stereotypes that are so strong?”. For me, the only way is to (visually) bring those things to the forefront and have them spoken about and seen, as opposed to keeping the feeling inside. Also, this projection of Africa is being made by an African in Africa, which I think is important with African contemporary art, that sense of belonging. The work (collages, photographs, prints and sculptures) are mainly made of Isishweshwe, a wax cotton printed fabric, which in itself carries a lot of colonial history and continues to have a strong place in South African culture, and not only black South Africa.
What have been some of the chief influences and inspiration for your work?
I was born in South Africa but was raised abroad, mainly in South America and in Europe. I was taught a Western curriculum, by Westerners, around Westerners, in the West. There has never been any denying that my Western upbringing is prevalent in my work, I mean I knew of the white greats before I knew of the greats at home, or rather the ones that looked like me. So when I moved back to Cape Town in 2012 to begin my degree, I made it my mission to be as knowledgeable about African art as I am about Western art, but more importantly about my Hlubi (Xhosa and Sotho) heritage, hence the Isishweshwe.
Can you take us through your creative process?
My creative process? I don’t think I really have one. I generally have a vision of what I would like to create – the end product never looks like the vision, but it’s always good to have one! The great thing about working with Isishweshwe is that there are endless options and combinations, I lay out the fabric and through colour-blocking I decide what will be juxtaposed with what. It’s often a long and tedious process as the options are endless, so I try out a few and eventually settle for one or two depending on the work I am doing. The work spends a long time in pieces/unassembled. Sometimes I cut things out and place them and the next day I no longer like the way it looks. This is what I really enjoy about working with fabric, I don’t have to commit to a piece of fabric in the same way I would if I put down paint on canvas. I mean, you can always paint over it or scratch it off, but with fabric I can just replace one piece with another in a matter of seconds.
What preconceived ideas, if any, about your field of study were debunked during your time as a student?
Fine art is no joke, it’s just as demanding, if not more, than any other degree. I think very few students doing other degrees (who I know at least) have cried about what their lecturers thought about their work. At art school, your entire existence is questioned when you create work, it’s the kind of psychological torture that can break a person. After all, I did go to UCT, the University of Constant Torture. Hahaha!
Now that you’ve graduated what are some of your future prospects?
The graduation part (ceremony) hasn’t happened yet, and I feel like for the sake of closure that part of university is important. So until then I will still feel like I am in limbo. Future prospects? I have some projects lined up in Cape Town, Johannesburg and Istanbul over the upcoming months and I am always looking for new challenges.
What advice do you have for first year students or anyone starting out in your field of study?
The dream is free, but the hustle is sold separately. We can all dream – and boy do we all dream – but not everyone is cut out for the long hours in the studio, and the sacrificing of holidays or good times with friends.
Do you have work in any upcoming exhibitions?
I am participating in a group show, Future/Present at Barnard Gallery in Newlands which opens on 9 February. I’ll also be showing work with the AVA Gallery at the Cape Town Art Fair from 19-21 February.
Read more interviews with recent grads here.