Mawande Ka Zenzile‘s art brings together an unlikely assortment of seemingly disparate references and cultural motifs. Incorporating press images of war, powermongers and religious leaders, superheroes, movie characters and abstract and text-based pieces, Mawande mixes a potent concoction of ideas together in his work, and articulates this in installations, performances and on canvases in a further mixture of cow dung, earth and pigments. In an artist statement for his most recent exhibition, and third solo show with Stevenson, Mawande said that for him, “art becomes a space for contemplation where new allegories meet the old ones, and out of this fusion I develop different ways to expose how power works in our society and histories”. In muted earthen tones, Mawande’s stylised figures caricature the originals, destabilising and infusing popular culture with a blend of alternate personal and shared narratives. Below, we speak to Mawande to find out more about his work.
Please can you tell us a briefly about yourself and background as an artist?
My name is Mawande Ka Zenzile. I am a husband and a father. I am currently completing Master of Arts in Fine Art at the University of Cape Town. I have been involved in a number of group exhibitions and solo exhibitions since early 2007. I’m currently represented by Stevenson Gallery. I have held three solo exhibitions with Stevenson Gallery. The first two solo shows were held in Cape Town, between 2014 and 2015. And my third solo exhibition was held at the Johannesburg space at the beginning of 2016. I work across disciplines such as sculpture, performance/masquerade, photography, installation art, video, and painting.
Can you tell us a little about your style of painting and use of unconventional materials – is this something you’ve developed over time and does it relate to the subject matter of your work?
My approach to painting (the use of cow dung as a pigment) developed earlier in my art career, partly as an alternative to the western tradition of painting. Cow dung is a medium or a tool just like oil paint, and it does not necessarily have to relate to the subject matter even though some artistic practices (including mine) do emphasise this dualism. The materials I use to make art and the images or forms I produce are mostly directed by the idea.
I use cow dung as a language to communicate my ideas and I also enjoy the experience of working with this medium. It’s very difficult to control and very dominant when it’s mixed with other pigments, yet I am very interested in that. The works on the Joburg show were a continuation of my conversation with the medium.
What appeals to you about working across different mediums? How does this allow you to express yourself and your ideas?
For me, the process of producing an art object is mostly guided by the idea. The materials and the images or forms I use are mostly directed by the idea. This process is frequently intuitive. Simply, this means that I make whatever my creative impulse tells me to make without any suffering.
What function does text have in your work?
In my work, I treat text in the same way I treat visuals/pictures as well as other cultural or non-cultural symbols. Both the ‘text’ and the picture are useful tools in representing meaning. A text is also an image and in my work, I understand it as both representational and aesthetical.
Your colour palette centres around rich, earthy tones. Why is this?
Working with natural or organic materials such as cow dung, you don’t have control of how it will look after it dries and there is something beautiful about that. It is fun to work with this pigment; even to mix colours is a daunting and messy task.
Can you please tell us about your interest in the socio-political function of cultural mediums, and how you engage with and subvert this in the process of creating your own images?
This is a ‘loaded question’ and at the same time, it is very reductive. I am saying this with an understanding that my work is not only concerned with the representation of politics; instead, my practice concerns something greater such as the relation between art and reality at large. Not all of my work involves political imagery. And I look and think about art as something beyond socio-political paradigms. Even though my subject includes iconographic images, I use these historic and cultural symbols beyond their original context. The process of making art for me, if I may admit, is something intimate and ritualistic.
What ideas and themes are you currently exploring in your work?
Since my last exhibition in Joburg I have laid down my tools. I have decided to fully commit to my dissertation since it demands my full attention.
Do you think that art has a socio-political function? What role should art play?
I don’t understand why this question keeps coming up in contemporary art criticism? But, in my work, I am not making social commentary or protest art (or wherever this is heading). I am creating knowledge and culture. I try and convince myself that questions of this nature were debated and dealt with parallel to the cold war era. This question is more pertinent to the cultural debates and geopolitics of that time. For me, art is more of an expression of ideas, feeling, or emotions. I think art should be observed or perceived, even enjoyed, in the same way that we perceive music or any other artistic forms. Sometimes we need to break away from the self-conscious art history or its historicism and tradition to start perceiving art from a more subjective standpoint.
All images courtesy of the artist and Stevenson.