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Featured: Khayalethu Mtshali

Khayalethu Mtshali


Khayalethu Mtshali was born in Ga-Rankuwa near Tswane where he had also lived for most of his life. He now resides in Potchefstroom where he teaches graphic design, illustration and animation at the North-West University.


1. What role did art play in your upbringing?

I used to draw with my brother and my cousins. When we ran out of paper we drew in the encyclopedias, when we ran out of encyclopedias we drew on the walls. Then my parents made sure they always brought paper home from work. We drew for fun in those days. TV was only good for 1 hour (cartoon slot) a day and at night it would finish. The cool thing was that different cousins specialised in different aspects of drawing. My cousins next door in Soshanguve Block AA – Lemao and Thabiso Ditodi – were good with figures and scenes. They would watch movies (like Beverly Hills Cop, Robocop, Back 2 The Future etc.) and redraw the key scenes in the movie, while repeating the lines of each actor. It was like a narrated storyboard.


My cousins in Durban – Mabutho, Mpumelelo & Bathembu Radebe – were experts in drawing cars, and they were very model specific. They would draw the car, mainly BMW, and give you all the specs and argue which one is best: “mine is a 2.0L twincam manual”, “this one is a 3.0l V6 with a car phone”. In Ladysmith, my cousins Khayo, Mfanozi and Mxolisi were specialists in drawing Schwarzenegger (Conan the Barbarian). My cousin Chukwuma from Maritzburg was good with everything. He taught my brother how to paint and how to shade realistic forms. My brother, Mizi, taught me. I learned from all of them, mostly by copying.


2. What is the first work of art that ever made an impression on you?

I don’t remember. Maybe an Edgar Degas sculpture of a ballerina I saw when I went to London. I’m not really into galleries though. Still, I like Kay Hassan’s work, Wangechi Mutu, Norman Catherine, Kahinde Wiley and Mary Sibande’s “They Don’t Make Them Like They Used To”.


3. Why be an artist or do you not think it’s a choice? 

I don’t see myself as an artist anymore. Still don’t know what art is. I tried to read some books on what art is and it didn’t help. But I think what happens is that you channel your curiosity into some form of knowledge or conveying knowledge such as drawing & images, music, science, literature or philosophy or some other creative/intellectual thing. With most people it happens either naturally or due to circumstance. With me I believe my environment played a major role. Everybody around me drew and did it well. Nobody made music, until much later.


4. What are you currently working on?

I’m working on a series of character illustrations. What I want to do is create obviously South African characters, but I don’t know what for as yet. What I’ve noticed is that South African designers get completely caught up in being on par with international trends that our work becomes non-distinguishable from any other quality designer anywhere else in the world – always catching up and trying to keep up, never really getting ahead or stepping into a new direction. There are a few exceptions, though.


So now I think I must make something for South Africans with absolutely no regard for anybody outside. It’s a kind of inside joke that only two people in the world can laugh at. Now, I’ve been trying to learn to draw for children and I started making these illustrations. Today everyone is trying to convince me to make a book or something out of them. My colleagues here at the university have suggested that I exhibit the characters. When I presented them at the Nike Festival of Air earlier in October, many of the audience members suggested I make a book out of them. We’ll see. I just felt it was odd that I thought I was making these characters for children, but now adults are responding to them as well.


My brother, Mizi, has also just asked me to work on an album cover illustration. He, along with Inyambo (Nyambz) Imenda, is producing a hip-hop album for Zubz. It’s a tribute to Nina Simone. There’s a bit of media buzz around that already.


5. If your home had to suddenly catch fire, what is the one thing you would make sure to rescue?

If there were any people in there that would obviously take priority. Otherwise it would be my laptop and my Bible (I’ve made notes in it so losing it would be like losing a hard drive). Most of my sketchbooks sleep at the office so they’re okay in that case.


6. What does Khaya want to say and be remembered for?

Nothing, really. I’d like to teach a lot of people how to draw, especially characters. It’s amazing what starts to happen when you get off the Internet, leave the trends, switch off the television and draw from your own life. My aim is to create South African characters that people recognise and say: “Hey, I know that guy. He takes ID photos outside Home Affairs”.
Advice: Go to places where you just don’t fit in and hang around (like a political rally, or the Rotary club, a dog show, sports match, a rural livestock trade, or gatecrash a wedding in the township and help out in the kitchen).  Seek boredom among all people and you might just discover the drama within that boredom. Characters are everywhere.


Long term: Maybe someday I can inspire children somehow.








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Between 10 and 5