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An interview with Pola Maneli: Representations of Blackness in bold colour

Pola Maneli is young, talented and highly opinionated about being a young, talented black person in South Africa. With skill and ability comes responsibility, Pola believes, which is why he focuses on challenging representations of blackness and stereotypical imagery in his work. So while on the surface his designs and illustrations appear bright and cheerful, the subject is really quite serious. In this interview, which forms part of our Graphic Design Month focus on the site, Pola talks more about his experiences negotiating identity politics through his work, and continuing to chip away at the superficial remnants of rainbow nationhood.    

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What was the first piece of design that you consciously encountered, and when did you decide that you wanted to follow a career in graphic design?  

Well I think I caught on quite late to be honest. The first piece of design that I consciously came into contact with was probably David Carson’s The End of Print halfway through my first year of art and design school at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University. That first year course was set up in such a way that you had to do everything (painting, drawing, graphic design, sculpture, photography, ceramics) and at the end of that you had to apply to go into a specific field for the rest of your study. But even then your acceptance into that field was dependant on a rigorous interview and selection process. It was nerve-wrecking stuff, and seeing people break down because of the rejection was not an uncommon sight.  

Naturally, the graphic design course had the most limited amount of space, haha, but it also had the most applicants because back then we all saw it as this really cool combination of art and commerce where everyone would end up coining it as freelancers for Nike and living like rock stars. So I went into that first year dead set on getting into graphic design in my second year, even though I didn’t have the slightest idea of what it actually was. But coming across Carson’s work made it all click for me; I mean here was an example of type and image treatment blending together to communicate a message or an idea. It wasn’t very subtle, but I think it’s what I needed to see to have it all make sense for me.    

How would you describe your current design style, and what factors, like perhaps your illustration, have and continue to influence it?  

I really struggle with attaching labels to my work. People have called it ‘African’, ‘Afrofuturistic’ ‘Afrocentric’ (I admit I have used that last one in the past though too), but those are all still kinda problematic for me. The most comfortable description of it right now for me would be to just say it’s an expression of blackness. Translating that through illustration just feels like the most natural thing for me at the moment. That expression is constantly refined by how much I learn about myself, and the power dynamics at play in the spaces I occupy as a young, relatively middle-class, able-bodied, cisgendered black South African man.

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Your work is self-aware and socially conscious. How does this dual critical approach affect your creative process?  

Well I think it’s becoming that, but there’s still a world of education and interrogation of the ways I see the world and firmly held beliefs that I’ve always just assumed to be true that needs to happen. So who’s to say it will ever really get there? But with my process, the point of undergoing that kind of critique isn’t about getting ‘there’, it’s about trying to make sure that the images I’m responsible for producing don’t add to the already vast library of insensitive and/or misrepresentative depictions of marginalised people that’s already out there. Not enough people want to acknowledge it, but representation matters. The kid me would have loved to see more depictions of black people outside of the stereotypical narratives that were being presented, but he never got that, and even now we don’t have nearly as much of it as I would like.    

You’re very outspoken across social media channels. How does graphic design allow you to express yourself, your ideas and beliefs in ways that words do not?  

Ehh, well social media’s cool in that, to an extent, it allows you to curate the kind of people you want to interact with. It gives you the option to connect with like minds and share thoughts and experiences that you know will resonate with other people. But the down side of that curation is that it also tends to create these echo chambers where the same opinions just reverberate off of each other, and threaten to stifle any growth or real critical thought.  

But I feel like the moment you create something and put it out to the world at large that’s when all of your concepts and views really get put to the test and stand the most chance at having a big impact. Giving more legitimacy to one over the other is a pretty contentious view, but as someone who’s concerned with making things, it’s a view I definitely stand by. I think your body of work should speak to what you’re about.  

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Your work often responds to or subverts stereotypes. Why is this important for you?  

My obsession with the representation of blackness is an offshoot from this liberal rainbow nation initiative illustration series I did a few years back called, If The Shoe Fits. The idea was to portray stereotypical depictions of South Africans from all races which would then allow us to all come together over a braai to laugh at how ridiculous they all actually are #TatasDream. The black depictions were the quickest because all of the stereotypes came to me with such ease. But the further I moved from black people the harder it became to pinpoint people down to one specific stereotype, and the more and more the pieces started becoming subjective views rather than established or commonly known stereotypes. But the tipping point came when I had to depict a stereotypical young white male. I couldn’t do it because… there is no one stereotype that can be applied. The ‘jock’ persona is just as legitimate as the ‘hipster’, the ‘goth’ or whatever else, and that really did a number on me. But as time went by what started to fuck with me even more was the ease with which I was able to apply these large brush strokes to black people.  

I mean, blackness is such a complex ideology for me, and yet most representations of it suppress any inkling of nuance, and I can’t stand that. There’s so much beauty, flair and also dissonance at the heart of blackness that it just doesn’t seem fair that it should be confined to any parameters of any sort. My friends always say that if there are 1000 black people in a room, there are a 1000 different ways to be black, and stereotypes are just an impediment to us realising that. Haha, so yeah, part of my personal mandate is to chip away at them.  

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Please tell us how you use colour and iconography in your work, as well as some of the motifs like birds and flowers that recur.  

For me colour and iconography function as the visual underpinnings for how I see blackness. For instance, there’s nothing monotonous about it to me, so most times anything monochrome just feels out of place to me. I was taught to never use more than 2 or 3 colours maximum per piece, so I revel in finding ways to use as many colours as possible and still have it look aesthetically appealing.   I love the convenience of being able to use iconography and symbols as shorthand to talk about something a lot deeper. For an easy example of what I’m talking about you can look at my characters and how they’re really just simplified abstractions of Ndebele patterns. By taking one of the most prominent shapes in those patterns – the triangle – and using that as the skeletal structure onto which everything else is applied the characters hint at a foundational blackness without being too overt about it, or at least I hope so.

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Urgh, the flowers are actually a really weird thing for me right now. They add such an attractive organic feel to the work, but on another level they also soften the tension brimming underneath the surface of the foreground characters. I think it creates the same kind of effect you get when you look at a photograph of a really masculine man with flowers in his beard. It’s nice, but why do we need to see something that we identify as overtly feminine as a flower to highlight vulnerability within masculinity? Is there really no way of seeing vulnerability as an inherent part of the definition of masculinity without having to add an asterisk to it?  

So the way it’s presented right now seems to me as if blackness and nature are on opposite sides of the fence – a gap widened even more by the fact that I draw the two in different styles. But in reality the two aren’t far from each other at all, historically, black people in this country have always had a close link to nature. We’ve been out here living organic, so that clash between blackness and nature isn’t even a real one.  

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In your opinion, what makes ‘good’ design good?  

Work which deliberately seeks to make the lives of marginalised people just a little bit more bearable, but is also considered enough to be able to do so without infantilising those communities or being condescending either.    

What do you love about the local graphic design scene, and what would you change if you had the chance?  

I think the scene in Durban and especially Pretoria is really exciting right now and has been for a while actually. I feel like Joburg generally doesn’t have enough focus on craft, but they’re always relevant and house what are probably the most forward thinking designers and illustrators right now. They’ve mastered the art of self-promotion though, and that seems to more than make up for the lack of craft.   What do I love about the Cape Town design scene? Nothing, really. The dedication to craft here is unrivalled, but the established community’s complete indifference to any issues pertaining to blackness or that aren’t centred around a privileged Anglo-Saxon narrative makes it really hard for me to take them seriously. The dominant voice only stops unseeing blackness when it wants to misappropriate and profit off of its aesthetic and cultural icons without any compensation (monetary or otherwise).   But I’m not sure I’d even want to change anything about it. There’s a deep problem within the dominant design scene here that I don’t have the patience or desire to try to remedy. The only validation I yearn for is from South African people of colour and others that are invested in changing the societal status quo and making work of cultural importance.  

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As a designer, do you think it’s better to develop a distinct style and visual language or try and be a jack of all styles?  

I’ve always gravitated to work with a distinct voice, but there’s a skill to being versatile that I think I tend to overlook. It seems like the smarter play to make if you’re someone whose livelihood is dependent on securing commission work. I still get way more joy in looking at distinctive work, but I think that’s just preference, because I can’t think of any valid reason why that would be better than versatility.    

Do your environment and surroundings influence your graphic design? What else inspires you?  

I used to think it didn’t, but moving cities and having to acclimatise to the different vibe here in Cape Town has definitely changed my opinion on that. Last year was one of the most unproductive years I’ve ever had, and I’m only starting to get into a groove and pick up some momentum again now.  

I’m inspired by the people I come into contact with every day, in real life and over the internet. If you look close enough you can find people displaying extraordinary amounts of humanity in almost every corner of this country.  

Like, I was working late at the office this one night, and because I’m there so often at night I’ve become quite familiar with the security staff. So I was working one night with my headphones on and one of the ladies taps me on my shoulder. And I’ll be honest, my initial response was one of annoyance, because although she and I are cool, most of our interactions revolve around me asking her for cigarettes or her asking me, and I was not in the mood for that at that time. So I took off my headphones to ask her what was up, and she says to me, “You work at night a lot, don’t you want me to bring you some food?” So I then immediately felt like an asshole, turned my snobbishness all the way down and politely decline and told her that I usually order take-out food so it’s really not necessary. And she says, ”No no no. That’s not food. I’m talking about real food. Would you like me to bring you some home-cooked food the next time you’re here?” And I was really struck by that, but of course I still politely declined, but she insisted again, and I told her that I didn’t want to inconvenience her. To which she replied: “No no you could never inconvenience me. Kaloku singokhaya.”  

I feel like on some level we all know that the system isn’t working. The gross inequality created by capitalism and other institutions of inequality don’t make any of our lives better, but we play along because history tells us that every other alternative has failed. And yet, here’s this woman who doesn’t make nearly as much as I do, extending herself for my benefit, and… I don’t know, maybe the blueprint for a better life has been in front of us all along in the form of this thing we call Ubuntu. How could I not be inspired by that?  

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Whose graphic design work do you admire, locally and internationally?  

Sindiso Nyoni’s body of work and just general outlook on things is probably the closest thing to a template that I follow. Lazi “Greiispaces” Mathebula is undeniably one of the leaders of whatever you want to call this emergence of contemporary young, black creatives. Thandiwe Tshabalala is one of the bravest illustrators I know. She poses some seriously difficult questions and I can’t think of anyone else that I’m rooting more for right now.  

Katlego Phatlane is obviously on the verge of blowing up in a big way, and if you look at his work it’s easy to see why. Vukile Batyi’s also another dude that’s been making steady strides towards becoming one of the country’s most capable creatives and his work rejects any kind of categorization. Karabo Poppy Moletsane is making some of the most insightful and beautiful illustrations out right now, so I’m constantly revisiting her portfolio.  

Ruramai Rudo Masekiwa’s work around the identity of black women is underrated and deeply healing. I know I knocked Joburg’s craft earlier, but Modise Blackdice or Negritude Republic is one of the exceptions, and he is really putting in the work, he manages to put on what seems to be like a new exhibition every week?? (that’s that Joburg drive I was talking about earlier) I’m still inspired by the myth and legend that is Kronk. He asserts his place within the pantheon of South African design with each new project he puts out, almost as if he’s never at pains to show us how it’s really done.    

And finally, could you tell us what you’re currently working on or working towards?  

I’ve just been enjoying doing stuff with cool people. For instance I just finished doing the artwork for Spoek Mathambo’s band, Fantasma. I’ve been doing stuff in that kinda realm; culturally relevant work with meaning to it. I’ve got a project with Thandiwe Tshabalala hanging in the air that I need to get working on. And when I can, I’d still like to sneak in some blatant social commentary. I’m also trying to get a project going with some folks over at one of the big online stores, that if successful, will easily be the most important thing I’ve done with my life so far.  

I guess I’m working towards peaking, and what that means for representations around blackness. Google “Surya Bonaly 1998 Olympics” and you’ll get an idea of what I mean by “peaking”. I was talking about validation earlier? Well I did this piece called Rice, and it’s about the South African Police Service killing people over bags of rice. It was just one of those senseless things that sound absurd when said out loud. So a few people saw it, and one person commented on it and said, “We Need You.” And I’m not trying to make that conversation about me, but honestly, those words meant more to me than any award or creative industry recognition I’ve ever received. So yeah, I’m working my way towards earning more of those.  

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