Featured: Installation artist Thuli Gamedze is deconstructing the white cube

Defunct TV sets, coiling extension chords, lights, cardboard and other urban debris are Cape Town artist Thuli Gamedze’s materials of choice for her large-scale installation works. Through these site-specific installations and other hacked mediums Thuli challenges conventional notions of fine art practice and the ‘white cube’ gallery space. She describes her work as a “collision” of parts that resist completeness in favour of suggested intention. During her final year of study at Michaelis, insects featured prominently in her work as a recurring motif of cycles and repetition. This has gone on to influence her current body of work which explores the static representation of black bodies. Thuli is also writing an Afro-futurist piece and says that she is searching for the meeting point between text and visuality. We were very glad to chat to her about these ideas and more.  

You describe one of your projects as “a collision of objects, images, videos and sounds”. This so perfectly encapsulates the ‘what’ of your practice. Can you tell us a little about the ‘how’ and ‘why’? 

I think that I am resistant to the limiting notions of ‘fine art’ practice- work that can feel like it functions as a resolved moment. I don’t really believe in the resolution of creativity as such, so I try to work with process, and I think that often just ends up looking like chaos. On a personal level, I think my attention span is incredibly short – I like things that move, videos, lights, sounds, junk – sensory experiences that try to push the white cube away from its constructed clinical white feeling. I hope to make work outside of this space in fact, because the ‘neutral’ context it presents seems so obviously false, when we look at it in relation to the surrounding context of South Africa historically and right now. That’s the why. The ‘how’ comes from some kind of desire to give respect to the everyday, to processes of becoming that I don’t really believe should, or can be resolved. I try my best to avoid the dangers that come with conclusive thinking.

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How does your personal history and experience inform the work you make? 

My ‘personal history’… I suppose I am really interested in personal histories in general, because it often feels like spaces ‘delegated’ for creativity are dominated by histories, (and ongoing presents) of whiteness and patriarchy – and in reality these tired narratives just don’t speak to the majority of personal histories and realities around here. So i suppose working with personal history and experience is everything in my work, otherwise it feels like some kind of betrayal of the possibility of new knowledge- knowledge that continues to be erased and ignored through westernised institutions that proceed rife with the contradictions inherent in their own presence in African spaces. I spent some time back at Michaelis last year, as a tutor of two first year classes, and I started to find it really interesting and disturbing to see how people are taught from such a young age to respond to texts and images in a way that suits the violent system in which society exists. You enter the institution with the feeling that what texts and images make you feel is an invalid starting point, and that your response should be in line with what you think your lecturer might ‘want’ to hear- which is very sad, and ultimately, not that creative (IMHO). Spending time in these learning spaces, I hoped to be a part of creating a space in which people were able to respond to knowledge, referencing their own identities, experiences and positionalities as the most valid and important spaces to begin. So, for me, as someone existing positionally in many ‘in-betweens’ of South African society, I feel its important to recognise the validity of my own specific histories- genetics from the UK, the coloniser, played off by genes from Swaziland and South Africa, a couple of nations affected drastically by the UK imperial project, interacting with an upbringing of Christianity in a big mixed-race family in SA, as well as occupying the proportionately tiny position of being Black and middle class in South Africa, and on a constant journey of understanding my gender/ sexual identity- as a part of making space for the specificity of other ‘other’ histories. This is the only way I can really conceptualise creativity…Going into my Masters, I am hoping to take this approach, engaging in as many learning spaces as possible, and trying to re-read and re-see curricular from myself, rather than as a body whose experience needs to be captured and packaged for the colonial gaze.

Does the lo-fi aesthetic of your work have a conceptual as well as aesthetic basis? 

I guess I have very few moments of perfectionism, and these do not enter my ‘making’ space. I love lo-fi aesthetics, in terms of the fact that they communicate intention and imagination, so much more than communicating resolve and specific concept. There’s something kind of exciting about someone sketching something imperfect, versus someone filling in all the holes for you. I think lo-fi aesthetics are fun, and often quite funny. I like the tackiness of trying to tell a story that just won’t come across in the way that you are imagining it because you just don’t have the production team. I also work quickly and without hesitation. My ‘perfectionism’ or concern comes in with the curating process – it becomes this tricky time where the prioritisation of certain objects over others, when installing in a space, begins to narrate a story – I feel that this is the only time when my work kind of comes together. I am a bit of a collector (hoarder some may say) more than anything else, whose just trying to make sense/ or not of all the moments I’ve chosen to record. But yeah, I think the lo-fi look takes the pressure off the viewer to gauge something too particular about the work – I like to think it illustrates feeling and texture…

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What themes and ideas do you explore in your work? 

Um, well I suppose I was obsessed with insects for my entire fourth year at Michaelis. I still love insects, and I think that my explorations with the work in that project – ‘I knew they were leaving, I just had no idea it would be so sudden’ – informed the way I’d like to approach making in general. As with the lives of insects, I am really interested in cycles and repetitions, and in 2015, I started working a bit on a project called ‘The Revolution Will Not be Televised’, a stolen title from the famous Gil Scott Heron song of 1971. This project is an allusion to a cycle of what I recognise as a repeated static representation of Black bodies, ‘other’ bodies in media, in the art world, etc… There seems to be this loop of knowledge production that never escapes itself, because its centre is owned by a knowledge-making system that does not really include us. So that work, using tv static, and borrowed sounds, along with messy Final Cut transitions to illustrate a sameness, a ‘white noise’, is kind of mirrored in my textual work, where I try to engage with these cycles of the art world, that feel so stuck in an ancient and violent system. I feel like I am always saying a similar thing using different versions, and it’s been cool to think around my writing, tutoring, art-ing and conversations as all part of a creative process. There’s also the added element of just wanting to see people having fun in galleries- mostly Black people tbh because it really sucks that the gallery space is so exclusive- so my set of aesthetics are supposed to be quite sensory and stimulating. I’m working towards a show later this year with Bonolo Kavula in which I hope this sentiment of FUN comes through.

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Do you think that the internet has influenced the way in which art is made and shared? Has the internet affected you and your practice? 

For sure. I find myself borrowing and appropriating more and from the internet. My obsession with arrangement and curating finds a good partner in the internet, with its infinite feed of available information, images and videos. I went through a cringey-ish time where I was as obsessed as everyone else with the glitch. However, I am really interested by what does not exist on the internet- what creativities are being practiced that don’t find their way into popular culture canons, and can we understand the internet as a very precisely curated space in itself? So there’s limitations there that are hidden by the internet’s presented infiniteness. But mostly I am super glad I have access to the internet but try to keep an eye on unfolding scenes that don’t make it there.

You’ve said that you’re very influenced by Dineo Bopape. What about her work interests you superficially? 

I love the chaos. Obviously she has produced lots of different work, but in general, there’s so much to look at, and there’s so many things there that make me feel like laughing and crying and playing. Honestly, I think my interaction with art is quite similar to the way you might expect a young child to act- when you can touch and feel and are given an array of things to think and feel about, it’s fun. When I was at Michaelis, I used to take out one of her books from the library all the time. I was really bothered by her work at the beginning, but became quite obsessed with the way it irked me so much. I feel like what she does is so unbelievably confusing and strange, but it illustrates the kind of feels and motions of daily life. Yoh- she’s the best!

As an artist who works a lot in installation, do you consider commercial value when creating work? How/do you make money from your art? 

I don’t 🙂 I sold something for like the first time this year, and I think it was because it was in a frame. That was a really nice moment, but currently I make more money from writing about art than I do making it – if we choose to make those distinctions. I don’t think it has been something I have worried about- I have just been doing a whole bunch of other stuff for money. I did some tutoring as I said, writing, au-pairing, Afro-futuristic holiday clubs for some dope kids… I suppose in terms of making physical work, it would be amazing if someone funded that process, but I am not particularly concerned about that at this point, and obviously don’t want to think about creativity as something centering on money. I’m not trying to sound like some kind of purist dweeb but I’m really not ready to think around art and money stuff because I’m having too much fun with the current vibe. I basically just use junk, cardboard, lights, a few pictures, lots of Prestick and old TVs. I have a huge collection of extension chords which is always necessary. I don’t really have much of a desire to work with expensive materials. I suppose its another reason why the inaccessibility of art is really upsetting, because at some age, many people just lose their desire to ‘make stuff’ (which we all do as kids quite intuitively) from whatever stuff happens to exist around them, and if you’re using what’s available, it’s speaking very literally to what’s going on for you in that moment. Constantia Dump is largely where it’s at. 

What are your thoughts on the art world in Cape Town? Do you feel like you’ve found a place within it for your practice? 

No, but am working on it. I find First Thursdays traumatising because people here can be so resolutely unfriendly and cool, and the circles I roll with usually are nowhere to be found for obvious reasons. I’m really hoping to contribute to making spaces here where creativity isn’t homogenised into these intensely difficult art events, and where I feel good. The Cape Town art scene is super triggering for me- but am always happy to be in spaces where I can chill and watch videos. Writing reviews is always a good debrief- I hope that it finds a home in people who feel similarly about the state of art in the country… I am also always hoping for more of a video art scene around here, also exhibitions in alternative spaces, more artist-run spaces, and for people to feel like they can access and are welcome in creative spaces. The Joburg art scene definitely just feels very different, and like it’s more obviously in a state of motion- but I’m here and it’s been a really conscious choice, because it feels like Cape Town is stirring and things are beginning to shift.

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Does your arts writing influence your creative practice? How so?  

Yes definitely, although I am trying to get to a space where I no longer make the distinction between writing and art production, or any creative space and art production. It’s given me some confidence (cute) around speaking on art things that are difficult and often very forcibly rejected by many people. I am searching for the meeting point between text and visuality –actually working on a short Afro-futuristic fiction piece to function as the artist statement for the show I mentioned earlier.

What are your thoughts on the state of arts writing and journalism in South Africa? 

I am quite excited. I feel like less and less un-self reflexive institutions are going to be able to escape the witty and trained tongues of our regulars like Fikeni and Joja. It would be dope to see more Black bodies in writing spaces, especially those of us who identify as women, trans, or non-gender conforming peeps. I’m excited to see the ways that the art institution around here will likely be forced into being a less stagnant space, and I think that’s already happening. I am really excited about new curricular writing- I am going to be involved as a tutor in a re-designed first year Michaelis course, that is centering itself on African modernities, rather than European/ American (if only this wasn’t such a revolutionary notion). Also- it’s really fresh to read through my first year’s text work, when I mark, and see how peoples’ writing voices change over time. I think that’s where it’s at for me- I hope to see more spaces encouraging people to write from themselves, and hope to be involved in creating those spaces.

Lastly, what are you looking at, listening to, reading and watching right now? 

Ummmm… Waiting for Frank Ocean’s new album like everyone else, as well as more Rick and Morty to come out- that’s a dope cartoon btw. I recently got a copy of Sun Ra’s film ‘Space is The Place’, and hoping to get stuck into some Octavia Butler sci-fi soon. I’m reading about the cosmos, trying to engage with alternative learning strategies (Freire, Mumdhani, Mama, etc). Came across an artist recently-ish called Trisha Baga who continues to blow my mind. (Just so I don’t sound too cultured – I’ve been watching back episodes of The Bachelor and Survivor, but mostly due to peer pressure.)

See more of Thuli’s work on her website. 

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