Mbali Mdluli: Shaping landscapes of memory

HABITAT is Mbali Mdluli’s second solo show with ROOM project space and gallery. Her previous work has been primarily focused on lens-based mediums and exploring the limitations and possibilities of this form in relation to documenting lived and remembered experiences. 

The sculptural objects that comprise this body of work present an exciting new departure for the artist, and resemble undulating landscapes or seismographs composed out of torn and folded glossy decor magazines. These imagined landscapes, with horizons that meander between smooth, rounded curves and jagged, geometric lines are, as the statement accompanying the show tells us, “the abstracted outcome of the artist’s attempt to portray the tensions that exist in expressing personal events”. 

With respect to personal experiences but curiosity into inspiration, we asked Mbali to tell us more about these captivating semi-abstract landscapes. 


To begin, what lead you to study photography at the Market Photo Workshop?

I was very much involved in the music industry for many years, until the moment I literally came across a piece of paper with the word “Photography” written on it. And so I went and studied at the Market Photo Workshop until 2010. I was looking for a new challenge that had nothing to do with the music industry and a desire to focus on other forms of creative expression.

What then motivated you to start exploring other mediums and media in your work?

The funny thing is that, my surname, which is Zulu, translates to ‘nomad’ in English, suggesting never staying in one place for a long time. My nature is not to be stagnant, but to keep on looking for new forms. With photography I wanted to learn the analogue techniques (but this wasn’t easy because it’s difficult finding knowledgeable people and resources for this.) I hardly photographed using a digital camera, but then after studying film, interrogating digital tools was the sole driver for the kinds of videos I wanted to make – instead of making straight-forward images, like taking selfies with my low-fi cellphone camera, I was using it to shoot random footage for making videos. As for the latest works currently exhibited at ROOM Gallery & Projects – the works came from a personal narrative, but also from a reactive curiosity I had with the texture and layered feel of a bounded glossy magazine.

Growing a hard skin

Tell us about your approach, which has been described as “distinctly experimental”.

As mentioned, with me there’s a need to constantly look into the materiality of the mediums I choose to work with. Thematically, I am always looking into crevices of my personal lived history – finding out what I have missed, what I can do with the little known information at my disposal and found objects.

What are some of the overarching themes or ideas that you explore in your work?

I am looking for new ways of telling and challenging personal histories and memory. My work also plays with the notion of space and time and my relationship to it – in other words, moving from point A to point B. Using technical effects (I love my toys), there’s this need I have to want to physically break an analogue camera – exhaust it until it’s no longer, then put it on a mantle as a reminder of how everything fails, eventually. Questions of ownership and land have also come up in my work, especially in my previous show of videos and photography at ROOM last year, called UNRESOLVED. In HABITAT, the images that came out of tearing and cutting of these ‘home décor and lifestyle’ magazines, really began to reference imagined geographical representations. You look at them and you see contours, undulating horizons, shifts in the layered pages that can sometimes read like tectonic movements. This wasn’t intentional, my cutting and tearing was intuitive. I hope people can sense that in some way.

Whilst much of your work is abstract, there is a strong narrative that underlines the images, video or other work. Can you tell us more about this relationship?

The visual language of my past and current works has been strongly abstract in nature. I magnify and augment images as a matter of point. But I do begin by thinking about what it is I am trying to say in the work that I do. There is an emotional and socio-political position that I do try to take in the work, but it is not always clear at the point of making and process. I shoot so much video footage, that I come back to much later and I look at it from a very subjective position. But I really don’t like to form high-minded art historical ideas around my work. I don’t pretend to come from an academic background, so… 

Growing a hard skin… II
Contour II

The title of your current exhibition, HABITAT, refers to a natural home environment. The statement accompanying it says that the impetus for this body of work came from a “moment of displacement” that you experienced recently. Can you tell us more about this?

Although I do not wish to divulge more since it’s personal, all I can say is due to a family dispute we were forcefully removed from our home in Soweto by the infamous Red Ants. With the help of our longtime neighbours we were able to put just about everything back into the house. I specifically chose to retrieve my brother’s large collection of home décor and design magazines (he is an interior designer), which is how I then decided to explore them as a new medium in my work. This work comes from an expression of a myriad of emotions, as a result of this personal trauma. I cut, ripped and tore into them, to essentially transform them into these images that are presented as framed objects in this exhibition. 

Working with the décor and design mags, was the act of tearing up the pages and repurposing the issues any kind of response to glossy mag aspirations?

Yes, in that the magazines showcase most of the fashionable things for the wealthy, or clearly for the elite and the rich. They sell the idea of buying and making your own world, they sell the idea of escapism – something that I cannot afford. This became so painfully evident to me as I worked with the magazines, especially at that moment in my life. Some of the mags dated back to 20 years ago.

Horizon II

What ‘landscape’ do these undulating sculptural pieces map out?

To be smug about it – my mind. But no, there is no specific physical or metaphorical landscape that is being referenced in these works. I was interested more in the shapes and the colour palates that I discovered as I cut or tore away layer after layer.

The artist statement to this show describes the paper works as “emotional residue”. This is a very beautiful notion. Can you tell us more about this?

I cannot entirely erase my memories, wish them away and even through the cutting process (that I guess, can be read as an attempt to erase something), there are still some things left behind whether to be put to rest, transformed into new shapes – they’re still there and remain but my intention is to make space for new memories, thoughts and processes in my work overall.

Erf #1
You are here

What has this new sculptural element brought to your practice as a whole?

HABITAT has yet to sink in as a body of work that I can reflect on in relation to my broader practice. What has been clearer and resolved is the technical aspect of it. The framing of the objects, which really highlight their sculptural quality was a challenge but also an amazing learning curve for me, in understanding what is possible in my work and how I handle it. Thinking about the nature of the glossy paper and how it’s meant to be originally presented e.g the newspaper stands or magazine racks versus how and why it should be transformed into an object was very interesting. Emotionally too, this project, it was a good exercise – learning to let go, changing my perspective on life once more.

What’s next for you?

Always the question isn’t it? I honestly don’t know but I feel a need to revisit video art and think about that medium in a sculptural or installation sense. But for now, I am proud to say that HABITAT is still very much the order of the day.

HABITAT is on at ROOM gallery in New Doornfontein until 29 October 2016. Join Mbali for a walkabout on Saturday, 15th October from 11am at the gallery. 

Contour I

blue-series-v-h_rblue-series-ii-h_rblue-series-i-h_rFrom the Blue series

Video still from Cityscape III

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