06 Sep ‘Afrorealist, not Afrofuturism’: Artist Luthando Mfabe draws on Xhosa history and today’s issues
Johannesburg-based illustrator, designer and developer Luthando Mfabe found out about graphic design during high school. “It was really amazing [to learn] that you could work on big brands and get paid for doing that,” he says. He enrolled in the Art and Design course at Central Johannesburg College and later Multimedia Design and Development at City Varsity, where he graduated in 2012 with distinction and won the Best Design Student Award.
It was in 2016 while walking home from work that Luthando was attacked and stabbed. This incident, albeit horrific, motivated him to take a new direction and pursue work he enjoys. “While I was healing, I started illustrating to relieve myself of the pain I was going through physically and emotionally,” he adds.
By doing what he loves, Luthando hopes to solve social issues through design and technology. We chat to him about his thoughts on Afrofuturism, the role history plays in his work and his company, War Innovations.
You love creating characters with a futuristic look. Tell us a bit about this.
For me, it’s more like trying to envision our future as Africans. Some people may put my work in the Afrofuturism box, which I agree with sometimes but I describe my work as Afrorealist. Afrofuturism makes it seem as if we are running away from the current problems faced as Africans; hoping for a better future for ourselves. We should take on today’s problems head-on so we can have a better future as Africans.
How does history tie into your work?
I learned a lot about African history that I was not told at school. I think it was more about self-discovery than anything else because as an African I needed to find more about who I am. As a Xhosa man, I also had to ask a lot of questions about my family, which made me proud of who I am.
I use the knowledge I got from my research to create my illustrations. I use the fez a lot and the Dogon mask on my characters. The fez is connected to the Moors in Morocco and the mask is connected to the Dogon ethnic group in Mali. I also use the Maasai dress code on my characters. I even called my character Togu, which is my clan name. I use my art to teach people about African history. So the more people are curious about my work the more they will learn about Africa.
What are your favourite design tools and why?
My favourite tools are pencil and paper, that’s where I start with my ideas. Then I scan my drawings and import them into Illustrator where I add colour. I sometimes use Photoshop to tweak my work. I use Illustrator 90% of the time because it’s easier to manage my elements and the artwork is easy to scale up and down.
What are some of the challenges you think illustrators face right now?
The biggest challenge we are facing as African artists, not just illustrators, is that we copy a lot of the trends from the West. We are trying to tell our story using Western concepts but that doesn’t work well. We have to find our own way of telling our own stories. We should stop valuing our work only when the rest tells us our work is good enough. We should acknowledge that we are also good enough and we can compete on the world stage.
Are you working on anything new that you think our audience should look out for?
I started a company called War Innovations in 2016. The aim of is to solve African social issues through design and technology. One of the projects I’m currently working on is an online store where you can buy art from African artists. The aim is to export African culture to the rest of the world and compete on the world stage and at the same time, empower African artists. Follow Luthando.