24 Feb Grad Guide 2020: Motlhoki Nono
As her interview will soon reveal, there’s a refreshing candour to the way in which Motlhoki Nono speaks about art in general, and her own practice in particular. “I don’t know, but for me, right now, the role of my art is merely to explore my curiosities,” she says in her charming, sincere manner. And where her curiosity currently leads her is to explore the experience of love in all its forms, seen in the video series that began her ongoing project Mma Pelo O Jele Serati. Nono graduated last year with her honours in fine art from Wits University. We reached out to her for our annual graduate series to talk about figuring it out, vulnerability vs visibility, memory, and falling in love.
What inspired you to pursue a path in art?
I wouldn’t necessarily say that I was inspired. There wasn’t this one great moment of epiphany where I felt an undeniable urge to become an artist. I could’ve been anything, especially a lawyer. Art was more of a pragmatic decision. I think that I just didn’t feel interested enough in anything else to commit to an entire degree and career in it. What was terrifying was that the one thing that I felt relatively good at and interested in, which was art, I felt as though I couldn’t make much of a career from because I was unsure how lucrative of a career option it was. I was nervous and there was no room to be inspired. I didn’t even want to go into it, I wanted to be a lawyer instead. Well, I didn’t particularly want to be a lawyer, I wanted to have a stable career with enough money to send back home and I didn’t think that being an artist could give me that, but I knew that law could. But my mother wanted me to go into nothing else but art.
In the first week of my first year of study, I remember my drawing professor asked us how we had come into this degree and how our parents felt about it. A lot of my peers spoke about their parents’ reluctance, while others spoke of their passivity, and others of their support. While me on the other hand, I spoke about a mother who in my grade 12 year sat with me in the lounge as I was obsessively contemplating my options, heavily considering law, and this and that and everything else that my gut knew I’d hate. She casually began talking about how she had known from a tender age that I enjoyed doing creative things, which is why she had committed to faithfully buying me every edition of scrapbooking kit from CNA and why she didn’t mind too much when I cut things out from her prized True Love collection for whatever collage I’d be working on during weekends, or that I’d always have her house in a mess, and why she insisted on staying up late with me whenever I had to finish my paintings in high school for submission the next day. So, she was basically saying that she would support whatever decision I made into whatever career, though she strongly suggested that it be something that I’d be fulfilled in – and she knew that it was art. It sounds idealistic, because it is, because my mother is a unicorn, I tell you.
I recall when she told me that my application to the NSA had been approved, but we’d have to decline because they couldn’t afford my accommodation in res. I was devasted and angry. Later on, a year or so later I think, she told me that the reason I couldn’t go was because my application had actually been denied, though she didn’t have the heart to tell me that. She would’ve rather I was angry at them, than myself. Today looking back at the self portrait I drew the night before submission in front on my grandmother’s mirror, it makes sense why they didn’t take me. I wouldn’t have taken me either. That portrait was horrendous! I think had I gone to the NSA, then perhaps I would’ve been inspired to study art because I would’ve been in the city where there is opportunity for immense creativity, instead of a township in Pretoria where there is little space to be creatively inspired. It didn’t work out like that, but I still find myself in the same place either way – being an artist. It doesn’t matter how I got here. Though what does matter in the journey is how supportive my parents are. I feel blessed. For their support and how I feel like I am doing good on that support and investment.
I was nervous because I didn’t know how stable of a career art is, and I knew that my father wanted a daughter with a profession which he could brag to his peers and family about. So I then applied for fine art at Wits, and sent in a half completed application for law at UCT. And when I told my mother that I got into art, she made me her Christmas pudding while my father couldn’t hide his anxiety. He is very supportive of my career though. He constantly sends me applications for graphic design posts and I constantly need to explain to him that it is not the same thing. I am tired of that now, so I have resorted to telling him that I am an art journalist. I don’t know what that is but the “journalist” part of things gives him familiarity, so he feels a bit at ease being under the impression that I do something “professional”. That I have a job.
Tell us about your graduate exhibition in terms of concept, medium, process, and the final work(s).
My graduate exhibition was a virtual experience of my vernacular encounters with love. It begins with my maternal relationship, and how the exchanges of love between my mother and I, as well as the generation of women in my family and their husbands, has informed the certain approaches that I have to romantic love. I am a hopeless romantic, it’s actually devastating, and in third year I was thinking a lot about my romantic experiences and about how I want to carve out a space for them in my practice because the experience of love, in all its forms, is such a crucial part of my existence.
The work actually began as a response to my failed attempts in sculpture and my exam date was looming. I had gone thrifting with a friend and I saw this absurdly beautiful set of royal blue porcelain teacups. They had this exciting pattern at the bottom of them and I was particularly seduced by their glossy colour. At that time, I was sculpturally exploring domestic objects surrounding hospitality, trying to sabotage their function in these discreet manners that could potentially make the guest’s visit an uncomfortable one. I was thinking about hospitality as a compromising experience. When I got home from thrifting, I cleaned them to drink some juice. I have been collecting teacups since my childhood, though I was never really a fan of hot beverages until recently, so I’d always use them for everything else. When I poured juice, the cup began leaking. I thought that it was broken but when I inspected it, I realized that the marks at the bottom of it were not patterns, but engravings that had been cut too deep and now the cup cannot hold anything. I became obsessively excited by the poetics of that – a cup that cannot hold – and I began to explore it as a metaphor of unrequited love, of a love that survives on unending domestic labour, of giving so much that you have little left for yourself, of pouring ourselves in cups that cannot hold. What resulted was this incredibly layered, soft, minimal video piece that would open what is now the video series Mma Pelo O Jele Serati.
Through food, the making of staple foods such as ledombolo, papa and malana, I draw similarities to the various difficult experiences of love which have in a way become a staple experience for the women in my family. And the desire for an alternative softer narrative is held in the making of delicacies such as pudding, biscuits and gemere – which are delicacies that were at home reserved only for special occasions. Here, food becomes a site of trauma, as well as a desire of health and deliciousness. Love, the expression of it, is not an innate thing. We learn how to express affection and I know that I have learnt this from my mother and grandmother, these acts are however domestic and gendered acts. I am interested in food as a transference of culture, as a metaphor of love, the making of it as a space for intimate conversations and the consumption of it as a metaphor of history. This is what my graduate exhibition was about, about the histories and implications of food in the domestic and heart space. ‘Mma Pelo O Jele Serati’ is a Setswana proverb about one who is immensely in love, and literally translates to “one who has eaten a lover”. The video series is this a subtly poetic narration of the many violent and delicate acts that are implicated in the performance of love, in all its forms.
What are you currently interested in exploring as an artist?
Yesterday, it was memory. A friend of mine and myself were seated in my lounge. I just moved in so I haven’t put up the curtains. Truthfully, that is actually not a valid excuse because it’s been two weeks now that it’s been sitting there, moving between the kitchen counter, the pile of moving boxes, the floor and my hands, but I just havent been interested enough yet to hang it. Anyway, since there were no curtains, I began thinking about the neighbours and how they could possibly see us seated there in the room lit by a dying candle because Eskom stays trash. That made me think about how remembering keeps a memory alive. That even if we forgot that moment – my friend and I – our neighbour, if they were interested enough to look in, would remember it and keep it alive. And if they forgot it, this section of the interview would keep it alive because it exists here.
I thought about these things that keep memories alive, forms of remembering such as documentation, objects, bruises, and if the reason we cannot let certain things go is that somewhere, something, remembers. Another friend of mine and I then spoke about trauma, how people who have been through a traumatic event develop multiple personality disorders. Imagine that, a trauma that consumes you so whole that the only way for you to not remember is, is for your body to forget you whole? In Mohale Mashigo’s The Yearning they speak about how the blood that flows behind our neck is the one which carries our memories and that one’s memory of an event can be made to be forgotten by draining a certain amount of that blood. I think about that lately, streams of memory, about phantom memories, what the body chooses to remember and what it chooses to let go. And speaking to you right now, I am thinking that I suppose that this also informs the conversations of inheritance which Mma Pelo O Jele Serati speaks about. Hmm.
What is interesting about it is that this intangible and fragile thing which is memory, actually has a materiality and site. I have this one persistent memory of my mother and I seated on this one Victorian couch in one of our early homes. Although she was near me, reading Sunday Press, I think, I began to immensely miss her, as though she had indefinitely gone somewhere. I do not forget that feeling. That abstract feeling of deep longing has a site – that house in Carltonville, and a materiality – that couch. And in those specifics, the texture of the feeling is woven. That is what I am thinking about currently, but I don’t know if I’m interested in exploring it yet.
Mma Pelo O Jele Serati is what I am currently, and for the next while, consumed by. It doesn’t feel exhausted. What I am interested in exploring is materialising the work into video installations. I am exploring video as an unnegotiable object in a space, one that dictates how one moves around it, the same way that love demands to be felt. As for how these two things – memory and the ongoing conversations of love – relate, I don’t know. Oh, and portraiture! Black portraiture in particular. I think about that a lot too. About certain objects that characterise the experience of a Black township home, and how these are portraits of Black people in a particular time. Currently, I am interested in domestic objects and spaces as a museum. I am currently exploring Mma Pelo O Jele Serati through portraiture. Though not the physical presence of someone through capturing their likeness, but portraiture as space, objects, time and zeitgeist. When asked for a portrait of myself, I can propose my glasses. They have imprinted themselves onto my face to such an extent that I look significantly different without them. This thing that, when removed, alters the appearance of something, is what the greatly informs their likeness. My glasses are a portrait of me, and I wonder if that is why my mother insists on keeping them all. I should ask her this. Anyway, that is what I am exploring.
What are your thoughts about the role of art in society today?
Yho. When one is not careful they can answer that in a manner that can almost monopolise the ideas of art and what it should do so it’s a bit of an intimidating question for me. I don’t know. Kara walker said that it’s for “figuring it out”, and I liked that.
I used to think that art is a social practice that should shift and define ideas and societies. That one should begin working from a desired point of impact. But I don’t think so anymore. I am outgrowing my preconceived ideas that art SHOULD and growing into art COULD. The former works on fixed ideas that continue to exclude, while the latter proposes opportunities for a spectrum, while also acknowledging those varieties. A friend of mine always reminds us that there are many art worlds, as many as there are artists, because that world starts from within, and that is so affirming. It makes me feel like I don’t have to conform my practice to any myopic ideas of what art is and should do.
So like, when Meret Oppenheimer made the fur cup she didn’t anticipate an object that will be read as one of the greatest works that would define surrealist sculpture. It was a random day where they went out to a café and Picasso simply commented on her fur bracelet, remarking that anything can be covered in fur, sparking her curiosity to see what a fur covered cup would look like. She was merely excited about the humorous collaboration and awkward sensation of drinking from a fur cup. It was about chasing an impulsive curiosity. How that became read as an object of eroticism and great surrealism, was the consequence of her figuring out a simple curiosity. And I like knowing that contrary to the institution’s demands, it is okay to make something merely because you’re interested in figuring out a few things. Art doesn’t have to be SOMETHING, and I spent a long time thinking that because I was institutionalized in a space where there was a final finite goal, which was an exam, and you had to present something and in that presentation know exactly what that thing is. But I am unlearning that, while also holding on to many things I learnt there because the past four years were of phenomenal experimentation and learning. But, art can just begin and end at curiosity.
So like now, I am just trying to figure out domestic objects as portraiture, we will see what happens from there on in my society. I can go into my studio with an attempt to shift rigid narratives around portraiture which I see a lot in our local art space. Though what if I can’t do that, even worse, end up perpetuating those same fixed ideas? Then I’m left feeling unaccomplished. I don’t like setting myself up for failure by intending to do things that don’t depend on me. I have a small heart and it breaks at the slightest disappointment and I’ve found that moving from a point of arrogance is setting myself up for self-inflicted disappointment.
Maybe my art will mean something to this society, or the next, maybe not, but I know that to me and my mother, it means whole lot working together on it. One can try to take on the mammoth task of serving a society only to be disregarded. I went to the Credo Mutwa Cultural Village this weekend and I was thinking about how that great man died, ostracized from the very society that he felt a great role to teach, emancipate and shift. There is a selfishness that should be maintained in making, make sure that the work that you make serves you first, because society is a very selfish organism. The role of art in one’s society should begin with serving the artist in whatever way (at which point that becomes arrogant can be debated) and then after, art can go on onto its great journey of taking on whatever the consequence of that self-servitude is. I don’t know, but for me, right now, the role of my art is merely to explore my curiosities. For me.
Who are some of the South African artists you admire?
You know that other artist with that interesting multidisciplinary social practice who paints portraits and had that one show about gyms and stuff, at that other gallery by Rosebank? Yah, that one. I think her name is Thenjiwe or something like that. Yeah, she’s cool and stuff. I really like her paintings. Haha. I’m kidding. But on a serious note though, Thenjiwe Nkosi, especially her solo Gymnasium at Stevenson last year. There are only a few shows that I am devastated to have missed, and that is one of them.
I think from the earliest engagements of humanity with art, we have been making portraits. Not necessarily drawing faces of each other, but capturing the likeness of someone. Portraiture as a song, as a film, as an object and as whatever form. Though because we do not experience people the same way, you will find various ideas and depictions of the same person as we are not these singular and fixed existences and there’s something about portraiture, especially in South Africa, that fixes an identity as opposed to offering it up as an alternative one. Thenjiwe’s Gymnasium is a series that I absolutely admire because I think it explores a space outside of that singularity of representation. The flattening of the details of those Black gymnasts enhances their very presence in the space. The attention is thus not the individual body, but the collective idea and representation of it. Those gymnasts could be any Black gymnast and because of how she has openly captured their form and undefined the individual character of their individual body, she allows for various identities and fantasies of identity to be projected onto them – any Black child can potentially see themselves reflected.
When having this conversation with a friend, where we were both swooning over the work, he mentioned that the work of representation is often merely visual but speaks towards nothing and with Thenji, her approach to representation has so much gravity. So much integrity man. So much that we can now no longer see black gymnasts without thinking of this work and that, that is how we cement ourselves into art history – by finding and working within a niche and doing justice to that narrative. I want to be a part of an art world that is interested in contributing towards art history and destabilizing the canon. And to see Thenjiwe, who practices in the same contemporary as me, in the same space, actually doing that, right before my very eyes, to be of witness to that just makes the dream feel so accessible and that world so tangible. See that, that is inspiring.
It also feels so personal, the series, especially as a fresh graduate who is just stepping into the art world, traversing vulnerability and visibility. I feel like the world is watching, waiting, anticipating that great double double and that is daunting. But then the series just feels like it’s taking my hand and saying, “Even if you don’t land on your feet, it is okay. We’ll try it again the next round,” because Gymnasium holds space for such consequences of a performance and for that, this is also an open statement of gratitude to her.
What are your plans for 2021?
You know, there is something about this question that makes me so nervous. It’s that thing of traversing vulnerability and visibility: I would hate to say all of the great plans I have for the year but then what happens when the year ends and I haven’t had a single exhibition, at the least? Then I’m going to anxiously feel like someone is reading this thinking about how much I haven’t accomplished when I had such big dreams. I do have big dreams, though I think that I want my plans to sit between my vision board, my heart and friends.
You know, I hate PDA. It makes me so nervous being romantically touched in public. I’m not socially anxious, but when PDA is introduced I just feel like everyone is staring and it’s so uncomfortable I just want to wither and die. And because one’s plans are such an intimate thing, I think publicly displaying them gives me a similar anxiety. But one plan for the year that I have been extremely open about, is being a very funny valentine. I have come to the conclusion that I am ready to be in a wholesome relationship. My plan for the year, well, God’s plan for me this year is a wholesome love. Yoh! Me I want to date, guys. It looks nice there by mjolo and I am tired of sbwling.
You know, there is something about desiring romantic love that has for the longest time made me feel ashamed, especially in the years of being a young adult. In some obscure manner, we have related the desire for romantic love as the absence of self-love and I really fail to understand how those two things are synonymous. Lately, when one is a hopeless romantic it is assumed that they were not given enough love growing up or that they are empty or all those things. I suppose it could be true for others but not me. My childhood was as tender as chicken from Bismillah and I have come into friendships that offer me just as much tenderness. It is because it has been so purely offered to me in abundance, that I can regognise it, and desire it in an alternative form. Being in love feels so good. Like warm honey pulsating through one’s veins. It’s so supple and I want that and I am tired of being ashamed of it.
When I express a desire for love, someone will tell me to focus on my career and myself, or that I shouldn’t depend on a guy. What? I don’t understand. People filter my romantic desires through their traumas and I begin to feel as though something is wrong with me for having those desires but now I can regognise that they aren’t actually talking to me. I refuse to have a life that is solely dedicated to myself and my career. For me, that’s only half a life. Also, my work is interested in love, well at least for now, so if anything, its for research purposes.
We bully women in the of obscure name of liberation. The word “conservative” has been used to shame women that still want things that have historically been used as a tool for oppressions, like culture, families and marriages. It’s great that women are prioritizing themselves and their careers and are having dogs instead of babies. Great. However, it is also okay that women want to also share their lives with people and this idea that self-love means that one is the only source of their nourishment is so false. It’s a lie. I would hate to come back from the greatest night of my career to an empty home. I am not built like that. My existence gravitates towards love, of all forms, and this year I want to be in a wholesome mjolo. One so sweet that I take him home for my mother to make him pudding.
Follow @a_funny_valentine on Instagram.
Grad Guide is an annual series from Between 10and5, profiling some of South Africa’s most exciting creative graduates across the fields of fashion, art, photography and design. Find the full 2020 Grad Guide here.