Supporters of the rise of home-brewed South African design in the early 2000s may experience a flashback when they encounter Siwa Mgoboza’s art. This is largely due to his extensive use of shweshwe in his collages, a printed cotton that was the go-to fabric during the Afro chic movement, when Western designers were intent on aligning their fashion with African aesthetics.
In the hands of the young Capetonian artist, Afro chic has been reinvented and transformed into a concept he calls Africadia. In some ways, it continues the essence of the sentiment that drove Afro chic in that his brightly collaged artworks are intended to evoke a utopian African condition, where identity is no longer defined along racial, class, religious or gender lines.
His collages are dense and complex, existing somewhere between figurative art and abstraction, and it is impossible to immediately identify the figures or settings in his work. ‘I am trying to represent a frantic state of being; there is no telling what is happening on what level. I want the viewer to be stressed. Is it fabric, is it a photograph?’ says Mgoboza.
He works mainly with textiles but also relies on photography to capture detailed installations that are realised with fabric cutouts in distinctive prints. At other times, Mgoboza is the central subject in the photographs, though carefully disguised in vibrant garb with his face obscured by a mask composed of elements of the prints. The backdrop? Shweshwe.
The idea of camouflage and assimilation is instrumental in Mgoboza’s art. Growing up in Peru and Poland, he was constantly confronted with identity issues and insider-outsider politics. When Mgoboza returned to South Africa in 2012 to study art at Michaelis School of Fine Art, he expected to be relieved of this burden, only to find himself negotiating questions around his racial and sexual identity. ‘I didn’t understand who I was,’ he says.
Making art propelled further introspection and eventually helped him find his feet in a racialised South Africa, with textiles proving an apt medium to articulate his ambiguous position but also his desire to belong. ‘If you wear a Scottish tartan, you feel part of something,’ he says.
Shweshwe is Mgoboza’s textile of choice thanks to its mixed and conflicted provenance. Designed by European settlers during the colonial era and produced by an Indonesian labour force before it reached South African shores, shweshwe was assimilated into African customs. The print represents a complicated and layered identity, and this heritage allows for a degree of transcendence from usual defined categories, suggests Mgoboza.
He first became aware of this at a family gathering when a group of women arrived dressed head to toe in the fabric. They were happy and confident, regardless of their status in society. Mgoboza explains that there has been a recent resurgence to assert identity, and shweshwe and the Africadia concept embody this nostalgia for a return to something that has been lost. ‘It reminded me of Adam and Eve; this raw, innocent state before everything got polluted. We’ve lost so much of ourselves. Everyone is trying to wear something that speaks about who they are,’ he says.
Mgoboza’s use of a print-evoking multiculturalism is reminiscent of the art of Yinka Shonibare, a British-Nigerian artist who has been applauded in Western art centres for his work with West African prints. This theme has struck a chord abroad – and has resulted in Mgoboza showing in New York and Toronto this year.
After the huge success of his first solo project, If Found Return to Africadia, at Whatiftheworld gallery in Cape Town last year, Mgoboza’s shweshwe collage version of Pablo Picasso’s Cubist painting, ‘Les Demoiselles d’Avignon’, is currently showing as part of the Women’s Work exhibition at the Iziko South African National Gallery. In it, he explores the way in which prints can reconfigure the body and imagines a subject of the future.
‘What kind of person would emerge when there are no longer any boundaries?’ Mgoboza asks – and it is this stirring question that sits at the front of one’s mind when viewing the inspiring artist’s work.