art, decor

an interview with Khanyisile Mbongwa

Jac de Villiers


Khanyisile Mbongwa is a Cape Town based artist, curator and the executive producer of the Handspring Trust for Puppetry Arts. She is passionate about sharing her talents - investing in emerging artists and facilitating collaborations that will help young creatives to establish themselves in the industry. Mbongwa has exhibited all over the world including in Berlin, Hamburg and New York. Amongst a number of other accolades, she won the Africa Centre - Artist in Residency Laureate in 2014 and took up residency at JIWAR in Spain in 2015.

In our November 2016 issue of House and Leisure magazine, we asked this inspiring creative a few questions about her life and her work. We continue this interview online:

Can you tell us a little bit about your own history – what drew you to art and how has that evolved?

My grandmother loved gardening, and when I was young we used to look after all the plant life in the house, and we had a wall-creeper. That plant needed a lot of attention, and we had a food garden in our backyard. My mother was a seamstress, and was known for her very peculiar fashion sense and designs. Every Christmas she would make me something special (all the kids would laugh at me by the way - nothing about me was fashionable at that time, lol). My uncle was a mechanic and inventor, I used to help him fix cars – passing him the tools and such. He once took apart his motorcycle and VW Beetle, creating a hybrid vehicle that used paraffin as fuel (that old thing is still in my backyard). I guess these were my immediate influences - the paying attention to detail, the designing, the making, the fixing, etc. My grandmother got me to start writing from a very young age, asking me to describe my immediate environment and how I felt (so I have a lot of childhood diaries). Poetry, that’s where my journey began – for the longest time I was recognised as a poet. Then a performance artist, performative installation artist, curator. In this journey, I have been part of important art collectives and projects: one of the founding members of Gugulective, Urban Scapes at Stellenbosch University while I was a student there, and one of the founding members of Vasiki Creative Citizens.

You grew up in Gugulethu. How has a sense of place and home influenced the work that you do?

Yes. Your geographical location moves with you both as physical marking and metaphorical reference. For instance, when someone says ‘you are so ghetto,’ I think the ghettorizing of the black body is to lock it in its place of birth and want it to stay there not only physically but also imaginatively. But as I am becoming and being, I tend to think of place and home in much more nuanced ways – as in home is my body, that my body is the only home I truly know. As a black female, black queer, growing up in South African townships the words ‘place’ and ‘home’ are far more complex – when we speak of place, we are speaking of citizenship and when we speak of home, we are speaking of a place one can trace their lineage and history from. And with a history of dispossession and a contemporary reality of landlessness, place and home outside my body is something I am figuring out. My work thus comes from this ‘figuring out’ – of thinking through the place I call home eGugs, and searching for a revolution in it that is emancipatory in practice. But home is the people I grew up with, at the place we found ourselves in – the memory of that is home.

On a global stage, ‘African’ art is hugely popular, and many young artists from all over Africa have a lot to say, especially about class, race, gender and sexuality. Why do you think this is really only recently more palatable in a Western market?

I don’t remember a time in art history where art from Africa was not hugely popular. The difference now I think is that ‘African’ artists have global access where they get to hear, see and know about their work not just as cultural artefacts or as unknown African art like in previous decades. Unlike during colonial times when African art was simply taken or stolen, now it's been bought. But coming to think of it - it is very bizarre that there is talk of 'Africa’s time' or 'Africa’s time has arrived,' when the world is anti-black.

Do you think that contemporary art is changing and effectively challenging Western/European/white perspectives of black bodies and all of the complexities of race and gender?

The shift has been happening steadily. One of the most important ones is the introduction of a narrative where black bodies are not only seen through violence or violation - where black female bodies are not being dragged across the floor - where blackness is not only seen through narratives of pain or enslavement. This perspective is showing our bodies not dying – that our bodies are not sites of violence and pain – that our bodies are not the sum total of one thing – that our bodies can imagine – that our bodies have transcended transcendence itself. That tracing ourselves does not begin with colonialism and slavery – that before that era, we have a story and we are locating it. We are definitely taking the conversation further from where our foremothers left it. I think more and more people are realising that the revolution is black, female and queer.

What do you love about curating and how did you get started in this space?

Tracing narratives and making connections - making sense of the artworks and the conversation that different works are having with each other. Working with space in an imaginative and physical sense. The tensions that happen between my own ideas and how an exhibition, series of performances or public interventions reaches its destination. Also the mundane background work, the administration that prepares one for the project itself. Engaging with different artists, their work and theories – all of this grows me and my own perspectives. The unlearning, relearning and learning involved in the process of curating. And what got me started in curating – is curiosity, I always find myself curious about something - curious enough to turn it into a curatorial project.

What advice would you give to someone looking to start his/her first collection?

Buy what you like. Buy young artists who are independent and upcoming. Search for artists beyond the gallery radar.

What are you working on through the end of 2016 and into 2017?

I am busy with my Masters in Performance Art, Public Art and Public Sphere with the Institute of Creative Arts UCT.

I work with Handspring Trust as their Executive Producer. This year as our 7th year in Barrydale, in collaboration with the Centre of Humanities Research UWC and Net Vir Pret, we are producing our annual puppetry parade and play. This year it is titled Olifantland. Our productions are centred on issues of reconciliation.

I’m participating at a conference in Ghent University in Belgium - Re/moving Apartheid.

I’m part of an Open-Stellenbosch residency.

Curating a series of public interventions ekasi next year with music band Urban Village.

Read the rest of this interview in our November 2016 issue.