ART AFRICA spoke with recent merit award winner at the 2014 Sasol New Signatures Arts competition, Bongani Khanyile. Khanyile, 24, from Nkandla in KwaZulu-Natal impressed the judges with his submission Helmets, which challenges the general conventional gaze on manual labourers who in South Africa are always perceived as subjects of labour.
ART AFRICA: Your work was selected from over 500 entries to last year’s Sasol New Signatures Art Competition and received a merit award along with R10 000 prize money. Congratulations on this achievement! How has this experience affected your career as an emerging artist?
Bongani Khanyile: When I was announced as a merit award winner I was so delighted and touched, especially considering the number of amazing works submitted in the competition. When I saw the exhibition of the top 100 finalists I couldn’t quite believe that I had made it in!
The talent in the finalists’ exhibition was exceptional – aesthetically, conceptually and technically. The award has afforded me with multiple opportunities, both in the media and in the art industry itself.
When I visit or approach galleries I do not need to explain my work endlessly because they already know who I am. I have been approached to participate in a number of projects, including exhibiting alongside some well-known South African artists, which is incredibly exciting. It really has been an inspiring time in my career.
You had entered the competition three times previously, and it was only on your fourth attempt that you made it through to the Top 100. What advice would you give to other young artists entering the Sasol New Signatures Art Competition, or similar art competitions?
Art competitions are challenging and force you to be highly innovative in the execution of visual ideas, being it in the form of drawing, painting, sculpture, printmaking, installation or film. As you mentioned, I have entered Sasol New Signatures several times and at first I was especially drawn to the prize money – but I’ve since learnt that it is not all about the money and that shouldn’t be the only attraction to a competition like this.
I realised that the central strength of making it through to the final stages of the competition is making sure that your work is unique in both its conceptual and technical aspects. The judges for Sasol New Signatures are always keen on seeing work that has social relevance and addresses the issues of contemporary society in an intelligible manner, the kind of work that might lead us towards progression, healing, awareness and appreciation. I also believe that innovation is very important to the judges when it comes to art competitions like these.
Please tell us a bit more about your submission, Helmets.
Helmets was inspired by my interest in found objects, or rather the use of found objects in my work. I believe that using discarded, ordinary materials that my audience can relate to is an easy way to engage and involve the audience in the work automatically. Helmets is basically an expression of individualism.
The fact that they are rendered differently, each with its own illustration or depiction, aims to challenge the general conventional gaze on manual labourers who, in South Africa, are always perceived as subjects of labour. The helmets themselves were elevated from plastic objects to ceramic ones to give them an unfamiliar presence that situates them on a more superior level. The work comments on the generalisation of workers and celebrates the various goals, aspirations, tastes, and worldviews that exist within individuals of the working class. Generally, a helmet is protective gear for the head; I used the helmet as a metaphor to protect the labourer’s dignity from conventional gazes or stereotypical labelling.
What informs your choice of materials? Do you believe that experimenting with new and unconventional materials is important?
Yes, I believe that unfamiliar materials are important when it comes to the production of art; I don’t think that art should be limited to traditional mediums only. My central aim is to offer an innovative visual solution for narrating an ordinary social issue. My choices include ceramics, steel and found objects. This is informed by my mode of operation in mixing materials that aren’t usually combined. I enjoy both an industrial and a naturalistic aesthetic in my work. The idea or the narrative I seek to express informs my choice of materials.
In Helmets, for example, the subject matter was informed by an engagement with working class issues and the use of clay is informed by the properties of the medium itself; clay is a natural material that can be stiff, sticky or fine-grained, it comes from the earth and can be moulded when wet but dries hard and can be baked to make bricks, pottery, and ceramics.
Please tell us a bit about your upcoming projects – what should we be looking out for from you in the near future?
I am currently working on a new project titled ‘Playing Among the Gloom,’ my first proposed solo exhibition. ‘Playing Among the Gloom’ expresses the context in which my work seeks to engage, resonating around issues of power, class and economic difficulties, which remain the gloomiest issues that South Africans continue to face in both rural and urban spaces.
The aim of the exhibition is to bring awareness to South African issues of class, economic inequality and the social strife of our daily living. I believe that it is important to open these discourses to the public. The purpose is to share my own visual research drawn from daily experiences, reflecting on how it can contribute to enhancing and motivating aspirations in society after 20 years of democracy in South Africa.
I have contributed to several discourses where the issues of power, class and economic disparity were expressed in a communal voice and I would like to share with the public my take on the issues through my own personal work. The exhibition will consist of works ranging from ceramic sculptures, drawings and paintings.
From my personal experience, I have been able to discover a career despite encountering a number of social and economic constraints. There are multiple individuals whose goals and aspirations are crippled by such constraints, whom I hope will gain confidence from my work. I believe that my role as an artist is to offer a solution, to make a problem less challenging through finding creative solutions.
As an emerging artist in Africa, how would you say we could further promote the work of young creatives like yourself in the country/on the continent to a global audience?
Publishing about and reviewing the exhibitions of emerging artists is a great way of promoting young creatives – ARTsouthAFRICA can be a wonderful platform.