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Curating the collective strength of women | A Q&A with Kholo Makgoka

Smile Artists Africa, in collaboration with the North-West University (NWU) Gallery are celebrating Women’s Month with a showcase of the Mantariana Mbokodo Musings (MMM) exhibition, held at the Potchefstroom Campus of NWU from 9 August – 17 September 2021.

A group exhibition featuring women artists who work with ‘non-traditional’ media, MMM presents a body of work that is ‘audacious, robust, and call(s) for us to stop and reflect, in conversation, on the issues affecting the modern South African woman.’

We spoke with Kholo Makgoka, Smile Artists Africa Project Manager, to find out more about the journey of curating the exhibition, some of the work on show, and what audiences can expect, both online and in the physical gallery space.

Mantariana Mbokodo Musing
Mantariana Mbokodo Musings installation view
Tell us a bit about the concept and the lead-up to the exhibition. How long has it been in the works?

The exhibition has been in the works since April 2021. It was very important for us to select artists that had powerful, bold voices and were not afraid to use them. The work of the five women featured in the exhibition is unique both in medium and technique. The venue for the exhibition (the botanical gardens gallery) was the first inspiration for the exhibition. We wanted a warm and intimate space but also one with a lot of character. The sculpture garden is engaging and soothing and the exhibition moves seamlessly between the hall and the garden. It was important for us that everyone who engaged with the exhibition found their own voice (especially women) and felt like an intricate part of the set up. Aesthetically, we wanted it to be beautiful, open, and freeing.

Can you talk us through the process of curating these five artists and their work?

When you are working with a group of women who are as confident and as comfortable in who they are and the work that they produce as these ones, curating a show like this becomes more of a journey with them than it is a curatorial task. They took the lead in developing work that is powerful and dynamic. It was however still our task to make sure the work told a cohesive and challenging story. This did not prove too difficult as all the artists had internalised this idea of Mantariana Mbokodo Musings, which resulted in a flow of work that was audacious, robust, and called for us to stop and reflect, in conversation, on the issues affecting the modern South African woman.

Mantariana Mbokodo Musing
Mantariana Mbokodo Musings artists
The artists in Mantariana Mbokodo Musings make use of ‘non-traditional media’. How do the artworks function alongside one another and what kind of conversation does this produce as an exhibition?

The exhibition consists of hair sculptures, fabric, and wire sculptures, a lot of work made of bull denim, yarn and thread. We also have a pyrotechnic artist who uses a soldering iron on wood and leather. All of the different mediums, techniques and artworks work alongside one another when it is encapsulated in this idea of Mantariana Mbokodo Musings. Mantariana celebrates individual, unique creativity while Mbokodo celebrates (without any reservation) the collective strength of women. The conversations we hope come out of this exhibition are, for example, around the current tension on the concept of ‘iMbokodo’ and where we lay that as a part of our history as women in South Africa and what the new narrative is about how we show up as more ourselves in the world. We also hope women will find their own unique, bold voices, just like these artists, to be able to navigate a world that isn’t always kind to the female species.

Mantariana Mbokodo Musing
Mantariana Mbokodo Musings installation view
The exhibition is hosted in the NWU Botanical gallery. Does this venue influence the way in which the work is experienced and engaged with at all?

As mentioned above, the setting of the exhibition was truly one of the cornerstones of what the final product of this exhibition is. The garden is tranquil and lends itself to the ‘Musings’ part of this exhibition. ‘Musing’ (noun) is period of reflection or thought. We hope that the setting helps in furthering our belief that after one has engaged with the exhibition, one ought to take a moment to pause and reflect on those conversations that are revealed through the work and the concepts that have been highlighted by the exhibition. And that in the beauty of art, all individuals will walk away from the exhibition with their own unique experience and a murmur in their hearts that forms the basis of their new thoughts and ideologies.

Mantariana Mbokodo Musing
Mantariana Mbokodo Musings installation view
Mantariana Mbokodo Musings is available to view in person and online as a 3D virtual exhibition, something that the NWU gallery has been doing for some time now. What has engagement been like in this regard? Is anything lost or gained in the virtual format?

The 3D exhibitions are an amazing concept, and just in time, by NWU. Due to Covid-19 restrictions, we cannot have large groups of people coming onto the campus to view the exhibition, but we can definitely have hundreds and thousands of people logging on to the 3D site to enjoy the exhibition in their own time and space and as many times as they would like. That’s super exciting! It has expanded our reach beyond what exhibitions were able to do before and people, not just in South Africa, can be part of this experience and buy the work they are interested in. I do not see any downsides to it. The online exhibitions are in 3D, so it really does feel like you are right there. It is also interactive; you are able to engage with the labels of the work and also the QR codes on the walls. We have had a great response to the 3D exhibitions since the launch on 9 August. The link can be found on the NWU Gallery website and on Instagram.

To view the exhibition in person, prior arrangement will need to be made with the university and certain risk assessments undertaken before access is granted.

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