The interrogation of issues around identity and belonging are central to Malose Pete’s solo exhibition Art Language of my Forefathers. Currently on show at the North-West University (NWU) Gallery, the exhibition comprises paintings that use soil as a primary material. ‘The artworks are made from the soil that my grandmother used to create wall decorations and mix with cow dung to polish floors with when I was way younger. I took some of the techniques they used back then and fused them with the techniques I learned in my 10-year art career to create new and exciting presentations. Their art was mainly used to preserve the look and feel of homes while my art has been about interrogating identity issues and belonging. I believe the two themes come together very well especially in the current society where new blended communities emerge in urban spaces and identities are challenged; where belonging is also a broader term since connectivity has made the community a broader space,’ says Pete of the collection of works.
Born in Polokwane, Limpopo, Pete grew up in Ga-Mahoai. Following his formal art training at Tshwane University of Technology (TUT), he went on to exhibit in a number of shows including the Absa L’Atelier Art Competition (2011), the Sasol New Signatures Art Competition (2011), and the PPC Young Concrete Sculptors Awards (2012). In 2015, Pete began lecturing part time at The Fine and Applied Department of TUT, teaching sculpture and painting. Most recently, he has been on the Polokwane regional judging panel for the Sasol New Signatures national art competition (2018).
We spoke with the artist via email about his journey as an artist, balancing artistic practice with arts education, and the tactility and meaning of soil on canvas.
Let’s start by talking a bit about your history as an artist. You’ve been interested in art since your primary school years, when there were no art classes available to you, but you continued to draw and illustrate on your own, regardless. What inspired you to pursue art from such an early age?
I believe I was a quiet and reflective child. Whenever I would encounter something new or unfamiliar, I would spend a lot of quiet time thinking about it and its functions. During this time drawing would come in handy as a vessel to the depths of those thoughts. Eventually it became like a second language that I could conduct whenever I wished.
Had you not begun art when you did, do you think you still would have gravitated towards it later in life? Similarly, how formative were your years spent studying art at Tshwane University of Technology?
I think I would have most likely found another form of expression to channel myself through had I not met fine art when I did. Studying art at varsity level definitely contributed plenty to how the journey eventually turned out. Waking up to an art environment everyday for about four years would have an effect on a person even without intent, so you can imagine when it’s a conscious decision to go there to learn.
Tell us a bit about Art Language of my Forefathers. How long has this body of work been in the making?
The artworks span over two years. I started conceptualising and composing them after I moved to my studio space in Johannesburg. There was a detachment I felt being in the city I’ve been apprehensive about for years, so that yearn for home yielded those works.
Notions of identity and belonging are two of the things being interrogated by you through your work in this exhibition. How does the medium of painting lend itself to these themes?
Painting on canvas is a fairly new concept to my culture as far as my knowledge. It has always been perceived as an urban space presentation of what at home has been done directly onto walls and floors. My mixing of these two forms of applying home alterations is an attempt to challenge what belongs where. And thus also questioning cultural identities which I personally believe to some extent can be a hindrance to development.
In terms of material, you’re also working with soil in your paintings. How does this impact the process of painting for you? And how do you find it influences the outcome of a painted work?
Using soil takes me back home to Limpopo to when I was still very young and hadn’t met some of the challenges that comes with growing up that tends to dull one’s curious spirit in exchange for calculated, cautious decision making. Being in that state of mind I find there’s freedom to create honestly, and the works have their own authenticity.
In addition to your work as an artist, you’ve also worked in arts education. Do you tend to keep these two aspects of your career separate or do you find that they inform and supplement each other?
The two definitely feed into each other. Things I learn in my artistic career improves the well of knowledge I use to interact with the learners and most often than not learners tend to have fresh perspectives on the world that assist in how I present my ideas in my own artworks.
Lastly, where can our readers find more of your work?