Two key events in the history of South Africa converge in Mondli Augustine Mbhele’s winning artwork for the 2022 Sasol New Signatures Art Competition. The Durban-based artist references the Sharpeville massacre of 1960 and the 2020 protests around COVID-19 lockdown restrictions in Iphasi nesiphesheli, a work forming part of a series of vivid, fabric collages, Umlando uyaziphinda (‘history repeats itself’).
Following the announcement of Mbhele as the competition’s overall winner, we spoke with the artist to find out more about his artistic inspirations, ways of working, and the rich narrative quality of fabric offcuts, his primary material.
Congratulations on being announced as the overall winner of the Sasol New Signatures Competition 2022. Tell us a little about your artistic journey up until the point of entering Sasol New Signatures 2022.
I have been working for six years with a collective of young Durban-based artists that promotes hard work and solidarity amongst fellow artists – the Amasosha Art Movement. During COVID-19, I built my studio at home in Cato Manor. I have been working in my studio, creating a body of work because, as a full-time practising artist, it is a must for me to create.
Who has had the biggest influence on your career as an artist to date?
Artists Wander Mbambo, Mthobisi Maphumulo and Sbonelo Tau Luthuli.
Tell us a little about why you created the piece you submitted.
This work submitted is inspired by South African historical events that share ideas with events that have happened since 28 years of democracy in South Africa. This artwork was inspired by Sharpeville’s 21 March 1960 Anti-pass law event and the 2020 COVID-19 laws regarding vaccination cards and face masks. I saw that both of these share the same ideas in terms of accessibility.
Tell us about your preferred medium and why you work with it.
I use fabric collage as my medium of expression, because I am inspired by how fabric can be used in creating garments for different groups and ages of people. I also realised similarities that fabric shares with our daily life events in the perspective of covering our bodies and boosting or elevating our confidence to be able to face a new day and also as a symbol of recognition or direction. For example, the uniforms of doctors, police or cleaners.
In my work, I also use offcuts that I collect from fashion designers around Durban. While collecting these offcuts, I realised that fabrics have a gradation of value, worth and quality. But when those offcuts of fabric are thrown away, they share the same state of being vulnerable. I recycle those offcuts and create a new dialogue that will get a chance to be appreciated and have a sense of their own purpose and voice.
When people view your work, what reaction/response are you hoping to create?
Most people are amazed by my work. Many of them think it is a painting until they get close to my artworks, and then they have a different perspective when they realise it is a fabric collage. Their positive responses always drive me to create more. The reaction I always hope for is to create work that will have depth and resonates both technically and conceptually.
What are you currently working on? What is next for you as an artist?
I am continuing work on my 13 works for Umlando uyaziphinda. Some works are finished, and some works in progress. My next step as an artist is to be able to create new connections with national and international galleries through art competitions, art fairs and art residencies.
Which South African artists do you admire and why?
George Pemba (1912 – 2001) because of his subject matter including portrait paintings of individual and groups, landscape, references to religious topics and commentary on political and social circumstances, and also the way he concentrated on portraying the people and their lives in new Brighton where he spent most of his life.