Katlego Tlabela: ‘I see how history repeats itself’

rememberKatlego Tlabela, ‘Remembering Remember’, 2014, Collage. Image courtesy the artist.

Katlego Tlabela is a student at the Michaelis School of Fine Art (University of Cape Town) and an emerging South African artist. I first encountered Tlabela’s work on Twitter and via his Tumblr. ‘Writing in Relation’ – as a blog/research platform – is interested not only in the work of more established artists but also those who (at the very beginnings of their practice) demonstrate strong commitment and creative/critical engagement.

Yvette Greslé: Your work is interesting to me because it re-visits the question of art and the political in South Africa. Printmaking is a very important thread within this history. You represent a new generation of South African artists, a generation just emerging: you are a third year undergraduate student at the Michaelis School of Fine Art, Cape Town. I am interested in your commitment, as a young artist, to current political crises and events in South Africa, notably Marikana. What is the impetus for your interest in printmaking as a medium; and your related emphasis on the political?

Katz Tlabela: I changed majors from Painting to Printmaking in the middle of my second year at Michaelis because I didn’t see myself as a painter anymore. I felt strongly that I had to find the right major for me, and I wanted one that would also allow me to continue drawing. Printmaking also allows me to explore other mediums.

I have always enjoyed making detailed and ambiguous images, especially drawings. During high school and university I became very aware of the history of printmaking in South Africa, as a form of protest and resistance. I see how history repeats itself, and in thinking about this, am interested in work by artists such as Thami Mnyele (the screenprinted protest posters); Brett Murray (his satirical posters) and Kudzanai Chiurai’s ‘Cabinet’ series.

The emphasis on political issues is something I began thinking about recently. In December 2013 I went back to my old work (from high school) and found a charcoal drawing which included then ANCYL president Julius Malema and the late AWB leader Eugene Terreblanche. I put Malema and Terreblanche together in this image. I also found one of the first collages I made of the 1976 June 16 protest. My interest in political themes and events are also influenced by my father who served in the struggle against apartheid and is still politically active. My parents play a vital role in my work as an artist, and my relationship to politics. I continuously interrogate these relationships and personal histories.

YG: Your work is so clearly located within narratives about memory and history in South Africa.

KT: I did not take history as a subject in high school and so my exploration of South African history (beyond prior knowledge) is relatively new. Previously, I’d only scratch the surface of a topic or event but now I am really engaging with the subject matter. It has become more and more exciting and depressing at the same time.  With regards to memory: before attempting a work I try to locate the beginnings of an idea first. This could be via a number of things: a place I have visited (or remember vaguely); found objects; notes in my books and sketchbooks (and in and around the studio); the collection of images on my phone; a newspaper article. Sometimes the impetus for a work comes from personal childhood memories, which are recurring topics in conversations with most of my friends.

I have become very interested in the work of Michaelis graduate Mohau Modisakeng (whose work revolves around memory and violence in South Africa); Willem Boschoff’s text-based monuments and objects; Sue Williamson’s earlier prints; and Kendell Geers’ installations. Sometimes I list the artists as references and attempt to marry processes and themes. Sometimes I don’t look at any other artists. It all depends on what type of project I’m working on. Sam Nhlengethwa’s ‘Sharpeville Massacre’ photomontage was the work that visually informed the two drawings from ‘Remember’. The Sharpeville massacre has been compared to the Marikana massacre.

The Plaasmoorde drawing for ‘Remember II’ was informed by my visual memory of the monument, which I always wondered about when driving, with my parents, to Limpopo (my parents’ and grandparents’ home). It is located opposite the N1 between Polokwane and Mokopane. I remember asking my father about the iron cross-filled hill but I later had to do my own research.

‘Remember I’ and ‘Remember II’ speak of different events. But both events can be viewed as monuments where memories of state violence, labour-related violence, amputation, poaching and police brutality are evoked. Both works explore personal memory and collective memory.

wonderkop marikana remember

Katlego Tlabela, ‘Remember I’, 2013. Photocopy transfer, Lithographic wax crayon and chalk on Cape Linerboard with suspended hand engraved stainless steel panga/machete. Image courtesy the artist.

Tell me about the installation ‘Remember I’ (2013). It is an installation composed of two large-scale works, in the middle of which is a found object: a panga. You inscribed the word ‘Remember’ on the blade (unfortunately it was stolen during your exhibition of the work).  The panga is repeated in the images themselves: visually male figures, pangas and weapons (of various kinds) are placed in visual relationships to one another. Imagery recalls organised mass protest (central to South African political life). I see references to the police, and histories of state intervention. The imagery you deploy recalls violence; and you focus in on very particular symbols which speak directly to historical and current political events in South Africa. The work is framed by your images of figures and objects: the centre of the piece is empty, a blank space.

‘Remember I’ was the most difficult project of my second year. We were asked to look at themes to do with the human, the animal, and nature. The project first took the form of a poster (‘Remember Marikana’, 2014). This documented objects used in the Marikana strike and massacre: silhouettes of a sjambok, knobkerrie and a panga and a detailed drawing of a R-4 rifle. I wasn’t happy with the poster and so my lecturers urged me to draw. I began exploring new processes and began to look at a photocopy transfer technique. This was the technical starting point for the large scale drawings.

The diptych speaks of two different events, primarily Marikana and also Rhino poachings: in both the panga is the catalyst. The panga played a vital role in this work because it informed both drawings in the installation. It also has a dual function: humans used the panga as a protest tool, which was seen as a weapon by the police. The panga is also used on humans in a brutal animal manner (for example, in Zimbabwe where civilians are asked if they ‘want long sleeve or short sleeve’ before having their arms accordingly amputated). Humans also use the panga on the rhino, for its horn (in a very brutal manner). The panga also has personal memories attached to it: I remember how my grandparents used it for clearing dead crops and chopping down sugar cane or corn. The panga also claimed the life of my late friend in 2011.

The images used for the drawings were all sourced from Google. I printed anything and everything I found applicable from the search results. In the Rhino Poaching drawing (on the left hand side of the installation) there are images of poachers being arrested, posing with rifles, hovering helicopters, rhino horns from police evidence, severed and or decaying rhinos etc. This drawing attempted to focus on the process and aftermath of rhino poaching. In the Marikana drawing (on the right hand side), I included images of SAPS inyalas (Armoured vehicles); police overlooking the situation before the massacre; strikers en route and on top of Wonderkop; close ups of the protest tools; rhino horns and the late Mgcineni ‘Mambush’ Noki, the strike leader, licking his spear and the current EFF Commander in Chief Julius Malema addressing striking miners. The Marikana drawing was an attempt to show the moments before the massacre.

The photocopy transfer’s outcome was unpredictable, some of the images were either too light or too dark. This resulted in me working into the tones with chalk and lithography crayons.

‘Remember’ has no correct nor fixed orientation. Because of this the viewer either reads it as a narrative, or as a disfigured collage of events and random images. The space is left blank for the viewer to reflect on both events.

I bought a stainless panga from a hardware store, spray painted it black and engraved the word ‘Remember’ with an etching needle. The panga was stolen after the exhibition. I have made a ‘memory-work’ of that panga in the form of a collage (‘Remembering Remember’, 2014). Natasha Norman suggested that I do this: she was one of the lecturers for the ‘Remember’ project. The collage consists of a cut-out ‘ghost’ of the suspended panga which was then replaced by a craft knife. I use this craft knife almost everyday and it has appeared in earlier drawings. I am currently working on a series of etchings based on that collage.

On your Tumblr,  and in your work, the relationship between art and race recurs. It is the theme of ‘Multi-racial, Multi-disciplinary, Multi-cultural’ (2013). You also posted a text with a line through it recently (on Twitter and on your Tumblr): ‘Unless the black artist establishes a “black aesthetic” he will have no future at all’. This work (both completed pieces and process work) is critical from the perspective of thinking about race and the art world in South Africa but also internationally.

The work ‘Multi-racial, Multi-disciplinary, Multicultural’ was completed in the first semester of my second year at Michaelis. It was informed by various texts, conversations and readings. For example: After being asked about my selection for majors at Michaelis, a lecturer mentioned that the school needed more black painters. At first I celebrated the statement. But then I became confused and infuriated about it. I didn’t understand why race had to be a factor. In a History of Art lecture we learned about South African artist John Mohl and how people expected him to depict township scenes instead of landscapes. I also came across an interview with Michaelis graduate Nandipha Mntambo in a book called Positions: Contemporary Artists in South Africa.She recalled how her blackness was read into her work and in how she has been critically positioned. When discussing how her work and her blackness has been compartmentalized Mntambo said that she ‘just happens to be black’. Her words strongly resonate with me and this was a key text for me during the course of making the work.

I needed a way to interrogate all these anecdotes, and so the work ‘Multi-racial, Multi-disciplinary, Multicultural’  took the form of a manifesto which detailed what black artists should be and what they should produce.

4 works race art

Katlego Tlabela, ‘Multi-racial, Multi-disciplinary, Multicultural’, 2013, Mixed-media on Linocut prints, PVA paint, ink and spray paint. This work was selected for Sasol New Signatures, 2013. Image courtesy the artist.

This interview is an edited version of email conversations with Katlego Tlabela in 2014.

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