Other than your prodigious drawing skills, what made you pursue a career as an artist? How has your perspective of yourself as artist changed over the time you have been practicing?
I won a painting competition when I was 17 and because of that a lot of people said I should study art and I thought, “Sure, why not? That’s not a bad idea.” I originally wanted to become a forensic anthropologist. Now I spend my free time watching crime documentaries on Netflix.
I was filled with self-doubt while I was studying. Actually I still am, but now I have a strong belief that being an artist is part of my destiny and that fate has brought me here. When I started studying art I didn’t really understand what it meant to be a professional artist. Today I understand the importance of creating cultural artefacts. I feel proud to be making history in the present because that for me is the definition of what artists do: they are makers and preservers of history.
Your practice is multi-pronged, with aspects of drawing, printmaking, video and performance, and a recent addition of stand-up comedy. How do they all come together for you?
If I’m meant to be making prints I’ll be thinking about the next thing to draw and if I’m drawing, I’ll be eager to put together a performance because I got a strong urge to poke fun at someone. I just don’t know how to hold a thought. I can tell a good story – I just take a while to get to the point because of all the detours I take. So when I’m creating, what you see are detours – I go off on a tangent in the form of drawing, videos and even comics. Ideas are always coming and going in my head and they demand to take on the forms that I have used so far. In this case, having a wandering mind hasn’t turned out to be a bad thing.
What is the role of laughter in your work? And how does the satire of your performative persona connect with your printmaking practice?
The laughter you see in my work comes from having made a decision long ago to be tickled by my art. Laughter first came into my work after some very good advice I received in my first year of studies from my favourite painting lecturer, Justin Brett. He explained that I could make work about cupcakes and use colour and enjoy the process while I’m at it and still be able to tell my story if I wish. That really freed me because until then I thought expression was only honest if it was angry or had a hint of hurt.
My performative persona, Priscilla Ndlovu, was born out of a need to say things about the art scene that might not be palatable especially coming from a black woman. It’s easier to forgive bad art than it is to forgive people.
But making prints is as much a performance as me standing in front of a camera lens and singing. The entire making of a print is a work in and of itself so from the moment you carve your line into the lino block you have started performing. Performance also requires planning and rehearsal no matter how silly the video may appear to be. I allow mistakes to be part of the final video works that I present and it is the same in printmaking.
What has been your most successful experiment in print, and what your most bizarre?
My most successful and bizarre experiment started with a hilarious and quite vulgar idiom my great grandmother used to express a threat towards my cousin who had obviously finally gotten on her nerves. The expression in Setswana is “o tla nyela boboa o sa ja tlakwane”. The literal translation is, “I will make you shit fur irrespective of whether you have eaten sheep/cow hooves or not.” In other words, don’t mess with me. It made me think of language and culture and how cultures influence language. In my culture, when an animal is slaughtered no part is left unused. So the feet are eaten too but the hairs must be shaved off before cooking. There is a method in doing this and that’s where my investigation for making an artwork began. I bought some sheep hooves to clean and cook myself but I failed dismally. The journey from there was arduous, but eventually I struck an idea: I made prints with fine lines carved into lino that were as short as the hair on the hoof. I printed them in ‘pretty” colours to attract the viewer to a work of art about an African delicacy that most might not find delicious.
As a black female artist, representation is an important part of your practice on many levels. Can you unpack that a bit for us?
I live and breathe representation. From about the age of 8, I was really into making comic book stories. But the comics I was introduced to were Archie comics, and that became my visual reference as a child. So that meant that all my comic characters were white. I didn’t see myself in Archie and therefore didn’t see a need really to insert myself. When I got to Cape Town I stopped making comics for a while, and it was when I was in my 4th year that I decided to revisit my old hobby and I couldn’t put pen to paper. It only hit me then that I wasn’t drawing characters that looked like me or that I could relate to. All my comics were dramas about white people. I felt sad for myself when I saw this and I started drawing myself as I was. In my videos I take full control of how I want to be represented.
Tell us a bit about your relationship with abstraction…
I imagine myself being a student in Rorke’s Drift in 1975 and being taught printmaking and going against every expected artistic move and choice: starting with not making a picture and then using colour and then making art not as a means of survival, but of expression. This is not to say that amazing artists like Azaria Mbatha and Cyprian Shilakoe didn’t have any kind of authority or freedom of expression, but where was the one artist in that class who didn’t follow the status quo? I imagine that it would be me. Abstraction is me making work in print that goes against what I, as a black female artist, am expected to make.
What does it mean to be politically aware in the current climate – political, economic, cultural?
Just don’t be an asshole at a time when it is very important to think before you speak and consider your actions with care. Be aware of what it means to be who you are today in this world.