With AiW Guests: Dolla Sapeta and Madoda Honi.
AiW note: A few weeks ago, Africa in Words published the first of our pioneering posts promoting the work of the New Brighton Art School. We sat down with Dolla Sapeta, its founder, to discuss his own art and his hopes for the Centre. We now are following this first installment with interviews with up and coming local artists who have been working with Dolla at the art school.
Our second installment in our New Brighton Art School interview series, with artist Khaya Gqomo, was published back in May. Now, despite further lockdowns, political unrest in South Africa, and – on a more positive note – a series of exhibitions and events, we are finally able to bring you the third interview.
Up and coming artist Bethwell Madoda Honi sat down with Dolla Sapeta and Tom Penfold to discuss his participation and the many and varied influences that are helping him define his work.
A young artist from New Brighton, Madoda began his art training at an early age under the close tutelage of Mxolisi Dolla Sapeta, Mkhonto Gwazela and Zukile Valisa. His work has been exhibited across the Eastern Cape, including collaborations with Mkhonto Gwazela and Zukile Valisa, and with Mxolisi Dolla Sapeta and the singer Nomabhotwe Mthimkhulu. In 2019, Honi participated in the Promotion of Art Education Program (PAEP) in surrounding schools of New Brighton with Mxolisi Dolla Sapeta. Honi’s work aims to reflect the movement and cultures amongst the youth living in and around South African cities.
Tom Penfold for AiW: It’s good to be able to speak with you Madoda. Can I start by asking how you first got to know Dolla and how he has helped you so far?
My home is a few blocks from Dolla’s house, I literally grew up under his shadow. By saying ‘under his shadow’ I mean me having been an artistically challenged kid with him just living down the block, being an artist. So there was that in the unforeseeable future — him being an artist and me watching him as a kid he couldn’t notice.
And in the foreseeable future, as I was growing older, we started mixing in crowds, at exhibition openings – sharing cigarettes, jokes and free wine – or in some inclusive public art projects, sharing ideas and points of view. He started noticing me and shared some technical advice. He offered me materials like paper to draw on, maybe some pastels and pencils, and talked about medium preferences, their capacities.
In 2016 he came to ask my mother’s permission that I look after his house while he was studying at the University of Rhodes for a year. That was the most exciting thing to have happened in terms of my growing up as a person and as an artist. But I must also say that it was equally overwhelming, to a point that I suffered a lot trying to find my voice afterwards. In Dolla’s house I was surrounded by his finished and unfinished works, always staring at me. And it is such a small house cluttered with a lot of art and his work.
When he came back from the University we started working closer. I had already started painting on canvas by then and he became highly critical of me painting like him — he urged me to find my own voice. And he did not say this in a nice way; rather, when he started criticising me it felt sarcastic and it hurt to a point that I decided to stay away from him for a while.
Tom Penfold: Did you stay away until you became aware of the art school or had you started working together again before?
I came back after I discovered my new found style and felt it was worth showing to Dolla, or anyone else for that matter. At least, the style had got to the point that it needed some constant critique in order for me to take it further.
By the time I went to him he had already started the art school initiative. And of course I was not aware of it then because Dolla keeps the art school in some kind of underground and anti-establishment level as much as he can. He insists we don’t post all our humble attempts on social-media platforms unless we really have to, but rather advises that we record the creative developments for our own benefit alone. At first, this felt like he was depriving us of the attention that would give us the motivation we need in order to keep going. Other guys our age are doing it and they get all the “likes” — we also would love to take these landslides home, more especially during these bleak times of lockdown and the pandemic when there are no exhibition openings in art galleries for us to receive that direct critique or attention from audiences to lift us toward the top of pedestals to shine from.
But then, from observation, building up work in the quiet manner that Dolla proposed we should work from, and looking back at how uncomfortable we are about certain pieces we just did in the past three months, it is understandable that it is the learning and creative process that’s the actual pedestal that calls for our constant attention in the absence of audiences, and that we in the mentorship can be that audience towards our own growth.
Tom Penfold: What has working together involved?
In most part, working with Dolla involves a relationship that centres in differences, hope, consciousness and insisting on art-making every day and finally interpreting life as a working journey; more especially in a place like New Brighton in Gqeberha where there is nothing happening among the youths except for the obvious — teen pregnancies, drug and alcohol abuse and petty crimes. Given the fact that this is the poorest province in a country that is constantly colliding with poverty of the highest order under the unforgiving gaze of corruption, you cannot really blame the people. But these are the challenges that inspire us in the mentorship to collaborate and initiate art projects that seek to interpret all of the above, all the time; me learning from Dolla since he is much older and more experienced in art-making. On the other hand, the working together also involves him listening and seeking my advice on his work because, in New Brighton, visual artists are a rare species — it is mostly musicians, dancers and actors.
Dolla has given us his studio to work from and he tries to support our everyday engagements by making sure we get what we need to go forward.
And as for the art education promotion, I think I was there from the initial stages. I know he started teaching in schools before we collaborated, but we later started going to schools together after he settled back here in 2017.
I know he mentored a lot of other young artists from around before me but with regards to the New Brighton Art School I would like to say I was among his first mentees. Now we have become an independent force, working together with the other mentees he has in the art school — for instance guys like Phumlile Rawana and Khaya Gqomo who have become embedded in the program. Dolla comes and works with us on the collaborations we sometimes do together and he comes in once in a while to give us criticism on the progress of our individual portfolios.
But he lets us have the space to ourselves mostly. This freedom allows us to discover ourselves and in a place like Gqeberha where the cow licks dry, hot, rusty corrugated iron in broad daylight and where there is no tangible center for artists to exchange or socialise, it feels sacred to be involved in this art mentorship – it is some something to look forward to every day.
Tom Penfold: How do you get on with the other guys on the programme? Have they helped your work?
It was definitely strange in the beginning, I was used to working on my own in my backroom, except when involved in public art projects where I would work with other artists on a temporary basis. Dolla explained everything about the intention and working conditions of the mentorship program, that the emphasis is on inclusivity and the sharing of space and ideas going forward. We are now used to working together every day to a point that when one of us is not around it feels a bit incomplete. But we vary in style and technique, I mean the three of us.
Tom Penfold: And can you tell us a bit about your style, your influences, etc.?
I decided to spend a lot of time on my own, fighting the urge not to paint like Dolla. I started looking beyond my surroundings, using my smartphone to reach out to other artists, besides being inspired by Dolla which was unavoidable as an influence. And that is a happy thing while you are enjoying being mentored by him — from the beginning of my attempts as an artist it made me feel a bit lucky.
But then, there are a lot of artists who are more established and doing far better than him in South Africa to look to; for instance, the best learning curve I have discovered for myself is through Willie Bester’s work. His style is different and his approach has influenced my new style with the work that he produces which is fantastic to me. He guarantees my ability to become stronger than I am.
There is Nelson Makamo who is producing images of young children and older people incredibly. The way he approaches his portraits is better than anyone I have encountered.
These two artists, Willie Bester and Nelson Makamo, have a lot of influence in my new found style. In Makamo’s work, where there are striking brushstrokes of sharp contrasts in his insignia colour pallet, and in Bester’s multiply faceted steel sculptures that are intricately interwoven to suggest volume and vigour — I have found my voice.
Dolla Sapeta: Within all that you do, what is most important to you and your art? How do you go about representing it?
I have not found one particular experience in representing myself yet, though I have had a few fragmented experiences between other different mentors. Before you settled back in 2017 and I became constant in your presence, there was Mkhonto Gwazela and Zukile Valisa whom I worked under. I have also been represented in various group shows in the local art galleries, but that was when I was battling with letting go of your style.
In Mkhonto’s mentoring, the emphasis was mostly based on interpreting life experiences as they come, in a manner where he insisted we draw scenes from life that were bent toward an end-result-point approach. This approach later resulted in Mkhonto’s sole initiative that has become a popular annual public project here in Gqeberha, The Sketch Book Project. This has now been hugged and pampered by the Red Location Art Gallery as the only program of engagement with artists under Uthando Bhaduza (Chief-Curator of the Red Location Art Gallery), ever since he took the reigns of the gallery in 2019. The Sketch Book Project was also funded before this by Red Location to organise a group show of sketch books under Mkhonto Gwazela and Zukile Valisa between 2016 and 2017. And in 2016, under Mkhonto’s initiatives funded by VANSA, we occupied a vacant classroom in one of the surrounding schools for three weeks, Jarvis Gqamlana Primary School, where we enjoyed similar engagements with other artists as we do under the New Brighton Art School Mentorship Program.
I must say that I am really looking forward to the show you are putting together for us, your mentees, right now. Also I must say, since you have pushed us to go further with everything we have in the practice, the most important thing for me now is to do my best for that show with Khaya, Pumlile and myself. I guess this time my work is not going to gape among many other works but will become a solid part of a significant collaboration with people I share a creative process with every day.
Dolla Sapeta: What is the process you use when you put things together, the struggles with joys of being creative?
The struggle is having confidence in what I am doing — how to start and what to expect will be developed as the end result. I am also struggling with defining the actual process to myself in a way that is convincing in thoughts and words, like you always advise us to think, talk and be able to write about the work we do. That is my huge struggle at the moment.
Also because the necessary materials that guide us to become better artists come in English mostly, and the language use, particularly the kind of English used in art language, is a stranger. In the art school there are all the necessary books, but then there are mostly our unfinished canvases all over the place. You can hardly concentrate on a book or even rest with these unfinished works staring at you all the time!
Like you, I look for interesting characters, and yet unlike you, I look not only from my immediate surroundings but from everywhere, online, from magazines, and from other materials I chance across. Since I have just discovered my new style of working after I looked at Willie Bester and Nelson Makamo for inspiration, I don’t paint or sculpt like they do but work to be significant to the times we live in. I pixelate the images in multiple colourfully controlled beadwork arrangements because I want to celebrate the existence of beauty by means of exaggeration and colour.
Tom Penfold: Can you talk about this a bit more specifically? Do you have a favourite piece? Can you say anything about what you are trying to achieve in it?
Yes sure…as I indicated before, there is the common inspiration of two artists.
Willie Bester’s multi-faceted constructed and interwoven steel sculptures have opened a new horizon in which to interpret form and the shape of things beyond imagery to me, and not only in figurative terms but conceptually and imaginary wise too. This is because Bester’s subject-matter deals with the human; like many artists I take inspiration from, this becomes relevant in my own terms of interpreting life because he insists on a particular image, the ordinary man. But I was mostly struck by his interpretation of the ordinary working woman from a South African point of view, coming from a home myself where there are five of us (children), raised by a hardworking single mother whom I cannot help but always see in Bester’s sculptures.
In Nelson Makamo’s work I have been brought into a rhythmic interplay with his portrait of the ordinary man, but mostly the youthful images with colourful goggles that suggest hope and playfulness within a subdued environment, further suggested by his use of monochromatic grey-scale palette. Inspiration also comes from Makamo’s technical interpretation and his treatment of the subject, the overlapping and expressive brushstrokes that resonate with a particular condition — and in my case it points directly to my long line of siblings.
What I am trying to achieve with all this connection is to bring them together through my own observation and interpretation of life, particularly our modern times that are interpreted through the pixelation of digital screens. This I do by the thousands of colourful dots of various colours I employ to suggest and depict form, shape, and emotion in my portraits. These pixels are a sign of the communities, families and gatherings that have become significant in my developments as a human being and an artist.
Dolla Sapeta: What are your hopes for the future as an artist?
I hope that I find more chances to celebrate life and beauty in my work first and as an artist, and to be able to make meaning with all that, for my mother mostly. I also hope that I can be able to stage a solo show and be significant as an individual artist, to have my voice heard and make meaning out of that.
Tom Penfold: Do you have exhibitions lined up or is there anywhere we can see more of your work?
Yes we have a show being put together by Dolla and Bretten-Ann Moolman in her art school gallery, Art on Target. She also mentors us when she visits New Brighton Art School, which is a great thing as well as getting feedback from Dolla, and she collaborates with him on many projects.
At the moment there is no other place to see my work besides here in NEBAS where I am constantly trying to resolve my creative processes and get better with what I do. And as I have also indicated, the chance of discovery is on a rather different level for the three of us, Phumlile Rawana, Khaya Gqomo and myself. The dates for the collaborative show are still being measured upon our pace and discovery. But we are definite because we can see that Dolla is confident in what we do when he comes to see our work on his daily visits. Bretten-Ann also showed a lot of excitement when she started seeing our work and that left us with a lot of hope to be finally heard and given a chance to be seen.
Tom Penfold: Thanks so much Madoda. And finally, if you had one piece of advice for other aspiring artists what would it be?
Find a place where you can close yourself up and paint with people who think like you, particularly if you live in a township. There are lots of interruptions in the township, but instead of you getting mixed-up in the interruptions, paint them. That gives you a better chance of putting your situation in a perspective and understanding it.
Each of the upcoming posts in the New Brighton Art School series includes a slideshow featuring a range of each selected artists’ work. Scroll down to see the images of Madoda’s own work and some of his own mentoring work with students at schools, as well as photos of the the studio that have featured in this post and previous posts together below.
To read the first New Brighton Art School artist interview in the series, and to see Khaya Gqomo‘s artwork in slideshow, follow this link. And for further images and more information as to how and where it all began, see Tom Penfold’s interview with Dolla Sapeta himself who spoke to us about the New Brighton Art School, the ideas behind it and his hopes for the future.
The Covid-19 Pandemic has also hit the Art School just as it began its new life. If you feel you can support the artists and the project in any way, please contact Dolla Sapeta directly: firstname.lastname@example.org
Or leave your details in a comment here and we can be in touch with you. No help is too much or too little.
We hope you enjoy this series on the New Brighton Art School and the individuals involved.