Q&A ︎︎︎

Khanyisile Mawhayi

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Khanyisile Mawhayi is multi-faceted in her creative output; as well as being an artist, she is a skilled writer and curator. Yet she happily relinquishes the interpretation of her work over to others. Currently based in Cape Town, she was born in Krugersdorp in 1998 and graduated from the Wits School of Art in Johannesburg in 2020, where she began producing work, as she puts it “dealing with the joys and traumas of being.” Confronting the intricate specificity of intense periods of personal grief, or depicting the movement and colours of the traditional dance of Tsonga women – Mawhayi’s artworks are still remarkably relatable to people from a myriad of backgrounds.


INCCA: You are a highly multidisciplinary creative; in your artworks you seem to move easily across different media such as photography and drawing, and in your broader practice you write and curate. Taking all of this into consideration what is your preferred medium and why?

Khanyisile Mawhayi (KM): I don’t necessarily have a preferred medium, but so far I have enjoyed making cyanotypes the most. I would like to think that the Ambivalent Blueprint series saved my life because it helped me to unpack so much of my grief. It is difficult to choose a preferred medium, they all communicate something so different, and as someone who admires the conceptual artists of the ’70s and ’80s, I favour ideas over mediums.

That is what I have loved most about sharing the work; allowing others to articulate through language what I can only say visually.

INCCA: How do you balance all these various aspects of your career?

KM: My lecturer Zen Marie said to me, “Do whatever you need to do to make the next work happen,” and I move through my multidisciplinary career with this in mind. I do not see them as separate entities; each one feeds the other. It has not been an easy balancing act, mostly because 24 hours never feels like enough. But I am dedicated to all of my creative outputs, and I make time for and prioritize each of them as much as I can.

INCCA: In your artwork you consider the absence of family archives, as well as the “process” of conversations and how this contributes to your process of making work. How do you go about translating oral history into visual art?

KM: This is a difficult question because it requires me to track a process that is mostly intuitive. Somewhere between the conversation and the work of art, something happens that I can not particularly account for. There are deliberate decisions, such as medium and form. I think understanding materiality, doing the research, and taking into account the importance of signifiers is a good way of explaining the process.
INCCA: Your works are a beautiful and personal grappling with your Tsonga culture and how it is perceived. How have you found the response, perhaps from those who know very little/have historically made harmful assumptions about your culture, or your own community and is this important to you?

KM: For people who do not know much about or are unfamiliar with the Tsonga culture, the drawings present as abstract blocks of colour with a lot of movement. But those who are familiar with it recognise the skirt, and some who are part of the community feel a sense of joy and perhaps camaraderie. The cyanotypes, on the other hand, conjure more emotional responses. I had the chance to place a 3m poster of the cyanotypes at the Bree taxi rank in Johannesburg, and the response was more positive than I expected. It is important to me that people see and engage with the work, but I, by no means, want to control what that engagement is or looks like.
INCCA: Has it been cathartic for you personally to deal so openly with subject matter that you have previously been driven to conceal?

KM: Absolutely, yes. I have found people’s reactions to the work as enlightening as making the work itself. Vusumzi Nkomo wrote a review of the work and has so clearly captured this need/my need to find something that I lost but never really had. That is what I have loved most about sharing the work; allowing others to articulate through language what I can only say visually.

Somewhere between the conversation and the work of art, something happens that I can not particularly account for.

INCCA: The colours in your work, especially those depicting Xibelani (a traditional dance of Tsonga women and a term used to refer to the skirt worn within the dance), are extraordinarily striking. How do you go about choosing your colours, and how does this related to what you are depicting?

KM: I use references of women wearing the Xibelani to create the drawings, and the colours are usually guided by those references. Sometimes, if I run out of a certain colour pastel or I don’t have one that matches the references, I will make creative decisions. Colour blocking is a big part of the Tsonga culture, and so I am somewhat guided by that principle as well.

INCCA: What are you currently working on?

KM: I am working on a new series and experimenting with different mediums. I am exploring how living in a new city and my experiences here have changed me an opened up new horizons for me.


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