28.08 - 02.10.2021
Multimedia artist and interdisciplinary, Luyanda Zindela, and I sat down to talk about his first solo show Abangani bami – izithombe zami (my friends – images of me), that just closed at the SMAC Gallery in Cape Town. We delved into friendship, ideas of legitimacy and rigour, the tradition of portraiture and many other ideas…
Let’s start at the beginning…
Drawing is a starting point for Zindela. For this series, drawing was the most accessible, having started when lockdown began in March 2020. A submission for the Sasol New Signatures, for which the artist won second runner up, the first work was a drawing of a friend who helped him through a difficult time, done in the cross-hatching style. He used the prize money to buy 10 wooden panels, although he didn’t really have any plans for them. Having spent the first ten months of lockdown by himself, Zindela decided to revisit photographs of his friends. What started as something to pass time during lockdown became an everyday ritual, with each drawing taking about a month to complete.
Drawing his friends became a way for him to stay connected, re-assess his relationships, and take stock of which ones mattered. Drawing, in a way, kept his relationships alive.
NK: “Responsiveness to the other is addressed in this body of work as the artist posits the idea of close friendships as metaphorical mark-making processes.” I am interested in this idea of friendship as a metaphorical process of mark-marking. Can you expand on this in relation to your drawing practice and process?
LZ: The exhibition explores close personal relationships as a form of portrait making. The images in the exhibition combine to make one larger portrait of me, exploring the ways in which my friendships, my friends and their characteristics have left a mark on me and my work.
What started off as me just drawing my friends became an investigation on the nature of close friendships/relations. I came across a text by Jeanette Kennett , ‘Friendship and the self’ likening close friendships to a process of ‘mark making.’ The dominant perception is that, in friendships, we are drawn to individuals that are like ourselves. However, the writer argues, it is a misconception. She likens close friendships to the act of drawing or drawing a portrait: adopting hobbies, picking up interests, characteristics, even mannerisms and catch-phrases as a result of one’s relationship with this person. As such, Kennett likens this to a mutual form of mark making or mutual portrait making. This prompted me to reflect on when the images were taken, what people were saying when the image was taken, their characters and the ways in which these characters have left a mark on me, informing the titles behind the work.
NK : When it comes to the concept of friendship, what led you there? Can you explain the title, Abangani bami – izithombe zami (your friends as images of you or reflections of you)? Beyond the sort of obvious meaning, perhaps you could go a bit deeper with what you are trying to allude to here?
LZ: Abangani bami – izithombe zami directly translates to multiple words. Izithombe could either mean pictures, portraits or drawings. Zami could either mean mine, my or me. Abangani bami – izithombe zami could mean, ‘my pictures, my drawings, my images,’ or it could mean ‘pictures of me, drawings of me, portraits of me.’ The drawings in the exhibition are of my close friends, but this body of work forms an image of me, essentially being a self-portrait realised through my friends.
Just from the process of me drawing my friends greatly expands on what Greer Valley has termed ‘collective witnessing.’ It encompasses the idea that there is a reflection happening collectively. Traditionally, in portrait making, the artist looks at the subject and chooses what they are going to represent. The relationship with me and my drawings is that of collectivity and community in the work, or the manner in which the work was created. Hence, the relationship between the images and the titles.
I was influenced by the Practising Refusal Collective’s theorising around refusal and negation: how we take or see our relationship to death and negation as normal. Refusing began as an everyday experience and how in my friendships, I enact or practice this refusal. A video work, titled Thina singaba o-‘never die,’ speaks directly to this, wherein friendships are a space in which I have practiced the refusal of being in close proximity to death. Friendship is the space that allows one to choose life.
In the past, exploring black life outside of pain was deemed a denial of the pain of blackness. One can still acknowledge that the pain is there, but it should not completely define one. We are starting to see more representations of blackness that are not completely consumed by the trauma, but arguing that those alternative representations are also radical: an expansion of black life and black experience and black radicality. It doesn’t have to be hard. Radicalness can be soft. It can be mundane.
There is a growing group of young contemporary artists who are not only pushing back against this, but refusing to legitimise their work as black through spectacle. Rather, they look at the black everyday, the mundane. Without boxing myself, I would like to think of myself as part of this burgeoning group of artists, because our humanity does not reside in the spectacle, but in the everyday.
We are starting to see a lot more artworks that are expanding what it means to be black as an artist, and what it means to be radical. Radical can exist outside of the hard fight. In softness, it can refuse death and choose life. And that is sort of what I was reflecting on in terms of what my friendships mean to me. There are a lot of South African artists who inspire me and explore ways of making work outside of the spectacle, such as Billie Zangewa, Dada Khanyisa and many more.
NK: “[Zindela] celebrates the shared intimacies, fragilities and sacredness embedded in close friendship. Through a series of carefully detailed portraits, the artist compels us to consider the act of friendship as a process of collaborative witnessing.” Can you expand more on this?
LZ: There are artists who are able to use the spectacle in imaginative ways. I felt like that was not my strongest point. Especially because there’s often been a push amongst black art(ists) to use spectacle to legitimise their work, or your work, as black.
As an artist, that is where I am at. I choose to make work about my friends. It is a space where I do not have to fight. Not choosing to do so does not make me or my work any less radical, any less black, any less legitimate.
NK: I agree. It is not about choosing to look the other way, being ignorant or turning the other cheek, it just means that there is another part of your experience as a black person that you are choosing to be rooted in and explore, and that is also still valid.
I love how the titles of the works are like conversations, capturing snippets of moments with your friends. It gives a glimpse of your interactions, reflecting on the characters of the people that you have drawn. I guess it also bleeds into this idea of being (directed and interpreted) by the other: you are a part of them, and they are a part of you, but there is always this balancing act of never really inhabiting their experiences and vice versa.
LZ: The titles were intentional, but more intuitive. I was remembering the things that they would say to me. I started recalling the impressions left on me. So, the titles give a glimpse into our interactions, a glimpse into their character, but also into how their character has left a mark on me. Cha. Qedela lokhu obufuna ukusho (no, finish what you were going to say) speaks to my friend Buhle’s straightforwardness, a deliberateness in her language and intent which is very important to her. She has, therefore, taught me to be the same. It was important that the conversations are exhibited alongside the drawings themselves. Therefore, in the exhibition, you find little strips of text running through.
NK : I’m also interested in how the work and your process complicates the (traditional) idea of sitting for a portrait.
LZ: There is a history/tradition of portraiture that I find cold and impersonal. In my choice to depict people I know, I intentionally try not to reduce the subject/sitter to something spectacular or iconic, which I find reduces the nuance. Some of my drawings are of people chilling on the bed, adjusting their phones, etc. What lies at the heart of portraiture is the idea of trying to produce something that will stay in people’s minds. Oftentimes, relying on conventional tropes – like having no relationship with your subject or having constructed poses – makes the work more striking.
I spend a lot of my time drawing something that isn’t spectacular, but the process itself makes it mean something. That’s where my relationship to the canon of portraiture making is situated. I am not trying to make iconic work or icons; I am drawing, drawing my friends and having conversations with them about the drawings. The titles could have been grandiose, but they are snippets into my friendships.
NK : And so part of it was to unsettle traditional portraiture’s tendency to make a spectacle of their subjects?
LZ: That and, in essence, it is me making work of my friends. It is a really personal, intimate exploration of what really matters to me, and it is something that I am going to continue doing. I don’t think that my strength lies in the socio-political gambit of art making. There are artists who do that in very imaginative ways, and with more nuance too. Artists that are able to take the spectacle and re-imagine it in a way that is fresh and nuanced. That’s what needs to be done, because the nature of spectacle is to reduce. I came to the realisation that that is not my strength, and so I am looking at things that allow me to put out the best work and not try to be the artist that I am not.
NK: You focus on the face and not full body depictions. Was this purely coincidental, or was it intentional? Particularly thinking about how black women are usually represented.
LZ: From a drawing perspective, I really enjoy cross-hatching. I haven’t seen black people drawn in that manner convincingly, or black portraits using that specific technique. I think they have always come out rough, the texture being very rough and coarse.
My very first portrait that I submitted for Sasol New Signatures, I really wanted to capture the complexity of black skin, using that technique that I haven’t really seen represent black skin. I have been cross-hatching for a couple of years now, and it has been trial and error. I realised that a lot of images that I have collected over the years were just portraiture. I guess that is an interest that I have always had. I’ve never really been interested in scenes or stuff like that.
NK: Can you explain what cross-hatching is?
LZ: Cross-hatching is a traditional top drawing technique that is also deeply rooted in printmaking, particularly etchings. In essence, you are drawing crosses. Hatching is when you draw parallel lines in one direction. Cross-hatching is when you draw a parallel line in one direction and then you draw parallel lines on top of the first few lines in the opposite direction to form multiple crosses. If done well, it is a great way to convey tonal variation.
NK: Your work feels rooted in an intimate and vulnerable sensibility. And yet, it seems to have a quiet political leaning, speaking to misogyny, representation, masculinity, etc. What role does your work play in the expression of these very difficult but pertinent conversations?
LZ: My close inner circle of friends comprises predominantly of black women. Those friendships have helped me navigate my own identity as a Zulu man living in South Africa. They allowed me the room and space to imagine and practice the refusal of this traditional hyper-masculine Zulu identity. I am trying to learn, to practice, and to make that refusal part of the everyday. Knowing that these friendships exist to challenge me, my world views, my conceptions of myself, my learnt behaviours. In the process of reflecting on these friendships and what they have done for me, we spoke spoke in detail about subtle, everyday ways in which these traditional notions of masculinity have been challenged. For example, in Ngicela ungangiqubuli (please don’t pick me up when you hug me), that’s a small, everyday thing, but it problematises ways in which men associate or misconstrue acts of physical dominance and power as acts of physical affection.
Even in the titles of the work, I try not to speak for women (or to speak for the people that I have drawn), but actually to have these snippets of our conversation. They speak for themselves. They are allowed to be themselves. Very often, in the push to be spectacular or iconic, we silence, we put words into people’s mouths. It was important that, rather than trying to make grand declarations, this body of work is focused on what I have heard or what I have learnt, and the ways in which my close friendships have had a bearing on me as a person. But most importantly, in what ways (as seen in the video collage work) have my friendships helped me to not choose death (metaphorically and otherwise). For me, when my mother said amadoda akhethe ukufa (they chose death), it meant so much to me, because there is a long line of men doing the most in my family. For me, reflecting on my friendships meant an opportunity for me to see the ways in which they allowed me not to follow in that path.
NK: And so this is where the notion of adjacency, as written by Tina Campt, becomes important to you?
LZ: Yes, not drawing for someone or doing the work for someone. The representations of my friends are not me speaking for my friends or my friendships. It is more of me reflecting on my experiences of living alongside my friends who are women. What does it mean to be alongside? This is a constant, ongoing conversation with my friends, the play between the term adjacency, in comparison (and even in contrast to) the term allyship. Where allyship is associated, you can be an ally to something and still go on living your life, not really involving yourself. Aligned to a course, but still going on with one’s everyday life without fundamentally changing anything. Adjacency with others implies that I am not speaking for, or trying to do anything for, I am reflecting on my experiences of living with and experiencing life everyday with someone and reflecting on how that everyday experience alongside someone has a bearing on me and my own development as a person.
In addition, adjacency speaks back to this idea that, a lot of the time, black artists are often pigeonholed into us having to speak for groups of people, the popular trope of being the voice of the voiceless. That is usually positioned as ‘true heroism’ when, in actual fact, people are more than capable of speaking for themselves and being themselves.
And that stems into my own practice in the sense that I am not trying to present hyper-idealised figures or representations of me speaking for… This is more about, I am this person who’s experienced life in this way, and being in relation to the people that I am friends with has had this impact on who I am as a person.
Hence, going back to the title of the show Abangani bami (my friends’ portraits of me), izithombe zami (images of me). Rather than trying to speak for it, it is more reflective of how my friends have allowed me to be myself, and to be a version of myself .
NK: Your work is predominantly drawing, but your approach to this show is quite sculptural and 3D in some instances. In the work, the drawings are done to an almost life size scale; they take up space and are in your face. What role does scale play in how you choose to portray this work? And the choice of medium (pine board vs. paper vs. canvas for instance)?
LZ: Messing with shapes in work such as Ngizokuthandazela and Yazi, I’m glad that my guardian angel is also an angel of vengeance…working in squares and exploring organic and exploring organic shapes is a reference to how memory is not linear. Some elements of the drawings, such as in Ngizokuthandazela, are unfinished and fade into static dots. That speaks to how memory can fade. From a technical point of view, because I am drawing with paint markers, the tip of the mark is not a fine liner; it is quite thick. In order to capture more detail, the drawing has to be larger.
The smaller the drawing is, the more difficult it is to make it as detailed as I would like to, whether it be pores of the skin, creases (if a person is smiling), or around their eyes (light in their eyeballs, eyelashes). All these things can be captured better at a larger scale because of the limitation presented by the medium I am using.
NK: How do the other aspects of your practice tie into your drawing work? What is, for you, the connecting thread to your practice?
LZ: The connecting thread throughout is me. It sounds vain, but it is me, my reflections on the things that affect me and my lived experiences.
NK: Ordinary experiences with other people are central to what it means to be human. Would you say that is something that is central to your larger artistic practice?
LK: The show has an element of gratitude and reflectivity/reflection on the people in my life. The more recent works, created in Cape Town, chart relationships that are just forming as I have arrived in the city and tried to find my feet. Two of the largest silhouettes, I’m a fun time and The first time I felt at home here was when you let me add music to your playlist are a reflection of new close friendships that have formed as a result of me moving here. As I said, I have never been good at making ‘grander’ social commentary. The thing that I have been relatively good at, or have enjoyed more, is looking inwards and reflecting on how I navigate these things as a person.
At the end of the day, the works are just acts of love towards my friendships. The time and energy that goes into making the work is a sort of metaphor for how much time and investment goes into building these friendships.
I just loved the idea of having a room filled with my friends, being able to make work about things such as friendship. These things are often seen as lacking rigour, or they are labelled as not serious enough, but they are very important because they play an important role in how we navigate the world. The funny thing now is that, already, I am playing in my mind how to legitimise what I am saying with serious words or serious answers but, in actual fact, it is already legitimate.