Vusumzi Nkomo: Talk to me about this tension between the gestural mark-making and loose painterly expression on the one hand; and on the other, these very clean crisp lines in your work. How do you arrive at the two forms of expressions: these loose, blobs of colour and the very clean and crisp. How do you make those kinds of decisions on a piece by piece basis?
Mongezi Ncaphayi: If you look now, you see architectural structures. I’m from a city and I love nature. So, I think it’s just a combination of the two. I love being and living in the city, and I love nature. With my works, it has to do also with the idea of environment and mapping, being in different places in different cities. I think it informs and is informed by the built and natural environments. That’s where I draw most of my references. The city provides me with the geometric shapes. I also try to fit the looseness, being loose. It also has to do with my feelings about things. I like detail. I’m sensitive to things.
VN: I like when you talk about detail; I was really fascinated by the work at a technical level. There is this delicate wet-on-wet that is happening and these sort of clean crisp things are also happening on a more wet-on-dry. But they’re not clearly communicated—the distinction, that is. It’s really interesting.
MN: I don’t know, I think it just comes out; it’s more about feeling. I like the softness of things. I like the movement too when it comes to wet-on-wet. I just want something that bleeds. When you look at my work, I want you to see something that’s in the process, always moving, always transforming. So the idea is to create works that are evolving and informing other works that I want to do.
VN: I want to move to the question of colour in your work that I think is one of the most profound I’ve seen with my eyes. I love works by Julie Mehretu, Torkwase Dyson, Mmabatho Grace Mokalapa, Tanya Sternberg with which I think your work has some affinities. Your colour is one of those things that really stands out for me and I can see you’ve put so much thought, so much feeling. It’s quite improvisatory colour field work. I don’t know if you consider your work as a colour field painter but I wanted you to talk about your process in relation to colour.
MN: I love colour. And I love the intensity. Sometimes I love pale colours. It doesn’t necessarily have to be so intense, it can be pale or dull. In my process, I don’t have a formula for mixing colours. I just like to be spontaneous; I feel it. When I was into printmaking (I’m still into printmaking anyways), I’d go to the print studio and, instead of starting my own colour combinations, I’d use leftover inks from different artists that I know aren’t going to use them anymore. I’d just play around. I loved the spontaneity. I like to be challenged; I want to mess up and work with that and grow from that. I like to create barriers, problems, and solve them. Preconceived colours are less interesting to me.
VN: How did you get into Indian ink and what drew you to it?
MN: I like very sensitive things. I don’t know, maybe I’m too sensitive. I like, for example, flower petals; I like such things that are soft. And more importantly, I like very soft music; I listen to jazz, improvised music. There’s a softness to it and so much sensitivity from some artists that I listen to. But also, I love balance, I love very melancholic sounds that are light but carry so much power. I’m drawn to the flow. I think they carry so much feeling; light things can be bold in their own way. There is something about vulnerability and fragility with my work that I need to explore more.
VN: You’re not trying to control it too, you know? You’re just letting it do its thing.
MN: That’s what I’m saying. You know, I’m not in control. I’m just a conduit expressing a message, a feeling. Sometimes I don’t know what I’m doing, and it’s good to know that. I like that idea. I think my work is about the unknown, searching within yourself, just being.
VN: I am thinking now of my deep concerns with not only my practice of writing but generally critical cultural theory, right. And I’ll tell you how I think these two are related, specifically the intensity, vulnerability, emotions and feelings, right. It’s so interesting for me because we live in a world where things can only have validity only to the extent that we are able to prove them empirically. Our theory must be proven empirically—empirical data that proves beyond ‘reasonable doubt’—and that shuts down space for feelings and emotions, and various other ways of being in the world.
MN: It shuts down growth, personal growth, because everything has to be measured. There are strict rules. And there are formulas. I mean, we’re human beings, we grow everyday. We may not see it, but definitely every day we change. We must allow that to happen. I’m against formulas. I’m against structures. Yes, we need structures, but also we need imbalance. In my work I try to, you know, to have a composition. But it’s important to have something that’s off beat.
VN: You are in some way privileging feeling. I’m not saying you’re creating a hierarchy, but you seem to be stressing feelings over the visual. In my research into the western philosophical tradition, I’m learning that there is this huge emphasis on seeing, right. And then seeing or looking or the optic is then privileged over all other senses of cognising and perception, right? So you realise then that there’s a specific time in that European tradition where touching and hearing and smelling, for instance, becomes subordinated to just seeing. But then you also realise that other people in other parts of the world have been perceiving the world in various other ways that don’t privilege seeing, you know. And then there’s what you’re talking about, this emphasis on feeling and emotion. Also, it is upsetting the tradition that says we must organise our experience of the world through seeing and privileging sight as central to our experience of being in the world. I don’t know if you agree.
MN: I do agree somehow. I mean, okay, what’s the result? Okay, we see, and what’s the result?
VN: Yeah, exactly.
MN: I see. I mean, it should result in feeling; you don’t just look and see. It’s the same as listening; there’s listening and then listening. And then, where does it take me? I listen and feel because there are degrees of listening and in the same way, there are degrees of seeing, looking deep within something, and then it hits you. How do we explain our experience of things that we cannot see? You can feel things that you cannot see.
VN: I read something where someone said, Mongezi has mastered his medium. I mean, I understand they are coming from an appreciative position to say Mongezi has mastered his practice, right? My question to you then is, can you master improvisation? Is there a moment where you master it when it’s so dependent on chance and spontaneity? Right? When it’s so open, when it’s so free, when it’s all free flowing/floating?
MN: Yeah, it’s coming from a very appreciative point of view, but I would say it’s not that I have mastered it. I still have a lot to learn. I’m still in grade zero.
VN: And that’s part of the process.
MN: I can have balance. But I am still taking form. But I’ve not mastered anything. I’m also very careful with such. I appreciate it though. If somebody says I’m a master, maybe I should scrap it and start afresh! I need to bring something new because now you end up getting stuck. I’ve seen so many artists do that—“Oh, you’ve mastered this”—and then they just get complacent. It becomes their comfort zone, and we see the same show for many years. I’m scared of that. I don’t want to do one show for five years or ten years. It is important for me to grow. My work is all about searching. That’s why there’s fluidity in my work; that’s why there’s ‘improv.’ That’s why it’s so spontaneous and improvised ,because it allows me to experiment and search.
VN: The problem with such concepts as mastering (something), is that they’re not neutral. Right? There’s a long history within art history of the so-called Masters, right?
VN: And canonising certain traditions often at the expense of non-normative ones.
MN: I mean, I would use ‘stretching.’ I’d say I’m trying to stretch instead of mastering. I’m stretching something. I’ve not come to the end of it. I’m still trying to figure things out by stretching it further and pushing it. I believe you must teach people, or your viewers, new things. You must teach them to learn. You must teach them to see. You don’t have to get to an end point. My work is about discovering.
VN: I want us to talk a bit about the shapes and forms in the work, outside of their colours, just as shapes and forms. How do you conceive of them? What are they meant to add to the overall conceptual framework of the work?
MN: I remember a friend of mine once asked curiously, “Do you dream of these things?” I was like, “Yeah, I do!” But I like to think of being in space, in some void, you know. There’s this colour, and there’s that shape, but you’re just in a fantastic landscape, you know, my spirit is just floating, just flying, floating to somewhere in a galaxy or wherever, and that’s how I see these shapes, as moving objects. Some are friendly, and some are not; some bring pain and joy, some help you. I don’t know. But so is life, you know, things come in all forms and shapes and sizes.
They started with me just trying to develop a language. I had a desire to develop a language of abstraction for myself. What I needed was different; I needed a different language, to be patient with myself and my feelings, to be contemplative. I’ve experienced things that most people have experienced too, but in my own way. And that’s how these things come about. I have to communicate my feelings in my own language. These shapes are also informed by nature, by my environment both built and natural.
VN: I like that they are hanging, as if suspended. When you spoke about being in space I kept on thinking about gravity.
MN: Yeah? Right.
VN: And you also mentioned the word balance quite a lot. And I was like, what do you make of the idea of gravity itself? I mean it’s a very, like, abstract question, but it relates a lot to everything you’ve just said. Is it something that you think about consciously? Like, “I’m trying to engage the concept of gravity,” or has it come through your inquiry (visually and sonically) into the notion of balance?
MN: Interesting…gravity. I’ve never thought about that. We are traveling bodies, you know, we are actually migratory spirits trying to get somewhere, to transcend, moving forward to a higher level of self. I’m just taking a ride.
VN: Thinking of works like, Mindreader, Adrift, Of Liberty within IV, The Journey is the Destination I, etc. There are these rectilinear shapes in varying sizes that are appearing. Some are straight simple lines, very sharp edges. They stand suspended. One way of thinking about it would be some form of windows or doors or portals into something else, things that you might get through, right. But again, if we are to extend our inquiry that I posed earlier into the Western philosophical tradition, the door (or window) has a long history as a visual device within the Western philosophical (and aesthetic) tradition as something that allows one access to visions or becomes a thing to see through. It is very complicated, and I am under-explaining it now. But it’s something that I presently have issues with. I do think that there are various interesting generative ways of thinking about portals that have been explored outside of that tradition. And I was, therefore, really interested in whether one would think of them as portals. In those works specifically, as they appear as those kinds of shapes. And if you think of them as portals in relation to what you said, as avenues? And portals to what?
MN: Today I could look at them as windows. Tomorrow, or maybe after a few hours, my mind changes and I see them as barriers. It’s all about metamorphosis. You have to be open all the time. It really depends who you are and from which context you are looking at something, you see. I like my work to be open to interpretation and having my perception about my own work changed. In my work, I’m trying to break free, to transcend to my higher self. I think that’s when we can be complete humans. I think if you reach that state that’s where you let go of the things that bind us, you know, you start being compassionate, you know, thoughtful, mindful and that’s what I’m talking about when I talk about migration of spirits.
VN: Yeah. We’ve arrived at the end of our chat. I’ve been thinking about this talk I was invited to last year. It was framed around this tension between abstraction and the figure, right. I think that divide is complicated, right. But for me, I find abstraction quite more appealing. At least, for me as a person, it is, again, how it bridges, you know, the possibility or impossibility to say things that are not namable. How it sort of gives you power to traverse the unnameable, to go into the space where you wouldn’t ordinarily be able to name certain things or, as a writer, where words can’t go or take me. I mean, even if you think about us as Black people specifically, what has happened to us and what we are doing and going through cannot be put down in a sentence.
VN: So we’re all basically desiring, or calling for a new language of abstraction, essentially.
MN: This is, I really struggle to communicate certain things. You’re right.
VN: So I find the work that you do to be so important and powerful; it’s able to traverse and trouble basic grammar, you know.
MN: I struggle with communication, a lot. Especially when it comes to expressing my feelings or even identifying how I feel, you know. Sometimes I get so intense that I just lose it. But I’m in a phase where I am learning to be patient and understanding with people and myself. This helps me to paint better because I get to really take time and actually try and find out and identify how I feel. And yeah, it’s a struggle.
VN: At least you have art!
MN: I tried other things but those don’t work, they fuck up your life! See?
VN: How did that performance piece come about?
MN: Actually I had this idea more than 10 years ago. I decided not to play with a band. I love music. I still want to have music. But I didn’t want to play with a band anymore. I remember this one time I was playing a Keith Jarrett album, Nude ants, that I took from my father’s albums. At that time I also used to listen to Pharaoh Sanders and I would play Hum-Allah. I felt I needed to do something with that music, interpret it or something like that. I thought that I’m going to interpret some jazz tracks, you know. I then decided that, at some point, I have to use my own music.
I was studying at Artist Proof Studio when I thought of working with a dancer. I was close to this dance institution called Moving into Dance. On Tuesdays and Wednesdays, I would get complimentary tickets to the Dance Umbrella. I went and then I loved it. I used to watch all these dance performances; some solos and some group performances with costumes and all! Then I thought something can be done here, I can play around with dance. I also loved Zim Ngqawana; there’s that Tangle song, with a Tango sound. My other reference was Sting. I love this track by him, it’s called They Dance Alone (Cueca Solo). I always wanted to do a piece adapted from that song; it portrays a traditional dance called a Cueca dance, a style of dancing from around Venezuela, I think.1Also Chile, Argentina and Bolivia. So when people dance that dance, they dance alone, you know, but they have around their necks pictures of their loved ones, lost loved ones. Yeah, it’s a good, sad song about loss and stuff. So this is how this piece came about.