Within the Class Coach, interview with Michael Selekane

Mmutle Arthur Kgokong: Thank you Michael for agreeing to see me for this interview with regard to your work as an artist. I hope you feel good today, that you feel alright, despite the winter, the chills, I’ve heard that you’ve been to Grahamstown recently .

Michael Selekane: Yes, in the last two weeks

MAK: How was Grahamstown’s weather?

MS: It was very cold, but the last week of the festival it was raining, it was enjoyable.

–          Was it the first time you went to Grahamstown?

–          No, It’s was my third time there, but first time when I went there I exhibited at a flea market, second time I exhibited at the Barat Centre and this year I exhibited at the Albany Museum. It is like Grahamstown has different steps of exhibiting. First time there you do not start at a good space or gallery,  you had to start at the ‘French Exhibitions’, that’s where I exhibited last year, they call them local artists exhibitions,  then when you have passed those stages you get a chance to exhibit at the Albany Museum or Monument.

–          So it is broken into stages…?

–          Once you have reached the Monument Museum you can exhibit there for more than ten years.

–          It is a good platform. Now tell me about your life a little bit, you were born in Mpumalanga.

–          Yes the village is called Uitvlag village…It was fun growing up there, we use to do farming, the food was simples. We wore shoes when it as Christmas time or when we came to town. I came to town, Pretoria in 1992. I thought life would be the same as in Mpumalanga when I arrived, however it was different. The children use to laugh at my language, Pedi and Ndebele.

–          You experienced culture shock.

–          The other challenge was that my step father and I did not get along, there was lack of communication. We used to fight. When we had fought I used to go to the dumping side to pick up scrap materials to combine, mostly electronic parts, to make structures.

–          Do you have siblings?

–          I have two sisters and one brother.

–          You used your creativity to deal with family problems. When did you hear or become aware of art?

–          In 1999 I was still at primary school, there was a teacher, Mrs. Mogatsi, who loved art, she used to run an art class. One day I dodged my class to attend hers. Her students were busy preparing work for an art competition about crime prevention, when she asked me what I was doing there, although I was scared, I said I wanted to draw. She gave me two A3 paper to draw and be part of the preparations for the art competition. I drew a series of drawings showing some guys robbing a shop. I made four drawings for each page in the series. I depicted someone witnessing the scene and calling the police. The work went to Mafikeng where it was part of top ten artworks selected out of forty one entries.  Then one day I was in the toilet and I saw a newspaper showing the portrait painting of Gerard Sekoto. I was curious, I carried that portrait with me in my pocket all the time although my I did not know about Gerard Sekoto, there was something about that painting. After a few years I met a Zimbabwean landscape painter who taught me how to mix paint. Unfortunately the guy disappeared. Round about then I meet Thabo Pitso, he and the other local youths in Mabopane had an exhibition in a park as well as poetry recitation. I exhibited with them. Thabo Pitso invited me to attend the workshops at Tshwaraganang, that’s when I met Sello Malebye. Malebye taught me drawing. I received a lot of grooming from him. Then Ifa Lethu Foundation came to the Centre to do a community based project. The Foundation brought together artists such as Michael Mmutle, Lefifi Tladi, Johnny Ribeiro and other artists to organise a huge art workshop in Mabopane. It was around this time that Bra Michael Mmutle took an interest in my work and trained me for quite some time with painting techniques, for about three years. I also received some training from Lefifi Tladi for a short period however it was Michael Mmutle whom I spent a long period with learning painting and drawing.

–          So your ties with Tshwaraganang Arts and Crafts Centre introduced you to Bra Cry – Sello Malebye, and then Ifa Lethu…

–          Yes and after two months Ifa Lethu Foundation arrived…

–          Ifa Lethu came and they did a project and you were introduced to who and who?

–          Michael Mmutle, Lefifi Tladi, David Phoshoko, Isaac Nkoane and Say Mashiangoako.

–          So you were introduced to the older generation of Pretoria based artists and out of these artists the one who influenced you the most was Michael Mmutle?

–          Yes…Michael Mmutle…

–          Is there any moment that stands out, that you will always remember when you think about the late Michael Mmutle?

–          Its many moments.

–          Can you name one of them?

–          There is one in particular where we were here at the Pretoria Art Museum, there was a photographic exhibition on show. It was wonderful we had a talk and had a good laugh. Another one we were at Grahamstown in the middle of a painting session. He warned me about using black, saying black is not a colour, so… it’s quite a lot of memories.

–          Sure,…these,..your years with Tshwaragang led to the contact with Ifa Lethu and then you were exposed to the artists who were practicing in Tshwane, but the older generation

–           Yes the older generation, ya

–          And tell me specifically as far as your development later is concerned, what happened afterwards, you know, you were with Tshwaraganang and then Ifa Lethu and, by the way you were with Tshwaraganang in which year?

–          In 2007, from 2007 but I was suppose to carry on in 2008 but could not afford their fees; they were asking for about R 140.00.  Even before I studied there I had to work for a month to be able to cover the deposit fee that Tshwaraganang asked for

–          So you had to pay the deposit, therefore you had to work first, you had to earn the money before you could…

–          The sad part was that where I worked it was in the same complex where Tshwaragang was based, they were neighbours. I had to put up with seeing Bra Cry working next door.

–          Did you have trouble with those people you worked for, who were the neighbours of Tshwaragang in terms of your job performance

–          Ya but eish…

–          What kind of work did you do there?

–           Debt collector…[laughs]

–          You were the one who followed the clients around to pay [laughs]

–          But it was only a month and then after a month a left that job

–          Then after that?

–          Ya Ifa Lethu came, it was a difficult time for me by then, my family was against me studying art, but when Ifa Lethu did the great arts workshops happening, by the way my sister was involved in the poetry leg of that big event, I remember saying to her that she must watch out something big was going to happen. That I was going to take the prize, I worked hard and I got the prize. But you know my father did not want me to study art, there was a time I sold a painting to my aunt. He complained about the price that I originally put on the work. He urged me reduce the price. The original price was R 250.00 which he said that I should reduce it to R 80.00.

–          So the first person that bought your work was a family member or was there anybody else?

–          No, I had a commission. There was a family that was building a new house in Ga-Rankua  who commissioned me to do some abstract paintings them.

–           Tell us about your years at TUT, you are with Tshwane University of Technology at the moment. You are apparently a mentor to other students, what was different at TUT in terms of comparing it Tshwaraganang, your experience?

–          At Tshwaraganang you did what you wanted to do and at TUT they choose for you. I was used to doing my own thing. I struggled a lot at first year, I saw it as brainwash. The other thing was that we were focused more on art that was not reflecting the concerns of our people. We were doing western art.  And my fellow students criticised my work, they said I was stuck in the old tradition of Township Art while the senior students argued the art lectures say that that when one was a first year student one was not suppose to exhibit or enter art competitions. But I ignored all this, I entered competitions.

–          So you rebelled against that situation, what pushed you not to conform or agree with what these people said? In normal circumstances you have to agree with what your lecturer says.

–          Well if someone tells me what not to do but when I come to think of it I see that it will be a loss on my part I will do it anyway. I remember during my first year I entered ABSA le Atelier Art Competition, which was held at the Pretoria Arts Association. One of our assistant lecturer’s work was accepted into the first round and so was my work. This did not seat well with the lecturer.

–          So you and him had work shown at the same time?

–          Yes, anyway both of us  did not make it into the second round of selection

–          When that happened, did it encourage you, did it give you more confidence?

–          It built me, when I saw that I could exhibit alongside my lecturer, it showed me that in the visual art there is no first come first served arrangement.

–          This leads us to my next question, it terms of art competitions in the arts, do you feel that competitions are important in terms of visual art development?

–          Yah but not always, sometimes in competitions you see a person who does art for fun winning the prize whereas those who do art with a passion loose. This might have a negative effect on an artist. So it is important and not that important at the same time.

–          Let us move now to your work itself, the content of your work. What exactly are you addressing in terms of the body of work that you have produced?

–          Most of my work address personal narratives, including my mom, most of my pieces, have female figures. I talk about the importance of women and their contributions to our lives. You know no matter how bad it can become our mothers are always there for us. In some of my work I deal with my experiences. Also with the children, child abuse, it is always happening and we ignore it. I also deal with social exclusion, like what Africans are doing now to Africans – Afrophobia. You see an African calling another African a foreigner despite the fact that they are both black, however if it was a different colour they seldom are this critical. I also deal with political issues.

–          What do you think of a lot of young artists today who are moving into Conceptual Art?

–          Most of the artists are not honest with themselves, they are trying to do what is not theirs, that is why the work that they produce is not exceptional in quality. When one works this way their work cannot be of high quality. We are also moving into Conceptual Art as a shortcut to art making. Even if the aim is to be purely conceptual, how will we produce a conceptual piece when we do not know how to draw? One must always practice drawing.

–          Do you then think formal training for an artist is essential, that its important?

–          Yes it is important. It is like being a soccer player. When a soccer player does not train regularly he cannot be fit to play in a match. So is an artists, he has to get is training in order.

–          Tell me about Destinations, your exhibition in Grahanstown. How was it received, what was the response?

–          It was a good show, but at the same time it challenged the viewers. You could see that the viewers looked at the work they were interested however due to the directness of the content of the work they were challenged and mostly left undecided whether to collect or not. However the overall response was great from PE, especially older generation, mostly appreciated the idiom of Township Art style that I work in. Quite a number of them would think that it was the work of an old man and would be surprised to realise that I was the artist. They were quite glad that I was keeping the tradition alive.

–          And we are talking about both black and white?

–          Yah, but mostly white people in their forties and older…

–          That’s interesting…what was challenging in the work?   Let us stay with the work a bit in terms of what you said earlier, what exactly challenged the viewers.

–          They felt I was too political in my work. There is a certain piece entitled Left Overs where I speak about how domestic workers are given food that is left over to take home with them. That piece was challenging the viewers. There was another piece called First Class, in this work, you see people in a train, it is first class, but when you look you see that they are actually crammed and not comfortable. And this is our situation, we are still under discomfort, we are still not equal to white people.  Such a straight forward statement did not seat well with potential buyers when they thought about displaying the work in their homes.

–          So these works Left Overs and Frist Class they were the most challenging  work that you showed at Grahamstown?

–          Ya, there were also two works Malema’s Train which is a series and BEE for Who?

–          It will be interesting to see these works in the future, I hope time will permit…

–          There is another one titled Modern Profession

–          Modern profession?

–          …whereby I speak about, when you look around the government says we must do things for ourselves,…you see people living off collection cardboards,

–          Glasses…

–          That is what I meant when I said Modern Profession. Now the BEE for Who? The government say Black Economic Empowerment, it is not for all, it’s for the selected few. Here I depicted a mother cooking maize in the street to sell.

–          Other pieces were concerned with every day happenings

–          Are you working on a new body of work?

–          I am actually in the process of preparing my next exhibition at the Pretoria Art Museum. This will be my second solo exhibitions. It will open on 7 September

–          What can the people expect to see?

–          I am still focusing more into politics, social issues and also my personal narratives

–          So the agenda is still the same?

–          Yeh

–          Now that you are in the middle of curving a career for yourself within the visual arts, and you have already had three episodes in development within the visual arts. You were aware of your creativity when you were still in primary school. When you used to go to the rubbish dump to collected discarded electronic components to build structures and figures. Then you picked a newspaper reproduction of Gerard Sekoto’s portrait. You were to carry this image with you in your pocket for years to come. Then you gate crushed an art class at school, that’s the first episode, the second episode you met Thabo Pitso and you happen to know about Tshwaraganang and you were initially trained by Sello Malebye. And later through Ifa Lethu Foundation you were introduced to the older generation of Tshwane based artists and that’s when you met your mentor the late Michael Mmutle, this is your second episode in your development, the third episode is when you were trained formally as an artist at Tshwane University of Technology. Today you continue to exhibit formally outside of your academic training situation. What do you think is the role of the trained artists in our country today, as far as – you know there are so many students now who are graduating from universities with an Arts Degree, what do you think is the role of…?

–          The problem is that when a student gets to graduate, they think they know too much they become lazy to work, they are relaxed, they think they gonna use those degrees or certificates to exhibit, they forget that in art you have to work. Is either you exhibit or you become an art critic so if you want to produce art, it means your degree will work but you have to practice everyday. You see most of them working in retail after graduation. After graduation young artists will also learn that what they have been taught at school, that method or style they work in in the practical art world it will be challenged and they in turn will be challenged. Sometime university can be a brainwash.

–          So in your own opinion university can be good and it can be bad.

–          Sure, sure. You know ever since I have been exhibiting I’ve never mentioned anything with regard to my academic studies.

–          You’ll just exhibit…

–          Yah, if you look at most of the good artists, if you compare an artist who trained at a university and artist who was apprenticed through another artist or an art centre, they are different in character. An artist who comes from the university situation thinks he knows more, so it is difficult for him to work outside of formally set out rules – to do other things. They are not moulded the same way, in terms of commitment to their craft, as art centre trained artists. The problem is commitment.

–          What do you think in terms of arts education situation in our country, do you see…well of course I understand your argument against formally trained artists…

–          Yeh

–           But in terms of our education system and the visually untrained educators who are teaching art in our school through the OBE situation. Do you see arts school in the visual arts and performing art playing a role there to assist?

–          Yeh, but I can say in visual art it is quite tough…but in performing arts  they are there. But for visual arts the role is less.

–          Do you think something has to be done?

–          Yes

–          Do you have an idea of what can be done?

–          If you look, you will see that from pre-school we do study art however this is later lost in one’s schooling. You get to play around with colour when you are in preschool and primary schooling levels. If this teaching of art can be retained throughout a child’s  education. When you look at this situation you will realise that one is not always aware that they are doing art.

–          So creativity should not be neglected, it must be carried throughout

–          Yes, our government is more focused on performance art. While visual art is neglected music and the performance art receive attention.

–          Well Ntate Selekane I will like to wish you well on your upcoming exhibition…

–          I forgot to mention that 19 August I will be auctioning about three artworks at some golf course through an invitation of an NGO involved in performance art.

–          So these are some of the projects you are involved with on the side to show and sell work.

–          Yes, thank you Ntate Mmutle, we are done?

–          Yes we are, thank you Ntate Selekane, thanks a lot.

This interview was conducted on 19 July 2011 at the Pretoria Art Museum. An attempt was made to type it word for word.


© Mmutle Arthur Kgokong 2011