Our neighbourhoods, our townships, our urban areas bustle with talent. Some of this talent will sprout on fertile soil that has readily available resources that will help nurture it to reach its full genius through access to academic training. But some of this talent will fall on barren soil with no potential for survival due to lack of financial nurturing, however because within those unfortunate seeds lurks innate survival drive, the inevitable drop of water or treatment of that barren soil that imbibe the environment with fertility; with potentiality for growth and development can help unlock the talent.
Such a change of prospect privileges the world to have the chance to come into contact with the innate creative force that battle the odds to emerge victorious as it speaks the gospel of art through form, colour, line and volume witnessed in the art object that grapples with the issues of the artists time; personal or worldly. Unlike his contemporaries Tshepo DD Maponyane developed from a barren environment that I have hitherto referred to and claimed his place within the contemporary art scene in South Africa.
The aim of this essay is to trace the development of the career of Tshepo DD Maponyane based on an extensive interview that I conducted with him in 2011 shortly after his return from Bali. Already at that time plans were underway to mount an exhibition of his work at the Pretoria Art Museum to afford his home town to his oeuvre in one space. It is my hope that the reader will come to realise the conditions within which this artist has emerged. The critical assessment of the work of the artist is not part of the current essay but will form part of a separate essay entitled ‘Self Introspection – A critical assessment’ therein his visual art output selected for his solo exhibition at the Pretoria Art Museum will be discussed.
The Darmasiswa Scholarship
In 2010 Tshepo David Maponyane applied for the Darmasiswa scholarship to study art in Indonesia through the advice of a close friend Mrs. Yvonne More who being a former teacher had learned that the Department of Education in conjunction with the Indonesian Embassy were awarding scholarships for artists to further their artistic training. The Darmasiswa Scholarship attracts students from all over the world to Indonesia to Study its Art and Culture and Maponyane was fortunate to be part of the 11 South African students selected to take part in the scholarship. Together with another fellow South African artist were to attended the duration of their scholarship at the Institude Seni Indonesia in the University of ISI Denpasar, the other students were spread around the rest of the formal learning institutions in Indonesia. During the scholarship Maponyane studied painting and sculpture with an emphasis in woodcarving and cement sculpture.
The Indonesian experience
The artist maintains that in all honesty he didn’t expect to be selected for the scholarship. He actually took a chance seeing that he had always wanted to study art formally in order to acquire more skills. Though in doubt that he would be successful in his application for the scholarship the self taught artist saw that the opportunity to study art formally would present a chance to improve his art making skills. A formal education and training in the visual art was something that the artist had wanted to have for a very long time. Within the mountain of forms he needed to fill in that included a medical examination record he also needed to select a preferred university wherein he would receive his studies should his application be successful. The selection of the preferred university was a stab in the dark as he had no prior knowledge of Indonesia nor its culture.
In the end the interest to be in class and be taught what he loved prevailed and he completed and sent through the forms. To his surprise a few months later he received a call that his application for the Darmasiswa Scholarship had been successful. He points out that for the first three days after he received the good news he felt as if he was dreaming and could not believe it.
When he arrived in Indonesia he felt isolated due to the difference in culture and language he encountered there. He recounts an event that took place on his first evening there whereby he went out to buy food and the people were awe struck by his presence that they literally fled. He was later to learn that they were actually not used to seeing black people. However later on when the people got used to seeing him around and realising that he was also a human being like them they started to ask him about his nationality. Some of the people were curious about his dreadlocks to the extent of wanting to touch them wondering whether his hair was real. The Indonesian experience was a first time for everything for the artist. It was the first time he would be at the airport let alone aboard and travelling on an air plane. Up until then he had not travelled outside of South Africa.
Working with Kagiso KK Mokgosi
In order to understand the great stride that the Indonesian experience represents to Tshepo DD Maponyane one has to get a better understanding of the context within which his art practice is founded. He recalls that in his high schooling he studied Math and Science, however due to lack of funds to study further he could not go on to tertiary education after high school. The artists points out that because he loves drawing should he have had the opportunity to study further he would have certainly studied Civil Engineering or Graphic Design.
An enthusiastic soccer player when he was growing up. In the township it is quite a tradition that neighbourhoods meet for soccer bouts now and then. During these bouts Maponyane will always be told by his peers that there was another guy who lived on the other side of Lebanon in Mabopane, who went by the name of Kagiso ‘KK’ Mokgosi who also loved making drawings. The artist found it interesting that there was another artist in his neighbourhood who went by the moniker of double letters ‘KK’. This was an interesting coincidence since he himself went by the moniker ‘DD’. A chance encounter brought the two artists together one day while Tshepo ‘DD’ Maponyane was on his way t see a prospective client. He was carrying some of his drawings. Kagiso ‘KK’ Mokgosi bumped into him and asked Maponyane whether he was the ‘DD’ he heard so much about. They set up an appointment which would be after Maponyane had shown the client his work. The client happened not to be there after all and the artists used the time to get acquainted with each other by visiting Mokgosi’s home to see his own work. From that day on the two artists decided to work together sharing what knowledge each had. They were to establish outside studios in their backyards, alternating work space between Mokgosi’s residency and Maponyane’s. They decided to start an Art related business wherein they did sign writing. They designed and painted house numbers to neighbours to make a source of income. The other part of their business was to make portrait paintings or drawings. What was common to both artists was a dream to pursue University Studies. The fulfilment of this dream would have served as a basis for them to properly understand the art making tools that they were working with on the one hand while on the other hand the formal expertise would elevate the quality of their art production as far as their business was concerned.
There was also a push within them to enter art competitions, to pit their skills against those of other artists despite their lack of formal training. It was in art competitions that they were able to locate their level of development. The competitions also served as opportunities to learn art making skills by looking at other artists’ works. In their spare time they also visited art galleries and the Pretoria Art Museum in particular to study and observe various techniques in art making.
Invitation to assist at Ngaka Maseko
Maponyane’s previous home was located along the passage that leads to the sports grounds of Ngaka Maseko High School. This passage is frequently used by learners of the high school and as the artists worked in the makeshift en plein air studio they were regularly seen by the curious learners. It was not long that the learners invited themselves to look at the artists at work. Maponyane holds that as much as they enjoyed the attention that the learners gave them deep down they yearned to perfect their art making skills through constant practice. Some of the learners from the High School asked to join the artists in their art studio to learn from them. At a later stage the popularity of the art lessons that the two artists offered spread throughout the neighbouring to such an extent that children from primary level of schooling as far afield as Winterveld flocked to the studio with paper at hand yearning to learn from the two artists. The artists were delighted when some of their students copied some of their work even the work that was in progress. Little did they know that the lessons that they gave to the learners persuaded the learners to recommend them to Ngaka Maseko High School to assist their teachers with the teaching of visual arts in the learning strand of Arts and Culture. During the time that the artists gained admiration from the learners the Mamelodi based artist Martin Lekotoko had just left teaching visual art at Ngaka Maseko to pursue other interests.
Maponyane points out that he and Mokgosi walked a very difficult path. Working in Mabopane they were very isolated and that in a way this could have resulted in their poor exposure to the visual arts industry since they were not in contact with other artists who could have informed them of exhibition opportunities or even help improve their art making skills through advise. For starters the artists took the chance of exhibiting their work at Odi Stadium in Mabopane somewhere in 2005 when a big soccer Match was held there. The artists exhibited their work at the main entrance of the stadium to attracting possible buyers. They did catch the attention of a daily sun journalist who, finding it interesting to see an art exhibition in the Township, immediately asked to interview them.
As it was Friday the article featuring the two artists entitled ’Art is the Way for DD AND KK’ appeared on Monday of the following week the article appeared in the Daily Sun adorned with paintings by the artists and their photo. It stirred an interest in the public mind as the artist received several calls of encouragement on the work that they were doing. For the artists this exposure was significant, following its appearance in the daily they now felt that the people knew about their work. Maponyane points out that during the interview they spoke from the heart. They raised issues around the scarce chances of gaining an entry into the exhibition spaces in Tshwane. They also mentioned their longing to study art further in formal institutions so that they could improve their art making skills. Through the article they went on to appeal to the public for assistance to enable them to further their artistic interests. The article was complemented by an insertion of the artists’ contact details. As a catalyst the article not only afforded the public the opportunity to call the artists and offer words of encouragement but in addition their art commissions soared. There was an increase in commissions of both portraiture and general themed artworks that depicted what the artists were concerned with in the work that they were producing at the time.
Perception of art in the Mabopane
Maponyane points out that through arts education and locally based exhibitions in the Township can the community’s attitude and understanding of art be tackled so that it can appreciate art and possibly invest in it. This way the community will be able to come to appreciate the inherent value of art. There is a perception amongst some of the community members that art is for white people and has no significance in the black community.
Perhaps it is important at this point to mention that such a perception is borne out of the fact that in our communities where a living wage is only enough to cover the most vital basic necessities in a homestead. Investing in art by way of art commissions or general collection of art in order to build an art collection as an investment is the last thing on a person’s mind as they struggle to get by. However Maponyane maintains that at least its appreciation can be fostered through arts education to an extent of even presenting art making workshops within our communities.
Maponyane laments that at present though the work is made in the Township it would only find a home in another locale, another town or foreign country and the people who would see the artist working tirelessly in the en plein air studio would not have the luxury to own the work. This is a sad situation.
Following the article in the Daily Sun and the popularity of the two artists’ work and the free art classes they provided for their students they moved on to a three hall studio facility in the Rentse Community Centre in Winterveld, Lebanong through bourgeoning efforts of Mrs. Yvonne More. There they share the facility with other artists such as Rafik Raphela who according to Maponyane is primarily a craftsman. They also shared the space with the late Rasta Zeb Lesego who passed on in 2012. At the facility there are also some entrepreneurs such Mongezi Baba a fashion designer and a group of senior ladies working under the name Retlotleng’s Women’s Organisation who specialises in sewing uniforms for schools. There is also a Let’s Dance Project offering skills of ballroom, Salsa, American and Latin classes by Lego, Ntate Khoza and Nkanyezi Khumalo. This is the facility that Maponyane’s envisions to one day host the first art exhibition in Mabopane.
Preferred Art Media
Around 2004 the artists had come to be frequent customers of the old material shop at Tshwane University of Technology Faculty of Fine and Applied Arts (TUT Arts Campus) which was called Stolen Goods the shop was introduced to them by a peer of them from Mabopane who studied fine arts at TUT Arts Campus. The shop was later to be bought by another business prospector who renamed the shop Art @ Campus. There is a joke that Maponyane shared with me where he tells of a situation he and Kagiso encountered when they started to dapple with oil paints. They had started off by working with enamel paints most specifically in their sign writing business for house numbers, they had used water colour paints as well as fabric paints but they were so fascinated by the quality of finished paintings that they decided to try them out. When they started to use them they noticed their peculiar behaviour in terms of their glowing quality and the long period it took the medium to dry up. They thought that they have been hoodwinked into buying expired paints. Such was the situation of the artists at the time when they knew little about priming their canvas or boards before they made work. They abandoned oils and reverted to the materials they were comfortable with, however due to the volume of orders for their sought after paintings and their booming house number painting business they soon found themselves having to use oil painting. On their next expeditions to the Faculty of Arts they made it part of their itinerary to consult fine arts students regarding the technical approaches to paint with oil paints. There they were informed about methods of preparing surfaces for oil painting. The mystery of painting in oil was solved.
Once more it was through trial and error that the artists were finally able to handle another media – oil painting. Maponyane emphasises that an artist has to have a good understanding of the materials that they use. As their understanding of oils paints grew so was their love for the art material itself to the point of obsession and experimentation. They mixed oils paints with enamel paints to achieve distinct quality of washes.
South African Education and the Visual Arts
Since 2005 Tshepo DD Maponyane and his associates, Kagiso KK Makgosi and Tladi Mokgokolo, have been giving free art classes to their community. They have served as mentors to youth that is interested in the visual arts. This has been highly important to avoid the situation which the artists themselves faced when they were budding artists in Mabopane as far as lack of visual arts education and training is concerned. They have shared whatever art material is available in their studio with their students, giving an alternative activity to the youth in Mabopane amid a high level of drug abuse and teenage pregnancy.
Maponyane relates a touching story of a little girl from Winterveld who drew a very touching drawing that showed the harsh conditions at her home. Her mother had passed away and she and her siblings were being cared for by their father. The drawing showed a woman lying in a bed of flowers while a man stood by holding a cane to a little girl. Maponyane was so touched by curiosity when he saw this drawing that he had to ask the little girl what the drawing was all about. The girl said the woman in the flower bed was her late mother and the man holding the cane was her father and she the little girl. The girl said her father was constantly beating her and her siblings. So profound was the message of that drawing that up to today Maponyane is of the opinion that art can be used a tool to deal with our personal conflicts and by so doing it has the power to relief us of stress. Unfortunately due to lack of activities that are linked to the arts we see more and more of our youth being involved with drug abuse and other social ills within our communities. What leads our youth in destructive activities is an issue laden with socio-economic challenges beyond poor communities control however if visual art can be made an important part of our society such as sports and the performance arts it will play its role in intervening in the social ills that afflict our society.
Maponyane argues that it would be best if artists themselves can start doing something about making the visual arts an important part of our community life without watinig for the government to initiate such a programme. If the government is interested they can find us half way. He maintains that there is a certain danger in something that is established by authorities wherein greed and senseless control seeps in that ends up destroying a good intended thing. However he does acknowledge that government intervention in the development of the visual arts in our communities will be significant in sustaining and solidifying the work of the artists in their respective communities. Only through a strong partnership between the artists and the Department of Arts and Culture can great strides be made in entrenching arts education.
When I ask him about the role of the Department of Education he emphasises that it would be great if the Department of Education could establish a viable network with artists within our respective communities to assist at the schools. With such a network in place when the Arts and Culture period comes on any given school day the artists can be invited to interact with the learners and assist the Arts and Culture educator achieve much more through their expertise. He decries the lack of interest and enthusiasm in some of our educators when it comes to the arts let alone practical knowhow of the various disciplines within the Arts and Culture learning Strand that they are mandated to teach the learners.
If an arsenal of trained and experienced artists can be roped in into arts education it will enable us to give the learners a richer experience of the arts, he says. In long run the learners can come to benefit from the therapeutic properties of art as the story of the little girl in his class proved to him. In addition the prospect of having extra art classes after school as extramural activities that the learners can be involved in could stop them from loitering in the streets and getting involved in activities that endanger their lives. Art can give them a focus and a direction.
What he hopes to achieve through his art
Prior to leaving for Indonesia the artist was faced with financial challenges to cover his return flight ticket. Soliciting support within official state apparatuses that ought to support the development of the visual arts to help cover his plane ticket proved difficult. Faced with this challenge his long time patron and friend Helmut Wilhelm challenged him to look beyond the mural project commissions he was busy with by experimenting with a surface that had never been tackled before in the visual arts as a way of raising money. Wilhelm gave him his refuse bin to paint and the idea of going green by imbibing the bin with aesthetic value was born in what Maponyane calls Trashy Art. There was an initial interest in this form of art when he marketed the idea to his other patrons. This is how Maponyane paid his way to Bali to attend the Darmasiswa Scholarship. Mentioned must be made here that on the eve of his departure the City of Tshwane also contributed some funding to ease his financial expenses while in Indonesia.
As a result of newspaper articles covering Trashy Art prior to his departure he was approached by Sello Magano of Salsia Environmental on his return home a year later to be involved with his organisation. Mr. Magano felt that the SALSIA’s focus on green living could be enhanced by the artist’s participation in their organisation’s various activities geared towards educating the community about keeping the environment clean and the looming threat of global warming. Through his association with this organisation he had a chance to exhibit his work at the University of Kwa Zulu Natal, Durban, during COP17 late 2011.
Maponyane says there is nothing that will be more welcomed to him more than a good challenge. He feels that though at times it seems as if he has come a long way the recent discovery of painting refuse bins, which he is pioneering, has tasked him with a new learning experience as he seeks out to inform the community about good hygiene and green living as far as the environment is concerned.
The artist sees the refuse bin as a friend that sees to it that our homes are clean. By turning a refuse bin into a canvas and inevitable a work of art he sees this activity as conferring an aesthetic value to it and refocusing its significance as part of our daily life. He feels that in the long run this can provide a platform to bring back art to the community and make it part of our daily lives.
His upcoming solo exhibition scheduled to take place at the Pretoria Art Museum from 17 July – 1 September 2013 follows on the heels of two solo exhibitions that took place in Slovenia, Ljubljana, at KUD Mreza and Celica Hostel respectively during 2012 as a result of his art residency in Europe. There Trash Art, a vehicle that tackles issues of environmental pollution, was shown.
In this essay I have tried to give an exposition of the development of Tshepo DD Maponyane’s artistic career. The present work has merely served as an elucidation of his development background. Due to lack of space I could not give a critical viewing of his work. It is my aim at a later stage to embark on a separate essay that will give a critical assessment of the body of work comprising his solo exhibition: Self Introspection.
What has emerged in this essay is a persistent artist faced with great odds. However there is also the presence of an artist whose resilience has help shape a vision to first immerse his community in his art and then to later, given the chance, to take his art to the rest of the world. His chance encounter and subsequent teaming up with Kagiso KK Mokgosi was a catalyst as far as technical development of his art making is concerned. It is relationship that has help hone his technique.
The support of Mrs. Yvonne More is of outmost importance as it gave the artist the opportunity to have formal education albeit in a foreign country. The encouragement and the patronage that Maponyane received from Mr. Helmut Wilhelm should be overstated as it forecasted a possibility of the next stage of the visual art object for Mapnyane’s art practice – Trashy Art – which resulted in a financial prospect at a trying time.
The saying that a hero is not celebrated in his own land but celebrated in the far flung places could not ring truer here when Maponyane’s career is pinpointed at the Slovenian interval.
His commitment to his community as far as the development of the visual arts in Mabopane is concerned is punctuated by the establishment of an art studio at Refentse Community Centre where art lessons are given free of charge to aspiring artists. In this light then Maponyane emerges as a teacher and an innovative artist whom Tshwane/Pretoria can truly be proud of.
© Mmutle Arthur Kgokong 2013
This blogpost was updated on 18 September 2021 at 18:11