Intraparadox, A Correspondence with Zanele Montle

20 February to 2 March 2021

Persistence of primaries

Mmutle Arthur Kgokong: Thank you for agreeing to talk to me about your most recent work on exhibition. I apologise for the delays on my side.[1]

Zanele Montle: No problem at all! It’s a pleasure and thank you for arranging this. 

Mmutle AK: I feel that I am the one who is in a privilege position because you are willing to talk about your work. Firstly tell me, prior to this exhibition how have you been managing to practice as an artist, especially while you worked on this body of work? You are working full time, unless I am mistaken.

Zanele Montle’s work will be on show at the Turban Art Fair’22, on between 21 – 24 July 2022 | Transcript reading continues below|

Zanele M: Yes, I am working full time. I have been working as a teacher for a couple of years now. It’s been a real challenge especially because I work at a private school and it is so hard to teach online which works-out to being way too exhausting than teaching physically. But because I was ready to share my art, I made time to paint even if it meant resting in the early hours of the morning. And I’m making it work, so it’s been manageable. 

MAK: It is wonderful to hear that you are employed. I think formal employment can make it a bit easier on the artist to pursue their craft because you don’t have to worry about the bills. However, I suspect that it comes at a cost. And I see that you are affected too and as a result you have to use some of your ‘me time’ to work on your art practice.

We do need art teachers. This way we can invest in an audience for the visual arts. As a teacher, you are playing a role in building patronage whilst you are practicing as an artist.

ZM: Yes it does come at a cost! But yet again everything does come at a cost. Also, I don’t have to rely on a gallery nor a sponsor to sustain my creativity. I get to make the type of art I want to make without pressure. Indeed art teachers do play a vital role. Whether my kids become artists or not at least they’ll get a chance to be exposed to different levels of creativity. Thank you! 

Figure 1. Montle, Zanele. Untitled. 1.6 x 1.1cm. 2020

MAK: Artistic exposure is a precious experience. Thank you for making art. Kids who grow up around practicing parents are at an advantage whether they decide to follow in their parents footsteps or not. They are exposed, as you say to, different levels of creativity.

What comes through strongly in your most recent work on show is colour. These are solid bold colours. How did your style get here?

ZM: Exactly! Sho! I’m Zulu and I’ve always appreciated the Zulu attires and how beautifully they are crafted, how colourful the beadwork is and how each colour signifies something, for example loyalty, love or tell a story and of course, when one takes a look at all the South African cultures there’s a deep sense of ownership of colour, design and pattern. So I think being surrounded by all these various cultures and all these colours has subconsciously affected me. Henceforth they come through in my work.

MAK: This is interesting, an adoption of cultural colours in the rendering of your subjects. Another artist might have opted to literally adorn their figures with traditional attires oozing with these majestic colours. Let’s talk a bit about the content. I get the impression that the work is preoccupied with, Communal and Family encounters. Sometimes the figures are alone or in pairs with an expanse background all to them.

Can you please take me through your compositional approach?

ZM: Sure! So most figures in the paintings are taken from old family pictures. And in the more recent work I have used images from books I’ve read on black history….and so coming from Kwa Zulu Natal and occasionally visiting my grandmother in Nseleni I remember seeing the simplicity of life in the rural areas and definitely not encountering that simplicity in Johannesburg. So the work is quiet nostalgic. The figures are day-to-day images of people doing mundane things, the simple things like just sitting, chatting or children playing.

Figure 2. Montle, Zanele. AboAunti’bethu. 1.6 x 1.3cm. Acrylic in canvas. 2020

MAK: Thank you for this insight into the work. The work does carry simplistic overtones. This troupe approach, of rendering the figures’ skin black crops-up the colours of their attires, laden with South African symbolic colours – if you will, keeping in mind what you said earlier about ‘a deep sense of ownership of colour, design and pattern.’

Was it an obvious choice to paint the figures black or there is a deeper meaning?

ZM: It wasn’t obvious per se but aside from obviously being ‘black’, I think it’s important for black people to be in full control of black representation. It’s important for black people to see themselves in paintings in order to relate to works of art. As black people it is important for us to have control over our own narratives.

And for an artists what is a better way than to depict the black life experience in our own work. I was also really triggered by the Black Lives Matter Movement and how the black body is subjected to slavery, being marginalized and constantly being ranked as the lowest and least important. If you date back in the history of painting globally or even in old photographs black people are portrayed as either slaves or as helpers. This you won’t find in my paintings. I seek to bring ‘value’, ‘pride’ and ‘acknowledgement’ for black people; that black people are visible too. 

MAK: I find it interesting how you use the simple activities that people engage in, in their day to day living, to engage with representation. I totally agree with you that black people must take charge of how they are represented. If you look outside of South Africa, across our continent, in some parts of Europe and North America, you see a strong push within the cultural sector, film, music etc. for black people to be at the forefront of how the world sees ‘us’.

In this regard then your work is carving its own niche in a continuous discourse in the locale, position, we find ourselves in in the 21st century as black people. Let us talk about the medium and surfaces. I see you work in Acrylic paints.

What is the motivation towards working on an un-stretched canvas? Is it different from working on a stretched canvas?

ZM: Working on an un-stretched canvas is more of a technical thing. Since I work as an art teacher by day and after work I go to the studio. It makes it easier to travel around with rather than on a stretched canvas. My smaller works are all stretched because they are easier to travel around with.

MAK: Thank you for clarifying this. It makes perfect sense in terms of mobility while the work is still in the production process.

Acrylic is also a fast drying medium. How do you negotiate its fast setting properties with such vast areas on the surface of the canvas? I mean if you look at the work such as Umhlangano Wabadala, it is quite a notable work, size wise. How did you manage to control the painting process?

Figure 3. Montle, Zanele. Umhlangano wabadala. 2.1 x 1.6cm. Acrylic on canvas. 2020

ZM: It is a challenging medium to work with especially on a larger scale.  In some of my smaller works it was much easier to control the paint. However I have found the bigger pieces challenging. I have to go over the canvas a number of times in order to firstly get the rich looking-colour and the fact that the medium dries quickly also add to the challenge. Fortunately, I’ve been using acrylic paint for years, I’ve learned to use it to my advantage. 

MAK: I see, in other words the experience of handling the medium has served as an advantage in the production process of this new body of work. Great.

Please tell me what has been your experience between this exhibition and the previous exhibition that was held at The Project Space in terms of setting and theme?

ZM: …and just to add on the un-stretched canvas. I could’ve easily stretched the canvas before each show but I liked the different feel it adds onto the work.

Figure 4. Inner City Contemporaries Exhibition (Poster)

I must say it was quite exciting to be part of the Inner-city Contemporaries Exhibition, especially because I was showcasing alongside artists that I admire and artists that have been exhibiting for a number of years, the so called established artists.[2] Some of these artists are men whereas the exhibition at The Project space which was titled “Reflections of The Self” was an all-women show. I must say that exhibiting with men kind of gives an impression that a female artist has made it. As if they are now worthy to showcase amongst them. I’m saying this based on how people show up at these exhibitions, how people make small remarks like “you are exhibiting with so and so wow… etc.” hinting at the presence of the male artists in the group show.[3]

Reflection of The Self. 21 November 2020. (Poster)

The all female exhibition which featured my work, in my opinion, didn’t get much recognition. However, despite lack of recognition of that show, showcasing my work at The Project Space was as great and valuable experience as this recent show at Riboville.

MAK: This sounds like an eye opening experience. It is sad that there was a poor turnover at The Project Space compared to the Riboville venue.

What are your thoughts on female representation in contemporary exhibitions that you have seen so far?  What can be done to stimulate more exposure for women art practitioners in contemporary art exhibitions?

ZM: I think it’s not so much about the turn-over. All shows are different and draw different audiences but there’s just a sense that an all woman show isn’t as serious. I think we are represented but more needs to be done, there is much more support and recognition on social media platforms such as Instagram.

MAK: I see, perhaps the tools and the platforms that social media provides can be used to level the field. But I just think we need to be robust about it. Personally, I prefer exhibitions that are inclusive; men and women thrown into the same basket. I also appreciate the fact that exhibitions that are themed around women’s work frame and articulates issues from a different perspective.  

Compared to the present exhibition, were the works that you submitted for that exhibition similar in theme and technical production processes or different?

ZM: The work that I exhibited at The Project Space were my newer works on a big scale, they were actually the first big paintings I have ever done throughout my art career. I mean even in varsity I never produced large paintings. So it was quite amazing to see the response to the work and I also got a chance to challenge my artistic capabilities especially because I’ve always worked on a small scale. And because of the response on the work during the exhibition at The Project Space, I realised that I had to be more intentional with the work I had to produce for the current show.

So yes, the theme had changed slightly, even my palette, my choice of colours and I’ve become more intentional with the figures.

Figure 6. Montle, Zanele. uMaMthembu. 45 x 55cm. Acrylic on canvas. 2020

MAK: Then the exhibition at The Project Space served as a transition towards the realisation of the body of work you pitched for the exhibition at Riboville.

By ‘intentional’, I guess you mean the specific theme and composition dominating in the current work. Is this assumption correct?

ZM: Yes it is!

MAK: I am glad I am not off the mark.

Just a final question, history has taught us that art has always played a vital role in articulating the human condition. Either political, communal – Which I see in your work, or spiritual. In the many issues that art engages with, is there a particular theme that you feel strongly about that you feel your work will gravitate towards, at some point, in adding your voice to the many discourses that are out there?

ZM: Sure, I actually had to really think about this question… from the top of my head, post-colonialism came to mind but that’s not the only part in black South African history that is significant. Even though South African history has been greatly influenced by colonialism it seems a disservice not to mention it. Apartheid was brought about by colonialism and as a result some, if not most of the socio-political ills, were also brought about by colonialism and people have either been affected negatively by it or benefitted from it. But I strongly desire to think beyond colonialism and seek to continuously engage with what defines a ‘black identity’ or ‘blackness’.

MAK: It is an unfair question. With no right answer!

You give an interesting sweep of the interconnectedness of historical canons that frames the black experience; that is colonialism, apartheid and post-colonialism.

It seem to me that you do not want to be limited by the obvious stance that an artist may elect, for instance when an artist decides to engage with the black experience from a macro, national or international realm, In terms of what it is to be ‘black’.

My thinking, I stand corrected, is that you have decided to engage with the definition of black identity or blackness from an intimate perspective, which at this juncture in your career is signified in the depiction of the simple life reminiscent of your birth home and childhood experiences.

If I am correct, then this affirms an assumption, if not an understanding I have reached earlier on in our correspondence, that your art is rooted in the communal and family encounters.

Figure 7. Zanele Montle in her studio at August House, Johannesburg. Photography by Yolanda Butsha Mtombeni

ZM: Spot on!!!!

I am happy it makes sense… You’ve just put it better than I could have!

MAK: It was a calculated guess!

I would like to take this opportunity to thank you for allowing us to talk and to write about your work. It has been a great week of exchanges and contemplation. What I appreciate in our correspondence is your engagement with ‘the black experience’ from a simple perspective of everyday activities. It makes the work relatable while intrinsically not betraying it’s affinity to the broader discourse of identity politics today. 

Zanele Montle: Very much so!

Thank you!! It’s been a pleasure working with you as well and thank you for reaching out and making this happen, I really appreciate it!

Mmutle Arthur Kgokong: You are welcome, appreciated.

Late summer

© mmutle arthur kgokong 2021

N.B. Zanele Montle’s work can be seen in the group Exhibition Inner- City Contemporaries at Riboville Boutique Hotel and Restaurant, Midrand – Johannesburg. It runs until 20th March. 

*I remain indebted to Zanele Montle for making a space to correspond with me in my effort to expose this moment in her artistic career. Ke a leboga. +All images have been used with permission of the artist and may not be re-used without consent of the artist.**Graphics for the blog post teaser poster, Mmutle Arthur Kgokong.

To reference, Cite this text:

Kgokong, M.A. 2021 & Montle, ZIntraparadox, A Correspondence with Zanele Montle: Persistence of primaries.


Zanele Montle was born in Kwa Zulu Natal, Empangeni, in 1992. She started her Schooling at Empangeni Primary School in 1999 thereafter attended Empangeni High School from 2006 to 2010. After completing her matric with a distinction in Art she moved to Gauteng and enrolled for a National Diploma in Visual Arts at the University of Johannesburg. She completed her National Diploma in Applied Arts in 2013 and in 2014 graduated with a BTech Degree in Applied Arts at Tshwane University of Technology. [Here is her Complete Monograph]


[1] This Intraparadox Correspondence took place against the backdrop of an exhibition titled Inner City Contemporaries: A group show by some of Johannesburg’s most promising and well loved Contemporary artists on show at Riboville Boutique Hotel & Restaurant, Waterfall Estate.  

[2] Inner City Contemporaries Exhibition featured works by Ke Neil We, Mncedi Madolo, Noa Ona, Mandlenkosi Mavengere, Mbali Tshabalala, Philipp Pieroth,Vusi Beauchamp, Ryan Shava, Bambo Sibiya,Frederick Clarke and Azael Langa and was curated by Megan Kathleen and Ivy Rihlampfu.

[3] Artists who were featured in the Reflections of the Self exhibition are Mbali Tshabalala, Anushka Kempken, Cow Mash and Amy Simons. The exhibition took place at the end of 2020 and was curated by Keneilwe Mokoena.

List of Figures

Figure 1. Montle, Zanele. Untitled. 1.6 x 1.1cm. 2020

Figure 2. Montle, Zanele. AboAunti’bethu. 1.6 x 1.3cm. Acrylic in canvas. 2020

Figure 3. Montle, Zanele. Umhlangano wabadala. 2.1 x 1.6cm. Acrylic on canvas. 2020

Figure 4. Inner City Contemporaries Exhibition (Poster)

Figure 5. Reflections of the self exhibition (Poster)

Figure 6. Montle, Zanele. uMaMthembu. 45 x 55cm. Acrylic on canvas. 2020.

Figure 7. Zanele Montle in her studio, August House, Johannesburg. Photography by Yolanda Butsha Mtombeni