Land narrative inspires Setlamorago Mashilo's first solo exhibition in SA

In 'The Land Will Decide', artist Setlamorago Mashilo explores the sub-narratives around land, including our obsession with it and the plight of black people, in 25 works

17 June 2018 - 00:00
Setlamorago Mashilo will have his first solo exhibition in South Africa, three years after his first show in Europe.
Setlamorago Mashilo will have his first solo exhibition in South Africa, three years after his first show in Europe.
Image: Alon Skuy

At the foot of Constitution Hill, a space that represents our painful past as well as post-'94 attempts at redress, stands one of Joburg's countless gorgeous old apartment buildings past their prime.

In an apartment-turned-studio on the ground floor, Setlamorago Mashilo is preparing for his first solo exhibition in his own country. He's taping one of his charcoal drawings to the wall for our photographer to snap. Even though this is his studio, there isn't much of his work on display, bar a few framed works and some sculptures. But it's a studio, not a gallery.

Other artists do feature: painted on the front of a desk is a bright blue work by Isaac Zavale, and on one wall sits a work by Michael Selekane, the young artist whose township and train scenes whisper in the language of David Koloane and Gerard Sekoto.

Mashilo's studio has lots of light and could easily be the flat of a cool and cultured young cat with slight hoarder tendencies. There are vinyls (BLK JKS, 340ml), books (Charles van Onselen, Bloke Modisane), Polaroids (UK rapper Skepta, influencer Twiggy Moli), a dartboard, shelves of encyclopaedias ... This might sound chaotic, but it's actually an organised, neat space.

Stuck onto the several pot plants (some in better condition than others) littered around the studio's central space are instructions: "3 times a week". "Monday once a week".

Is this a reminder of when to water them? He nods. "Is it for you or your assistants?" "My assistants," he chuckles. "I'm hardly in the studio. I can't work during the day because my head is constantly buzzing." From what? "Work. Ideas. I'm constantly on to the next thing in my head."

That "next thing" right now is The Land Will Decide, his exhibition opening at Everard Read Gallery in Joburg next month, "a culmination of all these years of the different bodies of work I've done". It features 25 works: drawings, paintings and sculptures. 

While land is a dominant topic in South Africa's conversations right now, it's something that has featured - in different forms - in Mashilo's work for years. Having exhibited in countries including the Netherlands (his first solo show, in 2015), China and Germany, and being an award-winner (he won the Facebook Fan's Choice at the 2013 PPC Young Concrete Sculptor Awards and the Turbine Art Fair and Sylt Emerging Artist award in 2014) - why has it taken so long for him to get a solo show locally?

 Do I go out there and create hundreds and hundreds of works, or do I really do monumental pieces that I feel are necessary and find stature without creating work for work's sake?
Setlamorago Mashilo on building a career as an artist

"Because it was difficult!" he exclaims, laughing. He has a big smile that busts out once in a while from behind his reserved exterior. There's a quiet confidence about him - he gives considered answers to any questions you ask him. "The vision to try and be an artist and take this seriously is only happening in these past five years."

Despite having an art and design background (he majored in sculpture), he previously didn't "have the conviction" to follow art as a career.

"I'm in my late 20s and my peers have been artists for years ... I'm thinking, 'How do I catapult myself to their level in a very short time? Do I go out there and create hundreds and hundreds of works, or do I really do monumental pieces that I feel are necessary and find stature without creating work for work's sake?"

He's chosen the latter path.

Mashilo's works at the Turbine Art Fair in 2013 focused on the centenary of the Native Land Act being passed. He made Mabu a u Tswitswe, a sculpture installation featuring 500 concrete maize cobs painted black. Although the subject matter was political, it was also personal.

It was an ode to Mashilo's childhood, growing up on a farm with his grandparents in Ga-Molepane in Jane Furse, Limpopo. The maize reminded him of his grandmother (he would help her grind mealies), while the concrete was a reference to his grandfather, who used to cast tombstones in concrete.

Mabu a u Tswitswe was followed by his Setima Mello ("snuffer of fires") bronze sculpture: a bust of a woman, bare-chested, strong, proud, yet somehow lonely, forlorn, defeated, with deep-set eyes and sharp cheekbones.

Setlamorago Mashilo's 'Setima Mello' (Snuffer of Fires).
Setlamorago Mashilo's 'Setima Mello' (Snuffer of Fires).
Image: Supplied

"She represents all the matriarchal figures in my life and in my community, as these resilient sources of negotiation for what we call home," he says, describing Setima Mello as the "centrepiece" of his show.

The matriarchal influence features heavily in his work - and in his life. He was close to his grandmother, who died last year.

"I come from a space where the matriarchal figure is the do all and be all. This is somebody [his grandmother] that was uneducated, who was able to help all six of her children to become highly educated without even knowing what education really is, just all from land. All by putting her maize into grain silos, being able to sell it and barter it off for their education." She had Alzheimer's and Mashilo says he used sculpture - his favourite art form - to cement her memory.

A piece from Setlamorago Mashilo's series 'Landlords & Trespassers'.
A piece from Setlamorago Mashilo's series 'Landlords & Trespassers'.
Image: Supplied

After Setima Mello came the stunning and stark black-and-white painting series Landlords & Trespassers, which came about after Mashilo moved to Joburg (from Pretoria) and became something he had never been before - a tenant.

"There's a bullying culture when it comes to landlords and tenants. The only reason I've been in so many studios is because I've had shit landlords," he chuckles.

One of the things Mashilo is trying to move away from is the obsession so many of us have with being in the city. "The convenience of Joburg, for me, is a lie. What's so convenient about living in these small, confined spaces, paying such exorbitant amounts for it?"  

He later says: "Land is such an overarching narrative ... the dynamics are so vast. I've become obsessed with it. I keep re-imagining this landscape that's constantly a source of contentious dialogue for us. That's how it's always felt for me. That's why my work keeps changing, because I keep covering all the little sub-narratives that keep coming with it: lineage, spirituality, my own angst about land and where I come from. Growing up, when you start making a home for yourself, the idea of what is actually this thing that I know that I have to establish and have, and what that means for me?"

He points at his maize-field charcoal drawing. "Again, I keep coming back to the landscape, man. I've dealt with it for so long, so it's always felt like the topic has been at a bubbling point in my head. To see it now [where] it's become such a hot topic again ... it's a chapter that I definitely want to close ...

"We keep going on about the political dynamics, the plight of black people in the country, which is so set on land itself that all the other little narratives ... it'll happen in a space that's so resilient, that doesn't really care. We'll leave it here. We have this idea that we will come, we will see and we will conquer, but we can't conquer the land, it remains resilient, like the matriarchs."

There's also the tension between his sociopolitics and being a working artist.

"The spaces in which we show works for people to see them are quite problematic. [Being an artist] is an elitist thing, such a niche market. I'm producing works with such heavy narratives, that are so important to our time right now, so they can be bought and locked up in somebody's house for aesthetic reasons?

I'm not interested in the art of self-promotion, which is what contemporary art has become
Artist Setlamorago Mashilo

"I'm not interested in the art of self-promotion, which is what contemporary art has become," he says.

Ironic perhaps, considering he's giving us an interview. Well, you have to make money, I point out.

"Yes, but I'm also young. It's like, money will come ... I'm just using the art culture to talk about the things that I wanna talk about."

Going back to the title of his show, Mashilo says: "I want to leave it vague. The land will decide. We come full circle, whether we like it or not. Unless there's going to be an apocalypse or the earth implodes, we still have this, future generations will have it, we need to create the atmosphere that we want to live in right now."

• 'The Land Will Decide' opens at Everard Read Gallery in Johannesburg on July 19 and runs until August 18.