Maverick Life

Maverick Life

Art, online. Three African artists to follow: Thabang Lehobye, Phila Hillie, Mookho Ntho

Synchronised by Phila Hillie

As the art world came perilously close to shutting down earlier this year, young and emerging artists turned to the digital world to display their work. And attract potential buyers.

For years, the global art market has been confined to brick-and-mortar spaces – art galleries and fairs – often catering to an elite of wealthy buyers and consumers, negotiating sales through auctions and intermediaries.

Last year, Art Basel and UBS published a report authored by Dr Clare McAndrew, founder of Art Economics, which found that in 2019, sales in the international art market exceeded $64-billion (down from $67-billion in 2018).

Then, in March 2020, everything began grinding rapidly to a halt as the world went into lockdown.

Although galleries and museums tried switching to online and virtual exhibitions to make up for the losses suffered through postponing or cancelling physical events, fairs and shows, the effort was slow to get off the ground. Back in April, The Art Newspaper estimated that “galleries worldwide [were facing a] 70% income crash due to coronavirus”.

Yet, as Covid-19 shut down creative industries, many artists, performers and musicians turned to social media and the digital world to play, dance, act, sing or present their work to existing followers and new audiences. This, with the help of algorithms and new streaming platforms.

People were given an opportunity to discover artists and creatives in their own time, in the confines of their homes, with no pressure to buy or engage, but with access to do so if they wished.

I first noticed Johannesburg-based Thabang Lehobye on Instagram (thanks to Daily Maverick Marianne Thamm) where he publishes pictures of his charcoal artworks – still images or short animated videos – like snapshots of his meanders through the city.

Lehobye, who worked as a visual artist at the Artist Proof Studio (APS) and received patronage from William Kentridge, sells his art via social media or email. The connection is simple; direct – and if art should be bought on love at first sight, then scrolling through the visual social media app is one way to discover the many talents our country has to offer.

Phila Hillie also lives in Johannesburg, although her family is from the Eastern Cape. A graduate in architecture, it took her a few years before fully committing to being an artist.

“I was an only child for seven years, and the oldest grandchild, so I had to find creative ways to keep myself busy. I also spent a lot of time with my grandmother who used to teach me how to sew, make beaded jewellery… I  initially wanted to be an artist when I was around 10, but was scared I would not find work. I spent the next 12 years trying to do everything but be an artist. In my final year of my architecture degree, I slowly started posting my art on social media and, as the interest and support grew, I started making more moves towards becoming an artist,” she says.

Hillie describes her art as “an exploration of the lives of women through the use of space and colour”.

KuCentane by Phila Hillie
Roots by Phila Hillie
Xhentsa 2 by Phila Hillie

“It’s about creating a safe space for women to occupy and explore themselves without the pressures and standards that have been placed on them. My aim is for women to feel represented through topics such as balancing culture and independence; the way in which society views women versus how women view themselves; and how space can accommodate and make a woman feel safe to be portrayed in my work.”

Though Hillie’s images certainly have an architectural feel – the digitally drawn characters seemed to be set against geometrical lines – her work, for instance, ‘Kucentane V’ and ‘Jive’ or the ‘Aura’ series, are reminiscent of 19th century scraperboard art, where an artist would scratch off the dark black paper to reveal a white layer beneath. Her pieces from the ‘Summer’ series have an erotic feel that is both inspiring and liberating.

Summer by Phila Hillie
Summer Hills by Phila Hillie

The series of digital collages dubbed ‘Synchronized’ are a beautiful and modern take on vintage images from synchronised swimmers in the 1950s.

Talking about ‘Qaba’, Hillie explains, “Qaba’ translates to applying or smearing a substance (such as lotion) to a surface (skin). This piece tackles balancing how women are seen versus how they see themselves. The idea behind this piece was to show how, even though there are many pressures that society places on us, having control and agency of your own narrative and body is powerful. Taking ownership of who you are and how you view yourself can overshadow the way people want to view you.

Qaba by Phila Hillie

“Initially, I started producing a lot of work at the beginning of the lockdown in an attempt to ease my anxiety and take my mind off the very sudden changes and uncertainties that arose as a result of the pandemic. I think it also gave me an opportunity and time to explore different styles and mediums,” she says.

“As a designer, I am constantly debating how spaces can be designed for women to make them feel safe. My goal is to create work that exists outside trauma. I want to create work that focuses on women of colour and the range that we have. We can be fierce, we can be vulnerable, we can have fun and we can occupy space. Women can be traditional, or choose not to be. The main idea is that we should be allowed the freedom to explore ourselves and feel seen,” she adds.

Mookho Ntho is a visual artist based in Maseru, Lesotho.

“Growing up I had a beautiful childhood that laid the foundation for my love of the arts. I remember from a young age watching my dad draw scientific diagrams for his students, and being in awe as he drew. I began drawing fashion illustrations, and even studied visual arts in high school. Scared by the stories of the struggling artist, I went ahead and studied information systems at Wits,” she tells Maverick Life.

Soon after, Ntho went back to art, working with oils on canvas and creating paintings filled with emotions and realism. Influenced by fashion and her surroundings, her portraits and close-ups are crafted like intimate family photographs, using jewelry and accessories as a clever and powerful way to blur gender identities. It is impossible not to be drawn into the emotions that are generated through her pieces: a tear dropping like the reflection of a precious stone; a side eye, the mouth barely open.

Weight by Mookho Ntho

On ‘Weight’ (2020), a piece she featured on her Instagram page, Ntho explains:

“I remember when I was younger, my brother and I would sit on the stoop of my grandparents’ shop and listen to my grandfather share stories about his youth. I never thought as a child, that I would have to see this strong father figure become so vulnerable as he grew older. The emotions and feelings about experiencing this transition was unexpected to me, as I never heard anyone speak about it. Witnessing the changing relationship between parents and grandparents as they get old and more dependent…”

Her creative expression was influenced by “the desire to be visible in the art word, as a black African woman”.

“During my studies in visual art, I did not feel represented enough as a black person in art; to remedy that, I use art to make sure that black people are more visible. My work is inspired by nature, emotions and feelings I experience around me. My art allows me to relive moments, create moments I have not experienced, and to express myself when I don’t have the words.”

Ntho also founded, with her friends, BARALI, a black women-owned design firm that offers both sustainable homeware and design consultancy services.

“The sustainable homeware is expertly handcrafted by local artisans around Lesotho, using materials that are sustainably sourced in Lesotho and South Africa.”

The young entrepreneur explains that BARALI’s goal is to develop a sustainable production process “through paying vendors fair wages; only engaging with vendors who comply with health and safety standards; sourcing eco-friendly materials; and implementing production that ensures safe environmental performances.” DM/ML


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