Maverick Life

MATTERS OF THE ART

The wild art of self-actualisation on display at Open Studios Joburg

The wild art of self-actualisation on display at Open Studios Joburg
Stoffel Mogano’s art booth in the Living Artists Emporium’s viewing area (2022). Photo by author

Exciting and overwhelming, the Living Artists Emporium gallery/studio opens its doors to the public during Open Studios Joburg with an exhibition influenced by Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

In his attempt to explain the potential all individuals have in their pursuit of a valuable life in society, American humanist psychologist Abraham Maslow (born at the turn of the last century) said: “Self-actualising people are those who have come to a high level of maturation, health, and self-fulfilment. The values that self-actualisers appreciate include truth, creativity, beauty, goodness, wholeness, aliveness, uniqueness, justice, simplicity, and self-sufficiency.” 

This is the sentiment underpinning an exhibition titled “The Hierarchy of Being”, which is influenced by Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. It’s showing at the Living Artists Emporium (LAE). 

The exhibition presents artworks by Stoffel Mogano, Danisile Njoli, Nisty Chatha and Mmutla Mashishi. They offer visual presentations of the journey we undertake in the different stages of life to achieve self-actualisation. 

Nisty Chatha’s Wine O’Clock 1 and Wine O’Clock 2 paintings are part of the Hierarchy of Being exhibition (April 29 – May 21, 2023). Photo by author

There are also preparations underway for all the art enthusiasts, collectors and the curious interested in the Open Studios Joburg programme. To coincide with the RMB Latitudes Art Fair, the event sees shuttles ferrying people to various art studio spaces, including LAE (on 28 May), giving them a taste of the art created and presented by the many uniquely talented artists in the city. 

This allows the public to meet with the lives beyond the canvas; beyond the white cubes that we are typically accustomed to when we wake ourselves up for a day of art. 

Located at the Ellis Park Tennis Club in New Doornfontein – a rather surprising choice of location considering that many art spaces are situated in suburbia or the city – LAE is rich with artistic interpretations and visualisations of life. 

I was greeted by Africanness radiating from most of the artworks hung and placed at the different artists’ booths in the studio. In the case of Sabelo Mkhaliphi, he created a series of portraits incorporating African tribal mask designs. Each of these masks, or mask figures, can be seen wearing distinct sunglasses that act as screens showing scenes of people walking about at different times of the day and night in what seems to be the busy streets of town. 

Each of these masks is painted on a black background with the ranks and suits of playing cards, which may speak to how African lives have been dancing in the poker hands of Western ideologies and systems since the age of colonisation. 

Gabisile Mbatha, the curator and gallery manager, describes LAE as a creative hub of innovation that has offered emerging artists the materials and space to “create whatever they want, to their heart’s content”. 

There is also an art gallery for the artists to showcase their latest works and for regular viewers and collectors of art to enjoy. Mbatha claims the gallery-studio attracts a range of collectors, from “a lot of local black people who are really into African art” to “tycoons” who “buy in bulk”. 

John Nkosi’s art booth in the Living Artists Emporium’s viewing area (2022). Photo by author

A few of Mmutla Mashishi’s artworks in the sculpture garden exhibition of Living Artists Emporium (2022 & 2023). Photo by author

“So that’s what keeps [the space] alive,” Mbatha continued. The LAE also has an online store catering to local and international art collectors. 

Because of the elements that make up LAE, the space is a platform to “provide [the artists] with access to the markets and opportunities that they might not necessarily have on their own” according to Mbatha. 

Splash Motong’s colourful and beautiful Seshweshwe (fabric for Bapedi, Basotho and Batswana traditional attire) collage series and his other paintings have found a home at the Art House SF in San Francisco, California, since 2022. 

Mogano creates paintings that appear true to the journeys of the black body. In some of his artworks, we see the backs of his subjects in greyscale, with a hand reaching out into the distance, and “mashangaan” luggage bags where their heads are supposed to be. He says that is to show “how as you are journeying, your mind is constantly occupied by what you need to do, where you need to go, what else you need to learn. So, a lot of the journey is not necessarily physical only, but it’s mostly psychological”. 

Ahead of these subjects are versions of their future self in colour, with their heads in place and their hands free in the air to represent the point in the journey where they envisioned themselves at the very beginning.  

In another set of Mogano’s paintings, it is as if we – the audience – have caught ourselves looking at the bare feet of a stranger in front of us. These feet have orange patches on them that Mogano says are the markers of “the idea of development, the idea of growth, the idea of being a better version of yourself than you were yesterday”. 

He has stitched together parts of the mashangaan bags using candle wax and stretched them into a canvas to create the cultural backdrop of the different people and feet on a journey. 

To the right of Mbatha’s desk are the sculptures of Kelvin Dube he has created out of steel wires and coloured plastic coatings of wires. As a man from a humble background, this started out as a way of making the toys that his grandmother could barely afford to buy for him and his siblings, including Danisile Njoli, who is also part of LAE. He makes vibrantly coloured images of everyday people that he says are reflections of his imagination. 

There is a sculpture garden exhibit overlooking the tennis courts and up one flight of stairs are the studios where the artists make their works. This garden area is currently housing the works of Mmutla Mashishi, who recycles materials such as PVC plastic and bronze. His artworks remind us that even in the death of certain aspects of the self, life is still continuously happening. Like the caged bird on one of his life-sized full-body sculptures, we can still breathe and hope to become free and spread our wings.  

There is so much art gathered at LAE. At times it was exciting to walk about and experience every single one. Yet, in some moments, it felt overcrowded with different styles and was overwhelming for the eyes and mind. As visitors, we are left piecing together each of the different stories the artists present out of curiosity about what we could uncover about life. 

Nisty Chatha believes that life is like a mountain one must climb, and that people are also mountains in themselves. This means that the journey of life can revolve directly around how we approach ourselves internally and our surroundings externally. The subjects of his paintings are made out of tiny human figures with small black dots for heads, which he says represent the many people, objects, and events that shape who we are on our road to actualisation. 

It is in being and journeying that people can reach their highest potential. 

“We crave and fear becoming truly ourselves,” Maslow once said. If anything, the many artists at LAE have shown that we can crave more than we fear it. DM/ML

 This text was produced during an independent journalism development project by African Arts Content focused on the Open Studios Joburg programme. Open Studios Joburg runs on the weekend of 27 May. Tickets cost R55 online or R80 at the door. This includes a shuttle service. Visit: www.openstudios.joburg

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