CONVERSATIONS WITH BONOLO KAVULA

CONTEMPORARY SOUTH AFRICAN ARTIST  |  ARTIST WRITE-UP  |  TEXTILE

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VISUAL PUNCTUATION, SUGGESTION AND MATERIAL FLUIDITY

BY OLIVIA BARRELL

To understand the complex and deeply conceptual work produced by Cape Town-based artist Bonolo Kavula, it is essential to grasp her relationship with the process of printmaking and its history in South Africa. Kavula has a rebellious and individual way of working with printmaking, notably in her obsession with pushing the traditional limitations around this process, which has become characteristic of her work. Kavula explains that “printmaking has such a strong position in South African art history and its association with namely black male artists – this led me to think ‘what influences successful black artists and their recognition as artists?’  I spoke to Dumisani Mabaso at Rorke’s Drift and he explained that as artists they could only work with printmaking, as opposed to other mediums, and they could only work in black and white. They were not able to experiment with colour or with abstract works – any breakthroughs in artistic process were discouraged. These artists were never able to expand in their ability to express themselves.” This contextual history formed the psychological springboard for Bonolo Kavula as a young artist moving into her own artistic practice, which is one of much experimentation and cross-questioning.

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Bonolo Kavula | ‘Realeboga’  | 2021 | acrylic, punched, coiled canvas, wood

Bonolo Kavula | ‘If only for a moment’ | 2020 | acrylic, punched coiled canvas, cardboard shoe box

“I am interested in the suggestion of something’’ - Bonolo Kavula

“Printmaking is quite a sterile medium, with a rigid history in this country – as a black female artist, I wanted to work from this point. It’s not exactly spiritual, but I often think ‘what would it look like to be a black artist working in South Africa in the 1970s and 1980s?’ But if I could be given the opportunity to be more creative, experimental and expressive. And that is why I gravitated towards printmaking – I wanted to specifically work with every rule and purposefully break it. I took that upon myself and this is political.” There is a strong political vein running through Kavula’s work, but it is not what it might initially seem to be. Rather, her artistic expression has a political element to it as she seeks to disrupt an artistic process that is undeniably linked to South Africa’s political history. Understanding Kavula’s act of working rebelliously with this process, is ultimately the crux to a deeper understanding of her work. A body of work that is part cerebral, part spiritual and deeply thought-provoking. “I am interested in the suggestion of something,” explains Kavula, whose work, initially appearing to be considerably varied, carries a common thread of possessing a deeply suggestive nature. To take this a step further, Kavula borders on suggestion with the use of two core concepts in her practice: her playful interpretation of process and her distortion of medium.

Bonolo Kavula

Bonolo Kavula | ‘I want to fall into the sky’ | 2020 | punched Shweshwe, thread

Material plays a paramount role in Kavula’s practice as an artist and she is interested in playing with the different visual relationships that exist between mediums. “I am interested in forcing visual relationships between materials – I was always obsessed with making a charcoal drawing look like a lithograph print and making a lithograph look like an etching,” offers Kavula. When talking about her work, the artist uses a vocabulary of visual language rather than offering personal explanations for her artworks. “I don’t want to talk about myself or identity politics in my work. The meaning of the work comes from the material.” Material carries meaning for Kavula and her artistic practice, which is rich with curiosity, takes her through a journey of experimenting, deconstructing, and reconstructing. She gravitates towards the distortion of a particular material through artistic processes. Recently, Kavula has introduced a new material into her work: textile – more specifically, a traditional South African fabric known as Shweshwe.

“I don’t want to use canvas anymore, I had to find something that would be exciting for me, and meaningful. This meaningfulness had to come from the material. What I liked about Shweshwe was that it was a rich source of information: a strong design element, relevant politics around the material and interesting associations with fabric culture,” says Kavula.

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Bonolo Kavula | ‘Lights will guide you home’ | 2019 | woodcut print on canvas, canvas, thread

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Bonolo Kavula | ‘Mpho’ | 2021 | punched Shweshwe, thread, wood

Kavula’s deconstruction of Shweshwe highlights a fundamental characteristic of her practice: her work is meant to be read. “With prints, they are meant to be read. You have to read the process to understand how it was made – it’s not just about looking at a picture.” Her work is subtle – that is part of its power – but suggestively so . The suggestive nature of the work carries through when attention is given to it. Each piece evokes thought in the viewer without the artist needing to define what that thought is. 

“By deconstructing the Shweshwe, it makes you want to read the material and see it for more than what it is. If you destroy something, it’s almost as if you draw more attention to what it is.”

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Bonolo Kavula | ‘Tuelo’ | 2020 | punched canvas, acrylic, thread

Writer Maria Popova, describes a poetic image as one that “can lift us from the plane of our storied worldview toward the gasp of a whole new vista.’’ This, in many ways, rings true for Kavula’s work as it shifts the viewer’s traditional association with something without prescription or definition. The poetry lies in this modified or new way of looking and the freedom she creates for the viewer’s interpretation. “The meaning is important with Shweshwe – almost everyone in South Africa is somehow connected to it. In my work, it’s not about me telling people how to relate to it. It’s more about creating this abstract work that is meant to mean anything to anyone.” There is a deeply conceptual, almost studious approach from Kavula towards her practice as an artist. The acts of making, learning, and finding meaning are all intertwined into her process as the artist explains, “I want to learn while I make. I want to surprise myself while I make.” Conceptually, Kavula is drawn to questions around the hierarchy of material and process that exist specifically within the context of South African art. Her work opens discussions around so-called ‘high’ art and ‘low’ art and the value systems around material and process. These discussions have become a fundamental part of Kavula’s practice and the questions she poses unravel in two ways; the way Kavula merges printmaking with other practices (both painterly and sculptural) and in the artist’s dismantling of norms around process. Her most recent body of work is curiously three-dimensional in form, reflecting Kavula’s increasing interest in the incorporation of a sculptural approach within her art-making.

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