Lungiswa welcomes me into her workspace. It’s a few floors up at the backend of a building on Bree Street. I walk in to find two young ladies hunched over a workbench strewn with match boxes, sticks and scrubbing brushes sans their bristles. The top half of the match sticks are being precariously placed into the holes the bristles formerly occupied, the other halves have escaped to the floor. I watch my step so as not to trample on anything. We pull two plastic beer crates to middle of the room, we take a seat and began to talk. I couldn’t help but feel as if I had tumbled down the rabbit hole and landed front and centre in one of her installations.
Where did her journey into art begin, I ask.
‘My grandfather on my dad’s side was an artist. A visual artist and a music composer so my family grew up appreciating art and appreciating music. I grew up in that atmosphere.’
Lungiswa was raised in Port Elizabeth and she admits to having always had a creative side as a child but that art per se wasn’t something she was aware of. When it came to Primary school she knew the things she liked to do and as a result was naturally drawn to the creative courses.
‘They had drawing classes as part of the curriculum and I found out, “Hey! I’m not that bad, I can do this thing.” So, I was encouraged by an art teacher to do after school art classes.’
She took up the extramural activity and enjoyed it. When High School came around she continued with art and it was during those early days that she first learnt about the South African greats ‘Like your Jane Alexanders, your Kentridges,’ as she puts it. Later in high school she recalls visits to the museum and being introduced to shows and the work of other students. It was then that Lungiswa decided,
“This is what I want to do.”
‘High school was a very conservative teaching of art and that carried through to when I went to NMMU. That’s where I started studying art. They have a great course where you do everything from design to sculpture, drawing, printmaking, and painting in your first year to help you figure out which direction you want to go into.’
There was no doubt about it. Fine art was for her. She leant toward painting, printmaking and sculpture and for her BTech she majored in sculpture. She recalls her fondness at the time for printmaking and says, amongst a hearty laugh at the realisation, that
‘This is probably why I keep coming back to printmaking in my work somehow.’
After a year of art and working with creatives she felt the desire to do more and be bigger. She tells me how she had seen people who had gone to Cape Town and returned to Port Elizabeth raving about Cape Town and that it was where an artist should go. She caught wind that Jane Alexander would be teaching sculpture at UCT. She was determined to be taught by Jane and so she applied and was accepted for the postgraduate course.
It was quite a shift from the more practical or ‘making’ side of things that she was familiar with to the approach she learnt during her postgrad.
‘Michaelis’ emphasis is a lot on the conceptual work. I got to be challenged in thinking how to push work in that direction. My work when I look at it has a little bit of both. It’s got making – you can feel and see the human intervention within the work and the materials having changed and also the thought process of how it is. It’s constantly changing.’
‘There’s definitely a huge change from what I was doing when I started compared to the work I’m doing now. I’m very fluid with the way it changes. I don’t hold back. I am just allowing myself and my work to develop as time goes.’
Our conversation moves to the challenges artists face in South Africa. She describes the narrow gateway that exists between graduating and making it as an artist and her sentiment about the root of the problem.
‘There are not enough project spaces in Cape Town for emerging artists, for young artists to be able to make work. It would be great if there was enough funding for us to be able to realise projects. We are lacking in those two things – being able to grow and actually make work.’
‘There is no space outside of the university to help you integrate into building a career in the arts. I found that very difficult.’
There are many graduates but only a handful make it into the galleries she says. Adding to that, there are not many galleries. She admits to finding this very disheartening explaining that a lot of people have the talent but their potential is stifled due to having to make money coupled with the fact that making art and materials can be very expensive depending on one’s practise.
‘I’ve found ways to make art with what is there and what is available and what is around.’
Going further into the challenges she’s faces as an artist in South Africa she says,
‘Being a black artist is incredibly hard because there’s this thing of there being only one little superstar – people only focus on this one person for this amount of time whereas it should be more of us.’
Fed up with this state of affairs and as a means of contesting the traditional notions of the contemporary art scene in South Africa, Lungiswa and ten fellow female artists created iQhiya Collective. Speaking more on the collective she says,
‘If you look around, there is not enough of us. Where are the black female artists? Where are they? There are not enough. You go to these galleries and it’s a lot of white artists all the time and there is not enough of us. You’ve met them but you don’t see them in these spaces. Those are the difficulties. There is only a tiny slot for one of you to go through at a time.’
‘That’s one of the many challenges faced so we’ve had to come together and force our way and make platforms in and outside these spaces and find different ways and alternative places to showcase work. One has to think now, besides these galleries where else can we show work. How else?’
Lungiswa firmly believes that we are in need of more spaces for people to realise a lot of important ideas. Too many times people want finished and clean things she says and that some of us don’t work that way and it’s not always the most interesting thing.
‘It seems very competitive – you’re either in a gallery or you’re not and so I’ve tried to not be attached to anything because I love showing in different spaces. That’s my thing, and I want my freedom in being able to show this but these galleries don’t want to take that risk. That just want to see, “Oh, OK, you’re fine, we can sell you, great, come.” That shouldn’t be the case always because it definitely deters your work into a direction that it wouldn’t have gone. Because, now you are thinking of your work as a commodity and I refuse to do that. It’s very difficult to work and get far without having to think about selling a product.’
Lungiswa’s hope is for more spaces to allow for freedom of expression. Other spaces, alternatives which allow for a lot more freedom so that people don’t have to think about selling but can rather focus on the work, what the work is about and what the work gives to people.
‘If we could focus on that I think we’d have much stronger work, much more accessible work.’