Sifiso Mkhabela, The Shivering Slumber
Sifiso Mkhabela, The Shivering Slumber
Image: Supplied

The vibrant pulse of Johannesburg and the tales of its ordinary residents sparks Sifiso Mkhabela’s creative energy. He observes and reinterprets the stories of the people he encounters near his studio at the Asisebenze Art Atelier in Doornfontein.

“My studio is situated right next to where they work,” he explains, “so it’s an ongoing relationship between me as the viewer and then me turning [my observations} into the story that [becomes] the artworks.”

Asisebenze Art Atelier is a gallery and artist studio space where Mkhabela presents his solo exhibition; Concrete Cocoon. The building and exhibition are part of Contra.Joburg’s Sunday programme. This immersive two-day visual arts experience offers a hop-on hop-off tour of art studios and a chance to engage with artists.

In Concrete Cocoon, Mkhabela explores themes of struggle and solitude, but also a quiet, hopeful optimism, infusing his own experiences of establishing himself as an artist in Joburg with his observations of others. He sees Joburg as a city that permanently changes its inhabitants, becoming a cocoon-like incubator for people’s hopes of success. Concrete Cocoon reflects his changing perspectives.

“The works have changed as my experiences of the city [change] and evolve too,” he explains, “in a cocoon, we grow and morph into our fullest potential.”

Concrete Cocoon comprises a collection of vibrant two-dimensional multimedia works on cardboard. His artistic style reflects both traditional Western art and cartoon-like illustrations. This stylisation of narratives transforms them from disconnected personal experiences to a multi-faceted tale highlighting the tenacity of ordinary people.

His bold outlines are made of repurposed tire tubing stapled in collage onto the works, representing the constant movement of transport vehicles around Joburg, reiterating Joburg’s perpetual change.

Mkhabela uses cardboard as his “canvas”. Cardboard is discarded all over the streets and people earn money by recycling it. Mkhabela, therefore, dubs it “the new gold”, echoing Joburg’s history as the “city of gold” (eGoli.)

Sifiso Mkhabela, My Father's Land
Sifiso Mkhabela, My Father's Land
Image: Supplied

My Father’s Land depicts a man in traditional dress standing in front of a mountain range blocked by a barbed wire fence and addresses land reappropriation and African spirituality. This piece delves into the history of migrant workers.

“When they left their homes, they got robbed of their land,” Mkhabela explains, “The barbed wire [symbolises] fighting land.”

Mkhabela also explores ideas of spiritual contamination of misappropriated land, explaining that actions conflicting with African beliefs can taint the land’s purity.

“We … can get the land back, but it’s going to be useless…[sometimes] crops don’t grow because of a spiritual problem,” he states.

Despite portraying the struggle and loneliness lurking underneath Joburg’s metropolitan exterior, Mkhabela maintains that his works also presents hope.

“For instance,” he explains, “a mother who sells vetkoek in the morning [is] able to send her kids to school, and probably to university. At the end of the day, she will retire by saying: ‘My kids can now take care of me.’ A struggle is always towards something,” he says.

Mkhabela hopes that his message of resilience in dark and difficult times will shine through. His perseverance through his trials was not in vain, as they made him the artist he is today.

“Being in a cocoon is almost like being in a chamber of preparation,” Mkhabela says, “Joburg [was] preparing me to be an artist who is ready to tell the stories that are really happening in [present day] in the city.” 

• This article was produced by the African Art Content platform funded by Spier Arts Trust.

Concrete Cocoon, exhibited at Asisebenze Art Atelier, (28 Plein Street, Johannesburg) is on at Contra.Joburg, Sunday, May 26 from 10.30am-4.55pm. Tickets are R80, available via Quiket.

Contra.Joburg is an immersive two day art fair happening at various venues in Joburg on May 25 and 26.

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