Designer Rich Mnisi, known for his eponymous fashion label, is showcasing his first solo furniture exhibition, titled Nyoka, at Southern Guild in Cape Town from 2 October to 11 November 2021. The exhibition is a follow-up to his 2018 furniture debut Nwa-Mulamula and his second showcase Alkebulan, which were both part of group shows at Southern Guild. Nyoka is a play on the duality of beauty and fear epitomised by the image of the snake, and draws on his family history as well as African mythology.
Your furniture debut was in 2018 — how did that come about and what inspired you to follow up with a full collection and exhibition?
I was asked to be part of a group show at Southern Guild called Extra Ordinary. Nwa-Mulamula’s Chaise and Nwa-Mulamula’s Tears are organic-shaped pieces that are an extension of my Nwa-Mulamula fashion collection — a homage to the memory of my late great-grandmother, an ever-present guardian whose teachings have lived on in my family through storytelling, generation after generation. The following year my second collection of seating, Alkebulan, was featured in Communion, a second group show with the gallery. It’s been a natural progression from that point, and an exciting new journey being able to express myself through a new medium. I’m grateful to Southern Guild for guiding me and helping to bring my vision to life.
Your upcoming exhibition, titled Nyoka, draws on African mythology and beauty distilled from darkness. Snakes are revered in ancient cultures, representing wisdom, rebirth, and transformation. Would you say that these themes are also considered in your collection?
Nyoka draws on my family history as well as African mythology, and plays with the duality of fear and beauty — epitomised by the image of the snake. This is what inspired the show’s title: Nyoka, which means “snake” in Xitsonga. For me, whether designing clothes or furniture, the process is an intuitive one. I worked closely with Southern Guild to realise my vision for these pieces and collaborated with several artisan groups as well.
Your debut furniture’s theme, Nwa-Mulamula, corresponded with your fashion collection then, and this current furniture collection’s theme does the same. Is this intentional and is it an ongoing strategy of your work?
As mentioned, it’s been a natural progression for me. I feel as a designer you’re always going to have a certain visual vocabulary, aesthetic, and philosophy that’s going to come through your work, whether it’s fashion, furniture design, or painting. Fluidity and form, for example, are two things that always inform my work, so yes, it’s intentional in the sense that these influences are elements to which I’m naturally drawn: they’re an extension of me.
Nyoka also represents the duality of beauty and fear. Normally, fear is an emotion most gravitate away from — how were you able to create even beyond this symbolism?
To live is to embrace this duality. To accept that joy and tragedy, light and darkness, dreams and nightmares are connected, orbiting, and defining each other, you must face the fear head-on and work through it to truly appreciate the beauty on the other side. Basically, you can’t have one without the other, as they exist side by side.
What would you say is your key design philo-sophy across fashion and furniture? Fluidity in all forms. This doesn’t only mean in terms of movement and flow, but also signifies the breaking down of boundaries. I create for everyone, beyond gender, race, and geographical lines. For me fluidity represents inclusivity, a tenet I hold very close to my heart.
How does this furniture collection reflect you and your family history? Nyoka, just like my most recent fashion collection, Ku Huhama, finds its origins in a dream my mother had. This started with a nightmare. My mother dreamt of a snake on her back. When she turned to look at it, she saw an intense green creature, frightening and fluid, dangerous and beautiful. My journey started here and led me to Congo’s Bushongo mythology and its creator god, Bumba, the god of vomit. There was nothing, and then there was Bumba, shaping first the sun and moon, and then the rest of the natural world from that acidic pain and discomfort. Unlike most of our world’s origin stories, this one proposes that the beauty and life of our world could be purged instead of birthed. The essence of a snake echoes throughout the collection, be it in terms of form, flow, or symbolism.
What has your growth process been like since your furniture debut, and then creating this collection?
My design process has become looser and much freer. I can say it’s certainly been a very liberating experience.
As a luxury designer, what do you think is the current evolution in the luxury sector since the pandemic, if there’s been an evolution at all?
Manufacturing and logistical complexities, a drastic drop in sales and a decline in footfall this past year have pushed luxury brands to increase prices in an attempt to recoup some of the losses due to Covid-19 restrictions on a global scale. We have seen, however, that luxury consumption is slowly starting to recover. With limited travel allowed by international consumers, local luxury consumption is also being boosted.
• From the September edition of Wanted, 2021.