“Please call me Cow,” says the artist born Kgaogelo Mashilo, whose sobriquet Cow Mash is derived from both an endearment and the subject of the exploration of her works. “When I was younger — before realising the derogatory connotations of the cow towards a woman — Mom called me Kgaoza, which got shortened to Kgao and ended up sounding like Cow. It stuck; I fell in love with pet-naming myself a whole Holy Cow.”
Born in Limpopo in 1994, and now based in Pretoria, the artist is a lecturer at Tshwane University of Technology, currently studying towards her master’s in fine and applied arts, majoring in sculpture. Her most striking works can be viewed on her Instagram account: a series of black-and-white, mixed-media art — some works on canvas — depicting cows personified as women, for example, one kneeling, bent over a seemingly innocuous but immediately identifiable enamel bowl as part of an African household; as well as fashion garments made from material such as silicone.
“My work explores the experiences of existing as a black woman in this contemporary world. There is a lot of heaviness to that. There is also strength, growth, and transformation in the mix of that weight,” she says. The point of reference is always herself but she speaks of issues in a generic way so people can relate and take from it what they want. “Stories of pain and loneliness are not something that I can carry alone.”
Mmadihlofa, the Sepedi word describing a cow that has too much milk, titles her sculpture of a woman sitting on the arm of a chair. Her mammoth breasts are a metaphor for the emotions of women, the heaviness of the weight of the world women carry on their chests. On the base of the chair is a mould of a grass mat or legogwa, traditionally used for women — never men — to sit on. By placing the woman on an elevated surface, she wants to challenge the idea of men sitting on a raised surface; always higher than women.
“There’s a lot that needs to be challenged and to transform when it comes to culture and gender roles, especially in the context of now and gender-based violence. A lot of it stems from what we thought to be culturally right,” says Cow.
“Oftentimes I am thinking about cows; how they exist in the meat industry, how they existed in rural communities, idioms and metaphors in Sepedi and in English, and how all of these can be used to explain or compare the experience of existing as a woman. In some cases, I just create and allow my spirit to lead with the thought of cows or the black body as a starting point.”
Even though Cow is a sculptor, fashion has always influenced her work and how she dresses. “Fashion records cultures; it tells a lot about a certain era by what people are wearing. In my culture, I’m interested in the conversations around how single women are covered or bare-chested and what women wear for marriage ceremonies.” In 2019, she bagged the prize in the fashion category of the PPC Imaginarium, an annual competition that celebrates design innovation.
She has presented smaller, more intimate works at this year’s Turbine Art Fair, the size of which, she clarifies, may and may not have been inspired by lockdown.
“When lockdown first hit it changed the way we moved, the way we thought.” She says it influenced The Herd series — the title is a play on words on the idea of an individual cow in a breeding herd that is likely not heard. It also explores the idea of ear tags — systemising, the herding of cattle — and how relatable it is to women.
Cow works as an independent artist who has exhibited with various galleries, including Circa Everard Read, developing relationships in the art scene until she is ready to make an informed decision and sign up with a gallery, without fear.
• From the September issue of Wanted 2020.