ARTISTS TO KNOW: MMADIKA MPHUTHI
South-African multidisciplinary artist who is empowering black queer femmes in a cisheteronormative creative landscape.
SHEER: Tell us a little bit about yourself and where you're from.
MMADIKA MPHUTHI: I am a Pretoria-born multidisciplinary contemporary artist and digital content producer currently studying law, film and television at the University of Cape Town. I spent some of my formative years growing up in one of the liveliest townships in Pretoria - a township called Atteridgeville, where I stayed with my then married parents and grandparents. One wasn’t exactly aware of the socioeconomic status of a township (as a child) until my family experienced upward social mobility when we finally moved to the eastern suburbs in Johannesburg. It was then where I was confronted with the issues of class. I was once a colourful kid living in the township, care-free in the streets, and then suddenly I was suddenly thrown into differently cultured suburban life. A lot of my artistic work explores my feelings while dealing with that transition and my identity with regards to it. The oscillation between two worlds – a South African township where people are at the violent receiving end of inequality (with South Africa being amongst the world’s most unequal countries), and then entering the world of the middle class where one’s socioeconomic background was intrinsically different from before – this shift contributed a lot towards the multifacetedness of my being. If anything, I gained knowledge that is rarely found amongst people with no or very little social mobility.
I believe myself to be a multifaceted person with no singular expression of myself so I find various ways of creatively expressing myself through different mediums and approaches to art. My mediums of choice include writing and digital content production and (when my I do have the time and resources) music production.
SHEER: Was there a definitive moment that called you to become an artist or was it a process that developed over time?
MM: I never really “wanted” to be an artist –it never crossed my mind as such. My father was adamant on preparing me from a young age to become a successful young woman working in corporate. I had internalized adult sentiments about artists in this country dying poor. I excelled at school so I was encouraged to pursue the corporate life. It was only in high school (I attended a catholic all-girls school) where teachers pointed me out as an anomaly with regards to my creative writing. I stood out. Although my father didn’t believe in it (because art is known not to materialize fiscally especially in a country like South Africa where the economy does not lend space to creatives) the support I received from my educators sufficed and gave me the courage to embrace my artistic side fully. It was a process. I wrote more. I performed poetry. I wrote short stories. I wrote songs. As soon as I got to university I met many incredible artists of all disciplines and realised that I didn’t not have to restrict my artistic abilities to just writing. It was in university that I found out that I am capable of far more.
SHEER: In what ways does your culture and upbringing influence your work?
MM: I love the idea of conserving/preserving my culture (I am a Southern Sotho and Ndebele hybrid) within my work and do so by writing in those said languages where I can. Some things simply cannot be expressed in English. The English vocabulary is extremely limiting and at times does not have the capacity to translate one’s thoughts as a black queer South African woman.
Having had the kind of social mobility not afforded to most South Africans I was at an advantage in that I had various experiences to draw from. From my life as a township child to being a suburban teenager in a predominantly white catholic school and then now studying at the a University dubbed the best on the continent. A lot of my work draws heavily on my socioeconomic transitioning as well as the psychological implications of struggling with cultural identity growing up. “Too white for the black kids and too black for the white kids”. A lot of my work as a teenager was influenced my searching for a balance in my identity. I started doing activist work in university and was a part of the 2016 Fees Must Fall movement which brought on many experiences that I have translated into art as a form of healing from the trauma caused by that period.
SHEER: What are the various mediums of art you’ve experimented with and what other types of art would you like to explore?
MM: I have explored mediums such as filmmaking, music production and screenwriting. I’ve also found love in creating digital art as a hobby. Hopefully in the future, one will have the means to gain resources that would assist me in further exploring my visual art. I am currently restricted by a lack of means for resources as they do tend to be expensive for the average black middle class person in South Africa. This can range from pricey canvases and paint to PC’s needed for software that helps one grow artistically – taking one’s art to the next level. I have however managed to make it this far with what has availed itself to me and for that I am eternally grateful.
SHEER: What would you say is the greatest challenge in creating art that deviates from the mainstream standard of gender identity and femininity that is so commonly portrayed?
MM: The greatest challenge in creating art that deviates from mainstream heteronormative culture is that cisheterosexual people tend to only be receptive of it in a voyeuristic way. Many do not fully engage with meaning but rather consume the work purely on an aesthetic level. In some case one has to do a little bit of pandering just to get one’s artwork seen because of the elitism in the industry. With the South African creative industry being white and elitist it is already difficult for myself as a black queer woman to break out; it’s even worse if my art is not mainstream and deviates from the norm of the masses. Despite these barriers one insists on continuing to push forward against all odds.
SHEER: How do you believe your work is contributing to the dialogue surrounding black femme identity? In what ways do you hope to keep the conversation going?
MM: I would like to believe that my contributions serve as a voice for us black queer femmes who are practically invisible in a cisheterosexual world. For me it is a contribution to the global queer community’s response to us being silenced. Putting our work out there is a retaliation to being silenced. Creating is our way of asserting our identity on our own terms. I would like to believe that my work contributes towards that notion.
SHEER: What is some advice you would like to share for queer black artists trying to navigate the creative world as authentically as possible?
MM: I would advise that one gains a strong network as the queer community needs each other in order to survive in cisheterosexual spaces, and unfortunately the creative industry in this country is a very cisheterosexual space. Queer people tend to break out only when they are in groups. Rarely will one go far as a queer person in the industry on their own. It is of great essence to emphasize the importance of a strong network and support system. That, and an undying belief in oneself against all odds in this cisheteronormative world. The most important thing is to internalize is the fact that you are worthy and capable despite the odds, because the odds will always be there. It is, however, important that your spirit remains resilient and unchanged.