Behind the Canvas: Zwelethu Machepha

Sowetan-born young artist, Zwelethu Machepha (26), is slowing carving his on trail in the Jozi art scene with his socially conscious body of work.

By: Thanduxolo “Thandz” Buti

In the belly of central Johannesburg and right beyond the nose blocking filth on End Street lays the home of local artists, August House. You may be fooled by the decay cladding the building but behind is a treasure of young and well-heeled artists.

Among them are the award-winning Mary Sibanda, Samson Mnisi, Sam Nhlengethwa and Senzo Shabangu, to name a few. The young Zwelethu Machepha finds himself in a fish bowl of rising artists that are slowly attracting attention from this historic building.

I first had an encounter with him at the group exhibition, Somethings Must Fall, produced by Assemblage where he had a residency. Even then his work had a poignant and enchanting demeanor.

Zwelethu during the Somethings Must Fall group exhibition.

But it was when I went to the August House open studios exhibition last year that I was struck by his work which comprised of his docu-series, Slaves without Masters.

The series showcases captivating charcoal drawings that document recyclers rummaging around Johannesburg trying to make ends meet.

“My intention was to document what they do but it became more interactive and personal.

Every one of them has a different story and that’s when it became more emotional and personal for me,” says Zwelethu about the process of creating the work.

“I really don’t want the work to be so much about me but more about it adding more meaning to other people.”

Zwelethu is boyish and full of sweet contradictions. At times there is a disconnection between him and his work when he talks about it. This might be because of his philosophy that he tries not to make his self-indulgent.

“I had a conversation with a friend and I was trying to describe what I don’t want my work to be,” He explains.

I explained that I really don’t want the work to be so much about me but more about it adding more meaning to other people.”

He adds: “As artists, sometimes we find ourselves being so obsessed with ourselves. But for me it’s all about juggling the two, personal and impersonal. It helps me be more flexible and also to add variety to my work.”

Watch Zwelethu taking us through his work:

As a young artist, Zwelethu admits that he is still on the journey of discovering his voice in the rather volatile industry. He reveals that due to his background in theatre, he treats this period of his career like a theatre production.

“At this point I am still rehearsing. I am working towards my finest work but to get there I must always re-identify and restructure my voice, instead of just narrowing it down,” he explains with so much zeal.

“I think it would be hard for me to be pigeon holed because I am invested in using different forms while creating work rather than being traditional.”

Zwelethu identifies more with the term multi-disciplinary artist as he is always finding new formats to include to his work. He may specialise in printmaking, drawing and graphics but he reveals that he is now adding stitching to his repertoire. He adds that being able to alternate between different mediums gives him a sense of freedom and adds different faces to his work.

“I think it would be hard for me to be pigeon holed because I am invested in using different forms while creating work rather than being traditional. That is in my opinion a great characteristic to possess as a young artist,” he says.

Portrait of a Man by Zwelethu Machepha
Portrait of a Man by Zwelethu Machepha

The studio he shares with Lehlogonolo Mashaba is layered with his pieces from Slaves without Masters and Colonial Ghosts. Scattered around are also a few pieces that he is currently working on that include the new technique of stitching. As an artist that is not attached to any gallery, he explains that the process is more independent than it would be if he had a gallery looking over his shoulder.

“Right now, I am working with galleries rather than being signed to one. And it is a decision that I am able to live with because it allows me to be flexible and more productive in my practise,” he says.

But despite his fiery confidence about being a free agent, he admits that it’s not an easy route to take, especially when you’re starting out. He urges young artists to be clear about their intentions as artists before choosing the freelance route. “It’s not easy; you must have the heart for it.”

With Jozi being over-saturated by artists, it’s no secret that many are willing to do anything out of desperation for recognition. Zwelethu explains that this is because the process of getting signed by a gallery is taxing even though it’s not always beneficial to the artist.

Adjustmenst Never End III
Adjustmenst Never End III

Yet, despite travelling the ragged road of being an artist, Zwelethu reveals that he still holds no regrets about choosing the route.

“Being an artist was not easy but making the decision was quite easy,” he explains.

“Once you make the decision then it’s hard to take it back.”

Zwelethu is much busier than before since he was selected as the South African artist to be part of the ARP residency (2016/2017). The residency enabled him a golden opportunity to showcase his work early last year in Rome.

This year he will work with an Italian artist who will be visiting South Africa as part of the residency. The collaboration will lead to another exhibition and a few community engagements. He also reveals that he is working on new drawings for the Cape Town Art Fair.

The list becomes endless but when asked what to expect this year he laughs, ponders and shyly says: “Not too much.”

Watch Zwelethu giving us a tour in his studios:

Zwelethu takes us through what he is currently working on:

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