Sowetan-born young artist, Zwelethu Machepha (26), is slowing carving his own trail in the art scene with his socially conscious body of work.
By: Thanduxolo “Thandz” Buti
Main image: Supplied
In the belly of central Johannesburg, right behind the filth on End Street, lies a home to some of the most talented local visual artists, August House.
Among them are award-winning Mary Sibanda, Samson Mnisi, Sam Nhlengethwa and Senzo Shabangu, to name a few.
A young Zwelethu Machepha finds himself in the fish bowl of rising artists that are slowly attracting attention from this historic building.
I first had an encounter with Zweli (as many refer to him) at the group exhibition, Somethings Must Fall, curated by Assemblage, where he had a residency. Even then, his work was poignant and enchanting.
When I recently visited the August House open studios exhibition, I was deeply struck by his current work, which comprised of a docu-series, titled Slaves without Masters.
The series showcases captivating charcoal drawings that document the culture of recyclers who rummaging through Johannesburg central as a way to make ends meet.
“My intention was to document what they (recyclers) do but it became more interactive and personal,” Zweli tells Blacklight.
“Every one of them has a unique story and that’s when it became more emotional and personal for me.”
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.”
Zwelethu is boyish and full of sweet contradictions. At times there is a tad disconnection between him and his work, especially when he is forced to talk about it. Perhaps, this might be because of his philosophy that he tries not to make the work self-indulgent.
“I had a conversation with a friend and I was trying to describe what I don’t want my work to be.
“I explained that I really don’t want the work to be so much about me. It’s more about it adding more meaning to other people.”
He continues: “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 self-discovery. 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.
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 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 pigeonholed because I am invested in using different forms rather than being traditional. That, in my opinion, is a great characteristic to possess as a young artist,” he says.
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.
“It is a decision that I am able to live with because it allows me to be flexible and more productive in my practice,” he says.
But despite his fiery confidence about being a free agent, he admits that it’s not an easy route to take, especially as an emerging artist. He urges young artists to be clear about their intentions 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 the process of getting signed to a gallery is taxing and not always beneficial to the artist.
Yet, despite travelling the ragged road, he harbours 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. He was selected as the South African artist to be part of the ARP residency (2016/2017). The residency gave him a golden opportunity to showcase his work 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 is endless, but he laughs, ponders and says: “Don’t expect too much.”
Watch Zwelethu giving us a tour in his studios:
Zwelethu takes us through what he is currently working on: