b. 1992, Kimberley, South Africa
Lives and works in Cape Town, South Africa
Bonolo Kavula was born in 1992 in Kimberley, South Africa, and currently lives and works in Cape Town, South Africa. She obtained a BA(FA) from the Michaelis School of Fine Art (University of Cape Town) in 2014, majoring in printmaking. Kavula received the 2014 Katrine Harries Print Cabinet Award at the University of Cape Town and she was a founding member of the Cape Town based artist collective, iQhiya.
Kavula explores the practice of printmaking beyond its traditional confines creating works at the intersection of textile and sculptural art. Combining print with design, painting and sculpture, Kavula’s compositions, using punched shweshwe fabric pieces and meticulously measured strands of thread, are an interrogation into the possibilities of scale, surface and materiality and an unconstrained exploration of abstraction. In 2021, she presented her first solo exhibition, sewedi sewedi, at SMAC Gallery in Cape Town. Other recent projects include a solo booth at the 2020 Investec Cape Town Art Fair, as part of the curated section, TOMORROWS/TODAY, in Cape Town; Art Times, a performance at A4 Arts Foundation in Cape Town, in 2019; and Twenty Sexy, a performance at blank projects gallery in Cape Town.
Selected group exhibitions include: Speculative Enquiry #1: On Abstraction at the Michaelis Galleries in Cape Town in 2019; The Main Complaint, curated by Michaela Limberis, at the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (MOCAA) and Shady Tactics, curated by Thuli Gamedze at SMAC Gallery in Cape Town, both in 2018; Atomic Peace at the Bag Factory in Johannesburg, South Africa in 2017; iQhiya Group Exhibition at the Association for Visual Arts (AVA) Gallery in Cape Town and New Monuments at Commune1 in Cape Town, both in 2016. Her works are included in collections such as the the Iziko South African National Gallery in Cape Town and the Works of Art Committee Collection (UCT).
PROCESS AND PERSONAL
REFUGE IN THE WORKS OF
BY KHANYA MASHABELA
Minimalism is a label which has become heavy with associations, connotations and a particular context, but also light – freely applied to everything from contemporary art and design to self-help books (“the minimalist’s guide to…”). Definitions of minimalism rely on words including rationality, logic, harmony, simplicity, balance, and objectivity. There is a greater emphasis on internal logic than on expression, asserting the presence of beauty which we commonly associate with mathematics and science. This is heightened by the perceived ‘neutrality’ of the twentieth century, white, male artists most commonly referenced within the artistic movement. With all of this baggage in mind, it is not coincidental that the term ‘minimalist’ has been adopted by popular culture to refer to a kind of agnostic, moral purity. But minimalism is deeply psychological and subjective. It would not be as satisfying and soothing as it is, if it did not offer a reprieve from the chaos of the world and the psyche. In understanding the contemporary usage of the word ‘minimalism’, I see aesthetic hierarchies and an obsession with the process of making, two themes which Bonolo Kavula has experimented with throughout her artistic practice.
Bonolo Kavula was born in the early ‘90s in Kimberley, a small mining town in South Africa’s Northern Cape. With the encouragement of her mother, she undertook a Fine Arts degree at the Michaelis School of Fine Art in Cape Town, despite originally dreaming of being a fashion designer. While studying, she shifted from a focus in painting to a focus in printmaking, a medium that has a particularly loaded history in South Africa. Painting in the West has always been perceived as the ‘finer’ art, and this distinction was racialised in the context of Apartheid South Africa. Printmaking was also the tool of revolutionaries like Thami Mnyele of the Medu Art Ensemble who used the medium to broadcast political messages to urban, working-class Black people. This small snippet of personal and national history partially explains the origins of Kavula’s fascination with aesthetic hierarchies. While a student, Kavula began her ongoing practice of investigating and dismantling the distinctions placed between various art forms and the limitations of what ‘Contemporary African Art’ is supposed to look like. In thinking about these limitations, I am often reminded of David Koloane’s essay ‘The Identity Question: Focus of Black South African Expression’ (1993). Written the year after Kavula’s birth, the ideas discussed are as relevant to Black artists today as they were then. He asserts, “The argument for ‘identity’ in the work of Black artists, therefore, is only a smokescreen for an essentially racist questioning of their abilities”, because it trades in the idea of protecting the ‘Otherness’ of Black people, an ideology held by the Apartheid government. Though Kavula’s art, like all artists, is essentially rooted in her own identity, she has chosen an aesthetic which is rarely associated with her place and time. Instead, she plays with the rules of painting. In her most recent series of work, Kavula came upon a new process in which she uses a mechanical paper punch to turn canvas and textiles into confetti-like circles, which she applies onto gridlines made of thread. Kavula describes these works as paintings. Though the process defies the steps we commonly consider to be painting, the end result holds many of the same visual strategies. The works drape on the wall, introducing light and dimension to the surface, and the patterns on each textile circle create an opposing dynamic to the simplicity of the grid.
Kavula’s choice of material has changed as she has developed her process. The works are made on a canvas frame which she usually removes from the final work but which she has sometimes kept in order to strengthen the connection to painting. The textile itself has varied from canvas to shweshwe, a material loaded with meaning in the South African context. Like Dutch wax cloth in West Africa, Shweshwe is a colonial import which has come to be considered as ‘traditional’ within the region. The fabric is usually made up of circular, geometric patterns and was originally indigo blue, though there are now many variations of colour. It was named after Lesotho’s King Moeshoeshoe I, who popularised it among the Basotho people, but the fabric was gifted to him by French missionaries and was originally imported by Swiss and German settlers, meaning that its origin is more European than African. Despite this history, it is seen as iconically southern African. In her first solo exhibition with SMAC Gallery, titled sewedi sewedi, after her maternal grandfather’s surname, Kavula named each work in Sesotho as a reminder of familial and domestic kindness. Shweshwe is often worn by elderly mothers and has been seen as ‘matronly’ in the past. However, it is constantly being reinvented by local fashion designers and is now strongly associated with traditional weddings and glamorous brides.
It is not a material which is commonly referenced in art-making, but the monochromatic geometry of most shweshwe fabric immediately makes sense as tiny patterns reordered within Kavula’s grid paintings. Kavula has adopted parts of the Minimalist approach in her process and sensibility, namely the very gradual exploration of abstract, visual strategies. As she repeats her process over and over, she finds new variables to subtly adjust, renewing the works each time. In fact, it is an approach which is also seen in the gradual changes of the shweshwe print over time. However, Kavula does not take on the language of neutrality or objectivity often assigned to the Minimalist movement of the mid-twentieth century. The earlier reference to self-help books which preach a ‘minimalist’ lifestyle was partly made to reflect Kavula’s own attempts to explode the boundaries between ‘high’ and ‘low’, but also to acknowledge that the term has a psychological dimension. The desire to create work which is meditative and balanced feels aspirational because it suggests a desire to create a world or a life that feels balanced. One of the minimalists who Kavula has cited as an influence is artist Agnes Martin. They share an attraction to monochromatic, subdued colour palettes and experimenting with grids as the foundation of their paintings. Kavula later learned that Martin had suffered from schizophrenia, which suggested to her that the highly ordered environment seen within Martin’s paintings is not a depiction of a ‘self-actualised’ mind, but the creation of a person experiencing emotional turmoil and attempting to create peace for herself. This is connected with her own experience of art-making. Trauma, personally and culturally, is especially widespread in South Africa. Kavula’s approach to art as a place of personal refuge is relevant in her own context, even as it borrows from Western art history.
Minimalism’s preoccupation with repetition can sometimes appear obsessive, but in Kavula’s paintings there is always the suggestion of organic rather than machine-made formalism, and the presence of the artist’s fallible hand, a strategy also seen in Martin’s paintings. Kavula’s practice is irrevocably connected with the studio, and the way that she feels emotionally when she is making. The action of punching the fabric with the mechanical punch and then intuitively deciding where each of hundreds of circular pieces of fabric must find their place sounds as meditative as counting the beads of a rosary. As Kavula repeats the process, she continues to create new rules and disobey old rules that she has made for herself. In the making of her latest series of paintings she has found new colours of shweshwe and deployed new colour combinations, attempted to place new shapes onto her grids, experimented with new ways to hang the works on the wall, overlaid some of her mesh-like paintings over others, and scrapped her experimentations in order to start again. As I look at these grid paintings, I am reminded of the older traditions of poetry. A poet could use iambic pentameter or switch to trochaic tetrameter, counting their syllables and rhyme schemes, but the outcome still feels intuitive and directly emotional rather than sterile. In doing so, Kavula creates a refuge which is harmonious but which still has room for unpredictability, for herself and for her viewers.