Bonolo Kavula shows you what you're prepared to see.
For her first solo exhibition, titled sewedi sewedi, Kavula explores the practice of print-making beyond its traditional confines. Combining print with design, painting and sculpture, she creates compositions using punched shweshwe fabric pieces and meticulously measured strands of thread. Continuing her unconstrained exploration of abstraction, Kavula works with dynamism and intention, qualities self-evident in each completed work.
'I allow the materials I use to resonate with whoever sees that work in a way that is unique to them. I don't want to limit what the viewer may think or feel when they see the work, I don't want to prescribe meaning,' she says about her process. Kavula's work leans into this ability to shift our interpretation, to feel free to feel.
The concept of freedom holds a precarious position in our consciousness. Both 'liberation' and 'taking liberty' are fragile ideas that mean different things to each of us, depending on personal experiences. The one universal truth of freedom is that we strive to obtain and maintain our versions of it, even as they may evolve over time. Because that expansion shapes perspective, it can be invigorating to be able to meet oneself on different planes through the same visual inspiration. It also subverts the hierarchies of the gaze; the idea that each frame of reference breathes new life into Kavula's artworks intuitively declutters its narrative so the viewer can neatly immerse themself.
At the same time, unpacking the complexity of freedom leads one to the contentious concept of 'home'. Where do you go to feel replenished and find kindness?
'This period has compelled me to create a home for myself; a wholesome household. I'd prioritised working over the past two to three years, at the expense of my well-being. My living space was just where I slept and ate; I'd come home late, eat and sleep and then leave the following day. It's become my safe place in the past few months: a place of recovery, mourning, rest and solitude,' says Kavula.
She adds that after having been hospitalised for medical reasons, she wanted to add deeper and personal meaning to her art. And that is how her new work for this solo exhibition came to be made from shweshwe fabric. 'I sat in the hospital for ten days contemplating how my life–including my art–could improve when I get out. I wanted to have a meaningful attachment to my work and I needed my choice of art material to give me that,' she explains.
This connection to family and home is reflected in Kavula's choice of material for the majority of works on this exhibition, shweshwe, a traditional printed textile with a rich history rooted in Southern Africa. For her, the material is reminiscent of a red shweshwe dress that was an heirloom.
'It's one of my late mother's few remaining personal items that I have. My great grandmother insisted that I keep it and it has always felt like a double gift from her and my mother who passed away when I had just turned 5,' she adds.
Exploring repetitive visual patterns and concepts such as the mundane, the artist uses an office paper punch to create small discs of the fabric, which in turn is transformed into delicate grid-like tapestries.
Kavula tells me that she sees art in some of the most unlikely places, and perhaps that's what keeps her point of view rooted in rudiment. 'I've seen art just sitting in a taxi and looking out of the window. There are so many canvas-worthy moments out there. I have an urge to take up photography because I've started appreciating life and nature, I'm probably seeing a lot more art outside because we've been stuck in our homes for so long,' she says.
The liberties that Kavula takes elevate her explorations, and stand in stark contrast to her memory of her grandfather, to whom her exhibition pays homage.
'Sewedi is my grandfather's surname. He passed on suddenly while I was working towards this show and his passing was something that made me think a lot about his life. He was a miner at De Beers mines in Kimberley and worked very hard all his life. I know that he was depressed after he lost my grandmother years ago and then his daughter–my mother, soon after. In retrospect, I feel a sense of great sadness for him because I recognise that he was really sad and died sad. So, I want to honour him and show him he is loved, and this is the best way I can,' says Kavula.
While many give meaning to their time on earth by seeking freedom in labour and love, others can end up being confined by those things. 'I recognise that I labour just as my grandfather did, but the kind of work I do liberates me; I find joy in it and express myself freely. And that is different from his experience.'
Press release courtesy SMAC Gallery. Text: Jabulile Dlamini-Qwesha.