Banele Khoza, born in Swaziland and based in Pretoria, South Africa, has held over forty exhibitions alongside other artists and recently held his first solo exhibition at the young age of twenty-two in the Pretoria Art Museum. Ayiba’s Sanet Oberholzer recently sat down to speak to the talented youth about his experience as an artist and budding future.
How did your career as an artist develop?
I started in my first year of studying. Initially I was doing art-related wedding invitations and then in second year I started updating my Facebook page with the projects that I was working on – I was always working on a project. Eventually a gallery spotted my work and they invited me to exhibit a few of my works in my second year. It was quite interesting and a compliment as well. Initially we started off with about eight drawings and that grew into a group exhibition with three other established artists. I was the young one amongst them. I think what’s interesting about starting quite early is that you learn the ropes of what happens in the gallery system so that whatever you are creating is at a professional standard and you know exactly what they want, not in terms of the content but in terms of the quality of the work. It’s actually helped me develop relationships with other galleries.
Explain to me how your brand BKhz functions?
BKhz is basically my brand under which I am working as an artist. It’s not under my name so it’s a separate entity.
So essentially that gives you an opportunity to incorporate more people if you wanted to?
Not even people but projects as well because it will fall under BkHz. BkHz could be interested in fashion for which I’ll then do illustrations. At the moment I’m collaborating with a fashion designer under the brand BkHz.
Art is one of those fields youngsters are often dissuaded to pursue by their parents because of this idea that it’s a tough industry to break into. How did your parents react to your decision to pursue art?
I think it’s interesting how you look at it in the sense that your parents would think that it’s hard to break into art but in the context of maybe looking at black parents, not many appreciate art. It’s something that’s not taken seriously. It’s like you just want to go play and draw. So they’re not even aware that there is an art industry. I think my parents were more concerned when I went into fashion – I have no idea why. When I started fine art they felt like I had been drawing for a while so it’s fine, I can go and study it. They were relaxed but I think my father still worries about how I am going to make money out of this.
You’re still quite young but at age twenty-two you’re showcasing your first solo exhibition which is rather impressive. What is the reason behind your personal success?
I think people appreciate seeing someone take something very seriously. It has not been just a fleeting thing that I’ve been doing and I think maybe that’s what everyone has gotten a sense of because basically I’ve been trying very hard to promote myself. From second year I’ve been doing online posts. There’s so much data everywhere, from my Instagram to Facebook, and I think that people have been watching my posts. I think consistency is the right word. That and also improving yourself all the time.
Tell me about your recent exhibition in the Pretoria Art Museum titled Temporary Feelings. What social commentary were you making and what was the central theme running through the exhibition?
What’s interesting is that, when you create initially, you don’t think that it will have a social commentary. I’m always just creating because I enjoy creating. I think I was aware of people that I see as my idols and I looked at what they do and what they’re looking into. I mean, just look at Zanele Muholi, she’s basically a visual activist studying the LGBTI community and creating content about them and their stories. For me it didn’t come like right, that’s your message, that’s what you’re going to be talking about. I think it came from a personal space of watching feelings and how temporary they are. It’s like I’ve been a gauge of my feelings and just watching how they go about in a day. I’ve been staying on my own and working on my own all the time and I think too much of it accumulates into loneliness and I think that’s what actually came out of the show without me even being aware that I’m creating works that are resembling this. I was looking at society as well. I’m constantly watching people and how they interact with technology. With social media, people now prefer to be indoors on a Friday night on their cell phone so everyone is trying to be alone and we’re all connected but deep down we’re all lonely.
How did gender come into play in Temporary Feelings?
To be honest, it’s not something that you choose to incorporate, it just happens. Right now I’m going through a pink phase. Even indoors I’ve got so much pink happening. But that’s not a gender norm. It’s being contradictory to what males should be and it’s interesting that pink was initially a colour for boys in the 1940s and it is now associated with females. So I’m always trying to play with that. If I feel like using pink, I will use pink, and it’s just stepping out of gender norms in a way. I think it helps other people accept the fact that sometimes you might feel feminine. You do own feminine traits as well so it’s just about accepting yourself for who you are as opposed suppressing it.
When did you decide that you would like to exhibit your art and that it’s something that you want to share with other people?
This was an opportunity that came through by invitation. In my mind it felt like I wasn’t ready but at the same time I knew I was ready. I think it was a matter of now just doing it. What I’ve realised is that some opportunities like exhibiting in the museum is not something that comes along any day. And it is sort of the next step as an artist.
Does South African society have an influence on your work?
Yes, completely. I think it helps that growing up in Swaziland – and now I’m referencing an author that speaks in a book titled 9 Weeks – everyone is just an individual so there’s no racial issues of any form happening in Swaziland. When you grow up there you’re not aware of those kinds of tensions. It took me a while to actually realise that there is so much racial tension between us when I came to South Africa. So I think with me, coming from Swaziland, I just saw everyone as human and that’s how I’ve interacted. But then you end up being in a space where you actually realise that it’s not that lovey dovey. People are facing those racial tensions and it just opens a wider perspective as to how people are.
How do you deal with negative criticism?
I don’t know if I read it somewhere or if I heard it from somewhere but whatever someone tells you, it shouldn’t be your testament to life, it’s just an opinion so either you take it in or you dispose of it. It’s a matter of does it work for you or not? If it was a conversation between you and me now I’ll be watching your actions in the conversation. I’d take it in that context – was it coming from a meaningful place to help or tear down? It can be on so many levels. There’s criticism that I take to heart but mostly it’s just a matter of is it going to help, or is it not? But you always have to be open to criticism. Maybe people are not intending to break you and it might break you but sometimes it comes from a good place.
People in the arts – especially if you’re doing this for a living – have to have a constant flow of creativity in order to produce their work. How do you make sure that you have this constant flow of creativity?
Paul Smith mentions that there’s inspiration in everything that you look at. So you don’t necessarily have to wait or have a tank full of creativity like ideas or inspiration. I think anything could be something. Creativity is just creating something so the idea is just to create something and eventually it will link to something else. I think that’s how I approach it as well. Unfortunately I’ve got so much admin now so it’s less creating but every day when I get a chance I just make something. So I don’t wait for inspiration to come. Sometimes it never comes.
How do you manage to retain your passion for what you do whilst having to do it for a living?
It’s very interesting because I think that’s what I’m currently going through right now. Last night I could have been sad about being in this position that I’m in but when you wake up you feel completely different and it’s just like, “I love what I’m doing!” So I think it’s that. It’s something that I have been doing for a while. I mean, I didn’t just start doing it while I was studying; I was doing it from the age of five years so it’s just an everyday thing for me. Even though I might be stressed out by the fact that I have deadlines, I still enjoy it and I don’t see myself doing anything else right now. I just love everything about art.
Do you know how lucky you are to be doing what you love?
I might not realise it at times but to do what you love comes at a sacrifice because you need to work maybe twice as hard as anyone else and to be taken seriously as a young artist you need to work even harder. I sacrifice things like not always being able to go home, or not always being with my friends or talking to them. You end up missing what is seen as normal. On weekends you still have emails to answer and I cannot simply leave it for Monday. If I don’t do it then it means there’s a consequence of not doing it. So, and I think that’s what I would like people to realise as well, that as much as they think it’s great, it also taxes you. That’s why lots of famous artists end up committing suicide, because it’s taxing, especially the loneliness. And I also I think you can sit with everything that you’ve wished for but if you’re lonely and you’ve got no one to share it with it’s the worst thing ever. It loses meaning completely.
If you had to draw an abstract picture of what Africa means to you, what would that picture look like?
There’s always a reference – because now I’ve seen the picture of Africa and immediately my mind goes there. Just like when someone asks you to draw an apple, initially it can look like an orange but the moment it’s got the stem attached to it then it looks like an apple. So I think in my head right now I’d probably split the countries. The reason why I’d split them is because we are Africa but we are all kind of detached from one another in a way because South Africa is South Africa and Swaziland is its own entity and has it’s on its own reality. Botswana is doing its own thing. So I think it would be different parts.