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State of the art: South Africa's most exciting contemporary artists

These five South African artists walk the line between tradition and modernity, nodding to a storied past with their eyes firmly on a bright and bold future

Published 9 Apr 2019, 00:19 BST, Updated 14 Jul 2021, 14:36 BST
Constitution Hill

Constitution Hill

Photograph by National Geographic Traveller (UK)

Mohau Modisakeng

The 2016 recipient of the coveted Standard Bank Young Artist of the Year Award, Soweto-born multidisciplinary creator Mohau Modisakeng navigates the realities of post-colonial, post-apartheid South Africa, interrogating the collective narratives that inform current ideologies, particularly, he says, "those that evoke the black body as a site of fragmentation and distortion".

Employing film, large-scale photographic prints, sculpture, performance and installations, his is a vision that demands we acknowledge the past — in South Africa's case, one that's fraught with unresolved scores and painful divides — if we're to move forward into the future.

While themes of loss and violence are a common pulse coursing through Modisakeng's work — sometimes slow and contemplative, sometimes powerful and insistent — his images themselves aren't violent. They are, however, striking in their poignancy. His art, his physical self, become channels for introspection — drawing, he says, from his own early traumas. According to the artist, it was these formative experiences, in a country both hurtling into newness and anchored to history, that inspired him to start putting his own body into his photographs as more than just a symbol of his own identity, but as reflective of South Africa's collective black experience. If his meteoric rise as one of South Africa's brightest young talents is anything to go by, it's a nation that's ready to look forward but also, finally, back.

Check him out: Modisakeng's work is included in public collections at the Johannesburg Art Gallery, the Iziko South African National Gallery in Cape Town, the Zeitz MOCAA and the Saatchi Gallery in London. @modisakeng

Buhlebezwe Siwani

"I dislike the term 'African art'," says visual and performance artist Buhlebezwe Siwani. "It lends itself to a particular connotation that I am not a fan of – no one says 'Western art'. Now more than ever, people are becoming aware of art made by Africans; we have always been shouting, only now we are not being ignored." For an artist who has exhibited all over the globe, from Cape Town where she completed her MFA at the Michaelis School of Fine Arts to New York, it's a limiting label – concepts that have no place in her art. What you will find in her evocative body of work are common themes of spirituality, black bodies, sexuality, history, colonialism, culture, tradition, religion and the female body, oftentimes with videos and stills used in installations as a stand-in for her own body, a marker of its physically absence from the space.

"My artistic process is such that I begin by seeing everything as a performance piece," says Siwani, who is currently working on her first-ever gallery solo presentation and is also a member of iQhiya, a collective of young black female artists. "Then I'll make drawings or I write about it – everything takes off from there and the work chooses how it ends up executed, I do not." As an initiated sangoma, intuition doesn't simply inform her art. "It is my art," she asserts. "I no longer think on a small scale. If I have a vision, no matter how big, I find a way to make it happen."

When asked about the last artwork that moved her, Siwani's answer reveals that this large-scale thinking isn't just limited to her own work. "I was on the road for more than seven hours driving through the rural Eastern Cape and every single moment was an artwork – it was hard to concentrate on the road. The sheer amount of beauty amazes me."

Check her out: Her work is included in the Spier Art Collection in Stellenbosch, one of the country's largest contemporary collections. @buhlebezwesiwani

Fanie Buys

When Fanie Buys describes his childhood with the words "there was a time when my father was an elder in the Dutch Reform Church; there was also a time when I was doing yoga naked with my godmother on a cliff overlooking the sea", you sort of start to really get his work. Oil painting may be one of the most revered mediums, but it's also one that Buys employs to explore what he calls "mass imagery".

"I like to explore class dynamics and questions of taste formation," says the 2017 Michaelis School of Fine Art graduate who's already had his first solo show in Cape Town. "My mother is from the UK, so I have a slightly misplaced sense of class dynamics here in South Africa. A lot of that is based on picking up on how people present themselves to betray a more humble origin."

Characterised by thick brush strokes, saturated colour ("when people get an oil painting from me, I want them to feel like I'm really giving them the most oil paint I can") and pop culture icons at their most Huisgenoot (Afrikaans South Africa's answer to Hello! magazine), Buys's solo show 'This Man' asks what relation do click bait, memes and nostalgia culture have with regard to how we navigate our cultural milieu. It's also a vivid, often self-deprecating reminder of the multiplicity of stories the country has to tell.

As Buys says, "It's hard to think of a story that encompasses the multitude of voices in this country, but I hope I do one of the many stories we have. I don't want to be just a sad Afrikaans gay boy or a celebration of ageing queens or a bitter homosexual on a rampage because he has bad bone structure, but all of these things form part of my story."

Check him out: 'I'm doing a lot of experimentation and considering new subject matter, so you can see my steady progress on my Instagram,' says Buys. 'Paintings just happen. I have literally no control over them.' @fanie_nani


One of the biggest misconceptions about artists from the African continent is that you have to move to Europe or America to make it as an artist." As both a female in a male-dominated medium and a street artist in a country where the scene, she says, is "still relatively small", on paper this may look like little more than hopeful optimism from Cape Town-based creative Nardstar*. Then you learn how far she's come, from her first paid commission (a mural at a go-kart racing place that now, she laughs, is "cringe-worthy") to recent career highlights that include painting at the Nike World HQ in Portland, Oregon as part of a mural project with 17 other acclaimed artists from around the globe and being invited to the Obama Foundation Summit in Chicago to create a mural with the attendees, and realise it's an affirmation of the future of African art coming from one of the talents on the forefront of a growing wave.

For Nardstar*, hailing from South Africa where her parents fought in the Struggle plays an important role in informing her art. She says, "South Africa's history is very rich and our democracy is still fresh, so there is still a lot of healing around race and identity, and these topics are things that I think about when I choose subject matter – such as portraits of women of colour – or when choosing commissions like a recent mural I did of political prisoners that were held at a female prison during apartheid at Constitution Hill."

Her distinctive style is characterised by what she calls an "organised arrangement of bold lines and colourful shapes" and in a world where attitudes about graffiti are becoming more progressive and Nardstar* herself asserts that "commercial collaborations are going to grow even more", honouring what sets you apart is everything. "I always make it clear to my clients that I prefer to align my personal work with my commissions and that I won't paint anything that I am not comfortable with. I am very strict about maintaining my authenticity," she says.

Check her out: Her murals adorn walls from New York to Cape Town, including a huge piece for the Two Oceans Aquarium at the V&A Waterfront. @nard_star

Nicholas Hlobo

Nicholas Hlobo is a Johannesburg-based multidisciplinary artist who transmutes raw materials into a sort of artistic alchemy. His large sculptural works consciously juxtapose masculine and feminine elements, with metaphor and symbolism as crucial a component of his sprawling pieces as the unusual conglomerations of rubber inner tubes, wood, leather, ribbon, organza and found objects. It makes for an exploration of not only himself, but of sexuality, gender and class within a South African context — even the Xhosa titles of his pieces are intended to tell a story about his identity — that's nevertheless managed to resound on a global scale, with his work being shown in solo exhibitions from London to the Hague and Boston to Miami.

His body also serves as an extension of his sculptural works, with performance pieces now making up an important part of his oeuvre. His 2007 work 'Dabula' (meaning to blossom, explode or erupt), for example, was performed at Rome's Extraspazio and looked specifically at perceptions around the black male body.

Check him out: Hlobo's work can be found in Cape Town's Zeitz MOCAA, the largest museum of contemporary African art in the world. Hlobo is represented by Lehmann Maupin.

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Published in National Geographic Traveller — The Africa Collection 2018

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