Creating art is a form of courage. With each brush stroke, one is able to transform, educate and inspire.
For Mondli “The Artivist” Kunene, creating art is also a beautiful combination of passion and activism.
The Soweto-born visual artist seeks to authentically narrate African stories through his art, while also capturing the essence of our times in a thought-provoking manner. Ultimately, his art is created from a place of freedom and also encourages freedom of thought.
“I regard MondliART as being free because I do not follow the traditional ways of creating art or how to tell my story,” he clarified.
The gifted artist further shared that his art is influenced by his upbringing and life experiences, as well as hip-hop music which he plays each time he sits down to create.
“I am influenced by Dr Dre, Busta Rhymes, Lloyd Banks, Kanye West and Pro Kid. Although I grew up in a household that listens to all kinds of genres, I strictly listen to hip-hop when I’m painting.”
Although Kunene’s love for art dates back to his childhood, he only decided to leave his teaching career in 2018 in order to pursue art full-time.
Since then, he has grown immensely as an artist and achieved various commendable milestones.
These include being chosen by Design Indaba in 2019 as one of 50 creatives to look out for in South Africa. Moreover, he has received recognition in Ghana at the Forty Under Forty Africa awards.
From his impressive list of achievements, one of Kunene’s favourite career highlights is the mind-blowing number of sales he made in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. For this, he credits nothing else but God.
“I’m a firm believer in God. I praise God and I believe in His miracles. I’m very grateful that I sold a lot of work during that time.”
A simple glance at MondliART exposes one to the realization that art is more than just paint on a canvas. Rather, it is the depth of story-telling, authenticity and freedom.
“Each and every artwork that I create tells a story. I believe it is my mandate as a South African creative to tell our stories in an authentic way.
When I’m no longer here, these paintings will outlive me and people need to be consuming the truth with regards to our stories,” he said.
Additionally, Kunene believes that although his art may be open to interpretation, objectivity also remains an underlying feature.
“In most cases, they say art is subjective but when it comes to MondliART, it is both subjective and objective.
For example, there is an art piece called ‘The Cash Cow’ which is made literally out of bank notes, gold dust and acrylic paint.
Through that piece, I question why our currency is not backed up by our natural resources. I am saying that South Africa is a cash cow because the real natural resources are not owned by us. That’s what makes my art both subjective and objective.”
Although he sometimes touches on topics that may ruffle feathers or seem rather complex, Kunene believes his teaching experience has contributed to making his art digestible.
“Being able to explain complex ideas to learners within a period of 30 or 45 minutes helped my ability to articulate whatever message I want to communicate onto an empty canvas,” he explained.
When asked about the growth and success of the South African art industry, Kunene expressed that knowledge, understanding and education regarding art could all go a long way. These will assist in understanding the industry as a whole and the value it carries.
“I’ve noticed throughout my career that the first thing which a typical black South African would ask if they’re seeing my artwork is whether I would be able to draw or paint them as well.
And yes I can, but that will not contain more value in terms of reselling power on the secondary market, for example, than if you buy an original MondliART piece”.
In today’s fast-paced digital world, Kunene encourages all artists to take advantage of the internet and the unbelievable and endless opportunities it presents.
“Most artists create awesome work and keep it for themselves. They would just pray that the government or somebody rich comes over to rescue them so they can blow up.
But nowadays we’ve got social media. The internet is very powerful. Artists need to put themselves out there,” he encouraged.
Looking back on his journey as a visual artist thus far, Kunene shared that there have indeed been some challenges along the way. However, he has always tried to seek various ways to turn those challenges into opportunities that work to his advantage.
“In art, there are gatekeepers just like in other industries. These gatekeepers are mostly within well-established art galleries. They act as the tastemakers stating the type of art that should and shouldn’t be focused on.
But MondliART is a registered entity. I am independent. I maneuvered around the gatekeepers and the traditional way of selling art and getting access to people that will buy my art”.
While he is an inspiration in his own right, Kunene looks up to various art legends both locally and internationally. His favourite visual artists include Leonardo Da Vinci (who he believes was honestly ahead of his time), Dr Esther Mahlangu (who he says is in a class of her own) and the late great Speelman Mahlangu who was his mentor.
“At the time I was still in high school and because of his humble nature, I didn’t know how big he was. I wasn’t aware that I was in the presence of a giant. I only realized when I was giving a speech at his funeral…that’s when I saw how big Speelman was”.
On days when he doesn’t have social issues on his mind and a paintbrush in hand, the artist can be found resting or curled up with a good and informative book.
His two most favourite books are The Holy Bible and The Richest Man in Babylon.
He also enjoys reading anything that covers the topics of art, copyright, history and geography.
Continuing to intentionally tell thought-provoking African stories one canvas at a time, Kunene hopes to penetrate the international market and leave his mark as someone who strived for authenticity.
“I want to be remembered as a guy who went against the grain to tell the African truth and to raise awareness about social issues in Africa through art. I want to be the guy who overcame all the odds stacked against him,” he said.