Artists We Love: Dada Khanyisa

WORDS Palesa Kgasane


The great Nina Simone once posed the question, “How can you be an artist, if you don’t reflect the times?” What Dada Khanyisa brings to the table answers this.

Within an industry that primarily celebrates Eurocentric aesthetics in Fine Art, Dada is one artist who is telling the story of the South African home. What makes the work special is how authentic and relatable it feels. Dada uses painting, illustration, animation and sculpting with a focus on street culture and sneakers. The miniature versions of the iconic Converse silhouette, which this multi-media artist has used as a centre piece for her works, is a common thread.

Dada’s final year project iNkosi iBenathi featured a variety of works including a striking installation piece called Father Figures that focuses on families who do not have a male figure archetype and are often introduced to this role through watching television. The work is an autobiographical reflection of her dynamic upbringing, where sneakers, creativity and craftsmanship were at the centre of conversations in her male-dominated home. Her work also playfully touches on the idea of patriarchy in the modern African home, the idea of the male figure always getting the bigger portion of meat or the best seat at the table. Dada’s approach is fresh.

After studying animation in Johannesburg, Dada moved to Cape Town to do a BFA at the prestigious Michaelis School of Art. A move that has helped her fine-tune her wide array of skills. On her growing list of accolades is the SA Taxi Foundation Art Awards, which gave her the opportunity to have 10 of her artworks displayed on 10 taxis nationwide. Not one to force the funk, Dada is selective when it comes to the projects she takes on, including her self-taught tattooing skill, which she is currently making an income from.

True artists create without pretense and it’s an important aspect to note when going through formal artistic training. In our eyes, Dada has what it takes to make as big a mark on the art scene as the likes of Zanele Muholi and Penny Siopis. This may very well be the beginning of an iconic career.

How would you define your craft in terms of the medium/s you use?

I usually refer to my craft form or style as ‘nakanjani’, as it allows for the use of different materials and it accommodates multiple outcomes. The craft is not limited to certain subject matters and materials.

What sparked your love of art and your style of work?

The love for art came after I realised that I had a good grasp on different forms and their various dimensions. That was during my formative school years. There was a special but uncertain type of fulfilment that came with creating. Through the pursuit of that fulfilment, an imaginery space was born.

Your work feels very personal and connected to your cultural background. Was this something you always wanted to do and how has it changed?

I look around for inspiration. The inspiration is usually never far, sometimes it’s in some comforting memories. I juggle between personal and collective memory. Even when I dwell on the personal, it can end up being a collective interest/concern. That’s how connected we are – personal and collective concerns are not isolated. That has taught me to engage with every part of the process, as a piece in the puzzle. That is where the cultural appreciation comes from.

With regards to the above, what sort of responses have you gauged from exhibiting your work? Are you surprised?

There is love from the people, something I never take for granted. One thing that surprises me is when people unlock other dimensions and stories present in the work. While producing paintings for iNkosi iBenathi, people who visited the studio would have a string of narratives about each character. It was fulfilling watching people engage on a simple yet profound level with my creations.

What is your biggest career highlight to date?

Tough one! Drawing a portrait of my grandmother for her 80th birthday.

What projects are you currently working on?

Planning a solo show for 2019 or 2020.

Who are your three favourite local artists/mentors?

Yoh, there is no way I can only pick three people when I am around so many champions doing amazing things. Firstly, my mother Pumlile Dada – I think she has a brilliant creative mind. Secondly my peers, friends and acquaintances, they are too much. Thirdly, the person who took some time to read this – stay shining, stay beautiful.

For more information on Dada, visit her website at themightywhale.co.za.