INTERVIEWED BY Palesa Kgasane IMAGES courtesy of Puleng Mongale
Self-taught mixed-media artist Puleng Mongale defines and questions identity in a way that embodies who she is in the present as well as the spiritual bonds she has with the past.
A first encounter with Puleng Mongale’s work was through a socio-political series titled When The Madams Are Away, The Help Will Slay (2016), an honest meditation on Blackness and remnants of the past that most prefer to gloss over. In her latest art works, Puleng’s self-portraits focus on home; adorned in traditional Basotho attire, contrasted by backdrops that evoke feelings of nostalgia and a longing for home. Puleng’s collages, are a re-introduction to the familiar, from the perspective of a young Black woman who has experienced the paradox of life in a small Free State town and as a city dweller in Johannesburg.
We spoke to her to find out more about her artistic path and process.
When did your journey with art begin?
I have always been expressive. Growing up, I used to express myself through my appearance: clothing, hair, make-up, etc. In high school, I fell in love with writing – the English class was my favourite. I used to write poetry and I entered numerous competitions and won a few of them. I went on to study English and Communication Science at varsity with hopes of becoming a writer. A year after my graduation I enrolled at Umuzi and worked towards being a copywriter, but it wasn’t quite the right fit for me (although I didn’t realise it at the time). I could never really express myself the way I wanted to using only words so I started experimenting with photography, mostly as an art director and stylist. I’d also come up with my own concepts. When I got retrenched last year, I started learning how to use a camera and that is when I started creating art on a full-time basis.
What informed your decision to do self-portraiture?
Self-portraiture felt more “natural” to me. I was a beginner and my technical skills were not where they needed to be, so I practiced photography on myself, by myself. It was the easiest way of learning photography because all I needed was myself. Self-portraiture wasn’t my plan from the start, but the process happened organically and I fell in love with it.
In what ways has being self-taught shaped what you do?
Being self-taught has taught me to lean on my intuition because that’s all I had/have. I didn’t have other voices competing with my own, so I was able to create from my imagination and really just do what I want/like.
Your art is contemporary yet retrospective. Is that something you wanted to achieve using this medium?
Not in the beginning. At first, I was focused on creating art that is reflective of my life in the city. I wanted my work to be youthful and trendy, but as time went on the work began to form its own identity and that’s when I realised that my work was bigger than me. It started to make an audience out of me and it carried its own message, meant for me. It began to feel like healing work, like a journey into the past.
To what degree is your work based on your personal experiences?
All of my work is based on my personal experience, whether real or imagined. I’m inspired by things that have existed long before I was born, especially aesthetically, but there’s something about this particular [nostalgic] aesthetic that feels familiar to me.
Describe the process of making your art. What inspires you to create?
I have a desire to know who I am beyond my current setting (an urban Black girl). Even though I grew up in a township and in spaces where I was always around Black people, people like me, I always felt that something was lacking outside of the collective… there were parts of me I didn’t get a chance to explore based on the fact that I stay in the city. Most of us are immigrants in Joburg – even though I was born here, I always knew it wasn’t my home. This is what inspires me to create. I always hope that my art will lead me to myself.
I create based on a feeling. Most of my work, well, the photographic aspect of it, happens on the spot. I then try to create a collage with what I have – but I don’t plan my collages. To be honest, they just happen.
How do you navigate making art as a woman of colour knowing that there is a certain classist gaze that informs how art is perceived?
By being more and more myself. That’s how I practice resistance, just by existing as myself and I have found this to be enough.
How has the lockdown changed your work process?
Phew! I am a mother to a three-year-old, both my partner and I are creatives and we’re full-time parents with no breaks in-between, so it has been really challenging trying to create consistently and still take care of our child 24/7 – and make sure that our bills are paid. I also haven’t been able to really develop a body of work from start to finish because time is a luxury for me. I just hope that one day I’ll be able to sit with my thoughts and feelings and be able to create a body of work that I’m 100% immersed in without being restricted by time (or the lack of it).
Is there another medium that you would like to explore?
I hope that one day I will start writing again, when my life stops being so fast-paced and my son is more independent (with a life of his own). I also want to make images more, without necessarily creating a collage out of them. Clothing too – I’d love to learn how to make clothes!
Where do you envision Puleng, the artist, in five years?
In five years, I hope that my art will sustain me and that it will take me to different parts of the world. There are gems waiting for me – I can feel it. Besides that, I don’t like to over-plan. I prefer to surrender to [my] journey, that’s how I avoid getting in my own way.
Follow Puleng on Instagram to keep up to date with her latest projects. You can view and purchase Puleng’s work at the Latitude Online art exhibition at latitudesartfair.com. Read more about Latitudes Online here.