Nkosinathi Quwe is a 39years old, fine artist born and raised in Butterworth, Eastern Cape. He currently lives and works in Johannesburg. His is a story that begins on an unshakable foundation laid by women.
“I was brought up in a household of beautiful women, it was my mother and my grandmother that raised me. I didn’t have a lot of male figures in my life besides distant uncles and cousins. I was practically brought up by women. I had a very strict grandmother. Education (school) was everything to her so, she used to push me hard to get an education.”
Having been raised and surrounded by female figures during his formative years. It took him time to acknowledge the feminine influence and how it shaped him as a person “because we are raised in a society (whereas a man) you are not allowed to feel, you are not allowed to cry, you cannot express your feelings. You just have to man-up. You end up trapped in a box where you end up not being yourself”
However, through time he started to self-realise and question some of the societal belief systems that governed his life. He investigated identity and prescribed societal gender traits through his work and personal life. Such as how feminine energy comes up in his life and his work. He thinks it comes up in how he gets creative because creativity is feminine energy. “The power to create and make something out of nothing is quite a feminine energy… being willing to let go and be vulnerable as an artist and tell a story is something the world does not associate as a manly thing. The need to expose your feelings in a public way like that as a man.” On the binary, he feels that his stubbornness is a trait he categorises as masculine to balance off his femininity.
“it took me some time to get to this point. I think art and creating has a big part to do with it, me coming to this point in life (self-acceptance). Because art in itself (the practice) has broken some walls in me which I think had to be broken. But I know that it was also constructs of masculinity. Especially from where I am from, which is the former Transkei where people still hold on to tradition, very strongly.
His village upbringing shaped his desire to want to do something different. Even though he grew up amongst scholars in the Eastern Cape he did not have an interest in studying subjects such as engineering. “I was into creativity and making things with my hands” that lead him to leave the Eastern Cape and come to Johannesburg in pursuit of a place that could give him what he was looking for.
One of those places turned out to be the University of Johannesburg where he graduated with a B-Tech in Fine Art (Visual Art) and then went on to complete an additional year in 2005 where he majored in painting
What influenced his decision to get in the art space “I have always wanted to express myself. I have been creative since I was young. Starting with making cars out of wire, like any other boy in a rural-township type of area. Making figurines out of clay, that’s how it all started. When you get to primary, then you start playing with pencil on paper then you realise I really enjoy this. Growing up I just knew that there was nothing else I wanted to do. I just didn’t know what t0 call it but I knew that I wanted to create either with hands or otherwise but I have always wanted to create things.”
The definitive point where he realised that he had a gift was the acknowledgement of his talent by his mother and the reinforcement from friends. His mother was the first person to acknowledge that he could draw. “My mother used to be a teacher, she is retired now. When creating programs for her students she used to draw diagrams and she would ask me to draw for her. I think it was a way of encouraging me or letting me do what I like or love because she knew I really enjoyed drawing so she would let me sketch the diagrams for her. That’s where it really started then I realised at that point that OK if she says that I am good at this maybe I can push it further. But I have always believed that I am creative, I believe in myself and I could see that I have got some talent and I should take it further.”
His mother made him realise his talent and whereas his grandmother he accredits as a pivotal inspiration board and a grand mentor. “I think my first influence was my grandmother, she was a nurse, she had a car she drove herself around. She was a very independent woman. I am working every day to be the best at what I do because I have only had good role models starting from my grandma who showed me what dedication is.”
Quwe’s inspiration sources are not only limited to his grandmother but he also looks at different people in different environments especially people who have had to overcome something on their journey to success because that is what a big part of his work is about “most creative people that are successful in life have gone through some difficult times in life. It has been a fight for them to rise to the top which is quite fascinating for me because that’s a big part of what my work is about, rising above the struggles. So, I find that quite fascinating.”
His work address, economic, political and spiritual topics “I think those things are quite important. The financial side of it is very important, talking about land and so forth. I think every piece of art has a bit of politics in it. Whether those politics are very obvious or quite subtle but I think an art piece on its own is a political statement. Also, addressing the spirit because I think as someone who creates it would be very wrong of me to create just working with the material side of things. I think there is the other side that we definitely draw strength from and that is the spiritual side. So, it is important for me to tie those three things together.”
For a long time, there has always been the stigma of ‘art doesn’t pay’ and the glorification of the ‘broke and dirty artist’. Quwe says financially, art has proven to be a viable profession for him “it has (been financially rewarding) but, somehow we get it wrong as artists from the start especially from the point where we really struggling financially. I think there should be ways, and most of us ain’t taught these things. First of all, artists need to learn how to make money outside the art they shouldn’t focus on art to make money. We should be very entrepreneurial people. We need to have other hustles or businesses around the art that we have set up. Or we partnered with other people so that we can have that type of income that doesn’t rely on you producing an art piece. I think that is very important and I had to learn that very late in my career and I could I have learnt that earlier I would have been far financially by now but it is fine the lesson has been learnt. I think it very important for us, the more older or mature artists to impart that knowledge to the young ones and say, don’t rely on your craft. Make other ways of bringing income so that your sole purpose is to create without feeling any anxiety about your finances because once o start getting anxious about where you are financially then I think you become a victim of trying to please the masses.
In his current body of work the apparent theme is spirituality and religion the two topics informs his work “the spiritual side of the work (developed) when I started conceptualizing this thing (theme) I thought of. There is a moment in your life when you are about to make a big decision that will change your life forever. The work is kind of that moment in time, where everything is suspended, where all thought is suspended and you have to make this big decision that will change your life. So, I am trying to capture those moments, those moments can come either through mediation, they can come through prayer or story-telling. It’s those moments where you have to decide what to do for your life or going through a turmoil. In the middle of the storm you find peace of mind, you find that oasis in you that lets you calm down. The work is really about that point in life where you are facing challenges and you have just decided that no matter what I will rise above, I will endure, I will keep going.
Therefore, I use baptism as a symbol for that moment. Sometimes water becomes a barrier, sometimes it becomes your adversity. So, I talk about adversity and facing adversity as you are making those decisions. Some decisions are not easy, some are easy but life is like those waves that keep coming at you and you need to either go under or over. So, the spiritual side is not religious. Yes, there are two dichotomies in my work the institutional religious images in terms of the garments that belong to a particular faction which is obviously an institution on its own. Versus the spiritual side which happens inside not outside (how you dress and represent). The inner real you have to survive and keep going for you to be a better person.”
One doesn’t get to do what Quwe does without a high-level injection of motivation. He is driven by different things and how he tackles a piece of work from inception. He treated the creation of one of his most outstanding oil on canvas pieces titled, Ingqungquthela Ebomvu (A Red Gathering) (2020) as a form of mediation. “For me, it was quite a meditative process because I knew what I was getting myself into. It was a challenge, I was challenging myself and it was the beginning of some form of meditation for me. Painting from the foreground to the back moving along with the work. It was quite intense because when you have to concentrate on different figures and try to blend in the different tones. It can take a toll on you, especially with your eyesight. But, I took the process as meditation and a challenge. It was more of me challenging and fighting with myself to have this piece done. It was more the challenge and also, trying to show the beauty of colours as well, like the reds how they come through, I think also, as you make art you shouldn’t forget it’s also about the beauty not just about what you are trying to put across but how beautifully you can put it across. I think that is quite important, aesthetics because for me I think the red is what seduced me to create a piece like this. Also, red is a very powerful colour there is a lot of connotations linked to the colour red and it is also a fiery colour, very passionate colour.”
Why does he create and what need does it satisfy “I create because of the need to communicate with people. I really enjoy communication and it is sometimes hard for me to approach people and art has been a thing that I use to open up a conversation so it helps in that regard. It satisfies a need in me to express myself or to purge either my point of view, my feelings about something or anything. It’s quite therapeutic, I enjoy it and it helps me know what other people think at the same time when that conversation is opened up.
Quwe defines art as ‘life, you find art on the streets. You can find art in how people move when they are working, how they have a rhythm. For me art is life, it is an everyday happening. The only difference is that, do you recognise it as such? can you capture that moment, keep it, and share it with the world? I think that would be the only difference. If you recognise the art in life, I think you also savour moments and not always live in the future but in the present, in the now. What’s happening now and you savour certain moments that happen in your life.’