Artist cut from different cloth

“Whether creating installations, comics, video, or entertaining through stand-up, she approaches her work bravely.”

I sauntered into SMAC Gallery in July last year, during a writing residency at the Greatmore Artist Studios in Cape Town, to witness the work of Bonolo Kavula. She is no ordinary artist, she is part of a generation of artists who combine their wit, intellect and emotional awareness with a deep sense of community. 

In Sesotho, Bonolo means “that which is easy”, however, during my first encounter with Kavula, she is calm, smart and poised. What was meant to be an hour-long conversation about her solo show Lewatle, at the Norval Foundation in Cape Town, stretched to double that with discussions about being a black artist in Cape Town, working with curators in institutions, as well social media representation.

Moving through her first solo exhibition at the SMAC Gallery, I was on a call with another artist, but my focus was never on the call — I was fixated on Kavula’s grouping of small dots, placed carefully, next to each other, carrying patterns and textures which I recognised from the Basotho textile, seshweshwe.

What was meant to be an artist’s room presentation for the Kimberley-born and -raised Kavula became a solo exhibition, proposed by the gallery director Baylon Sandri. 

During my month-long residency, the idea was to write about black female artists in and around Cape Town. However, on that particular day, I was looking for something new and I found it. I found Kavula’s installations, curated to display her ability to combine two different mediums — printmaking and sculpture — and create magnificent craft-inspired pieces. 

On the dot: Bonolo Kavula and her works Lewatle, Kagiso and I am Drowning in Blue, made from punched seshweshwe and thread, on at her exhibition Lewatle at the Norval Foundation in Cape Town

Sewedi Sewedi was the title of the show and, as I walked through the exhibit, I wondered about its significance. What or who was Sewedi?

In our conversation, Kavula mentions her grandfather Ntate Sewedi, whom she greatly admired, and he adored her. This was a relationship I recognised as a black girl growing up in the township and spending time with my own grandfather. 

She was adopted by a white mother after her biological mother died and while her father is still part of her life, Kavula tends to regard her relationship with him as somewhat of an anomaly and strange. She is not shy about speaking her mind about her family history and the work she produces reflects moments of joy and harmony, the little she has kept close to her.

“My mother was a huge voice for me at UCT,” she says. Losing her mother at an early age, Kavula, reconnected with her in her dreams. Dealing with loss, grief and heartbreak, she surrendered to her art. 

Kavula is highly intuitive and creates from a place where, in many cases, artists are expected to reconfigure their stories to suit the market. She is used to seeing some of her peers pander to the art system to survive. However, Kavula is able to sidestep that. 

Her excellence and discipline and her place in the South African contemporary art arena is illustrated in her Norval Sovereign African Art Prize solo exhibition at the Norval Foundation. The show features work Kavula describes as inspired by her encounters with the spirit world. Titled, Lewatle, (which means “sea”) it reflects that she is able to deep dive into her own conception of printmaking.

The name Lewatle pays homage to her family’s history, archiving stories for generations to come. The sea is an expansive piece of nature and so are the artworks on the solo exhibition. The show is a treat for art lovers keen to see printmaking reinterpreted with wax, thread and seshweshwe textiles.

“I should be happy, but am not”, Kavula says of the exhibition, explaining that art prizes need to adhere more to artists’ needs, rather than rely on one curatorial perspective and direction. 

As the recipient of the prize, she believes her contribution to the show should not only be viewed from a single perspective but rather encourage more discussion around the marketing and communication; PR and social media presence — the sometimes minute details that entail more than just the show. 

On the dot: Bonolo Kavula and her works Lewatle, Kagiso and I am Drowning in Blue, made from punched seshweshwe and thread, on at her exhibition Lewatle at the Norval Foundation in Cape Town

The 32-year-old has worked hard to not desire the above, having exhibited at Art Basel last year, without any experience of the international art scene. 

“My art is my sanctuary. If I am not going to enjoy my show, no one will,” Kavula informs me.   

For a few years after graduating, she worked at a gallery in Cape Town, figuring out what she wanted to do with her art degree from the University of Cape Town. In 2020, she resigned to pursue being an artist. It has been a matter of intention, meaning and survival to build her career over the past two years. 

Kavula attributes the decision to pursue art to her relationship with her grandfather and the fact that he was her sole supporter during that trying period. 

As an artist who delivers consistently, the 2022 winner of the Norval Sovereign African Art Prize has been featured in another group exhibition across town at Aspire Art. 

The show, curated by Michaela Limberis, is testament to the many years Kavula has put in to art, as well as the time it has taken to meet herself in the work and to run a studio with assistants who help to bring her work to life. 

“Bonolo’s work is always surprising. Whether creating installations, comics, video or entertaining through stand-up, she approaches her work bravely. 

“Although messages find their way through other media, it is her interest in the processes of printmaking that remains her first love … repetition and acts of labour using objects such as the humble punch, bare traces from her graduate experiments with ink, punched paper and styrofoam,” says Limberis.

Kavula deserves all the flowers for all her hard-earned, stellar work.

Lewatle runs until 20 March 2023 at the Norval Foundation in Cape Town. 

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