Making sense of what landscape is about: a conversation with Mduduzi Xakaza

POSTED ON: May 17, 2021 IN Conversations, Mario Pissarra, Mduduzi Xakaza, On Artists, Word View

by Mario Pissarra

Mduduzi Xakaza (1965–) paints landscapes that draw on his lived experience in rural KwaZulu-Natal. Localised histories and concerns are brought into conversation with broader philosophical questions regarding relations between humans and the natural environment, and the role of aesthetics in creating a dialogue or exchange between artist and spectator. Deliberately eschewing grand narratives, Xakaza’s paintings quietly elicit contemplation of contemporary debates about land ownership and usage, and the extent to which western aesthetic tropes can be repurposed to articulate contemporary African perspectives. [1]

Mario Pissarra: Do you recall the first time you saw a painting or photograph of a landscape? What impression did it make on you?

Mduduzi Xakaza: I saw landscape images (paintings and photographs) for the first time when I was still a child. That exposure to images was facilitated by my Christian upbringing and schooling. At school, one would see a number of images which were illustrations for stories. At church, one would see landscape images as backgrounds of images of biblical characters, mostly white or olive-coloured. But those landscape images did not have any clear impact on my mind then since I was mainly interested in human figures around which I imagined a number of stories.  

MP: Do you recall when you first looked at a landscape (a real one, not an image) and felt that it was something extraordinary? 

MX: Yes, almost my entire childhood was filled with a strange fear of my surroundings, especially of one well-known hill at Maphumulo called Sabuyaze Hill. In my mind, it looked like an animated monster after every rainfall due to mist that would cover the top part. This combination of the terrestrial and what might represent the celestial (since mist just disappears) made me feel as if the hill approached me whenever I walked towards it. I then imagined that it could swallow me up like a monster. My deep sense of imagination made things worse since others had no idea what I was talking about whenever I mentioned this strange experience. Some landscape elements were like living organisms in my mind, and their shapes also made me imagine terrible images of things I had never seen before. These strange thoughts, including the fear of the environment, might have been aggravated by the fear of the unknown. Almost everybody where I grew up to the age of eleven or twelve believed in ghosts which they never wanted to meet. That unseen and inaccessible world only forced me to keep on imagining things, believing that we were surrounded by terrible elements of nature.

I grew up drawing but being very self-critical whenever I realised that my drawings were not representative as I wanted them to be. But perhaps being immersed in a rural environment, with all its sounds and stories that were often told around an open fire, might have stirred this sense of awareness about being in a place which seems to possess its own soul. This awareness was just in my sub-conscious — it took me years to focus on landscape as an artistic theme. 

As time went on, I started feeling that landscape was not just a place, but I related to it in a special way, especially when I started moving away from Maphumulo in search of post-matric education and jobs. I felt as if I was losing part of myself and wanted to use art to reclaim it. But I also felt that I did not really belong to my own landscape since I was becoming more and more aware that I was actually regarded as an inferior or sub-human being on the basis of the Apartheid system at the time. But because art was never taught in most black, rural schools, it was not easy to formulate such socio-political thoughts from an artistic perspective.  

Misty Landscape at Menyezwayo, c. 2000. Oil on masonite board. Collection: Tatham Art Gallery, Pietermaritzburg (Photo courtesy Tatham Gallery)

MP: I’m interested that you brought up the mist and its effect on the mountain, as I’ve been wondering about my response to your paintings. I’ve tended to see them as images of the land, but recently I’ve begun to wonder if they are not as much about the sky as they are about the land? Certainly, you’ve highlighted that the two are related. When did you start looking at the sky? And what does the sky mean to you?

MX: Yes, I consciously try to bring about a possibility of unity between what we consider land (tangible) and the sky (intangible but visible). Though I always had this strange response to the sky, in relation to land, it took me a long time to become aware of my response. When I left Fort Hare at the end of 1992, after completing the Bachelor degree and Higher Diploma in Education, I registered for BA (Honours) History of Art at the University of South Africa where mostly European art philosophy was explored, from undergraduate to post-graduate levels. One of the papers we read was “Romantic Visions,” or something like that, and it was very philosophical, offered by Professor Karen Skawran. One artist that interested me was Caspar David Friedrich, a German Romantic artist of the nineteenth century.  

I noticed how Friedrich responded to what he regarded as ‘nature’ and his profound idea of transcendence. He expressed his beliefs in what I see as unity of the terrestrial and the celestial. He used mist and atmospheric light in expressing these elements. Friedrich’s approach amazed me so much because I then remembered how, after rains that follow hot summer days, I often experienced thick mist at Maphumulo, also at Highveld areas such as Osabeni and other similar places. It also reminded me how I used to appreciate the thick fog that covers low-lying areas and valleys before sunrise, especially in summer. I used to notice these weather elements on my way to Sabuyaze Secondary School (it has been upgraded to high school now), which is kilometres away from home, and when I took my father’s cattle down to the dip. Such experiences were easy to register in my mind because of the harshness of life that one had to endure — waking up before 4:00 a.m. to milk the cattle, take them to the dip and then rushing to take the 6:00 a.m. bus to school. This was not easy for children.  

Friedrich’s tendency to meditate in front of a blank canvas made me believe that the whole creative exercise was not just physical. I loved the meditative aspect, such as in his work with a monk on a shore. His human figures that faced away from the viewer fascinated me because they seemed to allow the viewer to participate in the meditation in front of landscape or seascape — a virtual altar, perhaps. The very imagined omnipresence of the divine in nature was also quite fascinating, as it virtually liberated humans from the traditional idea of an anthropomorphic image of a god and a cathedral as the only place of worship. This made sense to me, because the idea of a god in a church was a bit limiting for me. It also made me think that the notion that art is a religion and an artist is a prophet might be true. The whole idea of elevating landscape to become a genre in that particular sense was quite fascinating to me. But it was my awareness of my rural background and similarities that I noticed that drew me so intensely to his work.  

From an African perspective, the sky also meant a realm that is overwhelmingly infinite and inaccessible — the abode of the dead, or even those who have not yet been mandated to start their earthly journeys. I thought this particular way because I had already started reclaiming my lost African heritage due to imposed Christianity and subsequent westernisation. I always felt alienated from myself, especially because I truly believed that the Jesus that Christianity presented was white and that we (Blacks) had been removed from our cultural identity and thrust in something which I was struggling to make sense of. This proved to be a long and difficult journey, as it involved ideas about Nomkhubulwane (a female deity of fertility) who was imagined to be dwelling in the sky, manifesting herself to mortal humans only occasionally and for a specific purpose. But what mattered to me significantly was also the idea that if earthly life was not separate from the spiritual, then the living were always united with the departed ancestral spirits. This, for me, meant that even the land was not separate from the sky, and I would always try to express this thought by inviting the viewer to experience landscapes with melting horizons which were, at times, not visible. But I think this also solved a technical challenge that I might have struggled with — earth and sky paintings with boring horizons and skies. It was at this point that I started conceptualising the sky as an animated element within my compositions, always enhancing a mood that I consciously express in different paintings. The mood became my important tool of creating a stimulus that can really force the viewer to look at the painting or drawing more than twice.  That, for me, meant that I could think about creating paintings that were not just to be seen or looked at for their visual content but that could touch the inner person of the viewer with which I intended engaging. This emotional effect was always brought out either intentionally or unconsciously, since the same pieces that were supposed to rouse viewers’ emotions had to speak to me first. It is only when I feel my work speaking to my inner person that I declare it ‘complete,’ though I do not believe that I can complete a painting.

But from a Christian perspective, which I tried to ignore, the sky just meant God’s abode and this also meant that everything spiritual was not seen but it was felt. It also reminded me of the essence of faith — being sure of what is not seen, etc. Because I was convinced that Christianity was an imposed religion, which had nothing to do with my cultural identity, I always regarded it with a sense of suspicion, and this is why it was always difficult for me to relate with the sky from the Christian perspective.

MP: At what point did you paint your first landscape? Were you painting other genres before that?

MX: Though I had been painting figures in landscape and landscape itself until 1993, I remember that it was when I was working as lecturer of arts and crafts at the now defunct Madadeni College of Education (outside Newcastle) that I consciously felt attracted to this particular genre. The KwaZulu-Natal Arts and Culture Department has one or two pieces from this period — one with a murdered figure, referring to the Inkatha and African National Congress political violence, and another being an Alice street scene without figures. But before I studied fine arts, my main genre was human figures, mainly derived from Biblical narratives. However, I had no painting skill at all; my main medium was pencil and ball point pen. 

When I was at Madadeni, I ended up staying in a rented house in one of the suburbs. I had to take a taxi every morning in order to reach the college. Mini-bus taxis had to cross the Ncandu River bridge on my way to and from the college. An old, red brick building, which turned out to be the Fort Amiel Museum, always caught my attention. This was a daily experience and I felt haunted by and attracted to the sight. It was as irresistible as a forbidden fruit. One day, on a weekend, I decided to produce a painting of that scene — my own interpretation or response — so that I would stop ‘suffering.’ I did not follow any academic approach but painted from my heart, imagining myself to be on that dusty road that probably led to the museum. I cannot rule out a feeling of nostalgia at that point since the building was slightly out of the madness of the city (I still felt the country side within me even then). I guess the grassy area and a forest beyond the building were some of the features that I was unconsciously attracted to. I also think that issues such as landscape being a lived experience also came up quite unconsciously even before I studied the social significance of the genre in my long and difficult academic journey. 

At that time, I would still include figures in landscape. One painting was of a kneeling, dreadlocked Rasta on a shore of a rough, dark sea. It was entitled Supplication and was inspired by the fear that most of us had just before the general elections of 1994. The resistance of the Inkatha, threatening not to participate in the elections, meant many terrible things to most of us. I imagined more bloodbath and would hear gunshots almost every night in the township as our cottage was not far from the busy township of Madadeni. In fact, I imagined that there might be no normal life after the elections from which the Inkatha might have excluded itself. 

I then registered for further studies with Unisa in 1994. That is when I was attracted to this genre even more than before, due to my focus on Friedrich. Though Gustave Courbet was not a landscape artist in the same style as Friedrich, his work also interested me because of his rebellious spirit — rebelling against the conventional academic standards of the Salon. But I think I sympathised even more with Courbet because of his rural origins, having moved from Ornans to Paris in order to immerse himself in the creative culture and philosophical debates around issues that inspired artists, novelists and poets. His dedication to the idea of upholding the dignity of country peasants attracted me to his work, considering that I am also a rural man in terms of my beginnings. In fact, his father was a local squire, and I could easily relate to this, because I regarded my poor parents as capable people because I never sought employment as a garden boy in white suburbs while there was so much farm work at home. I practically toiled on our subsistence farm which generated some money for school and other needs. This supplemented what my father, a migrant labourer, afforded to send home every month. Somehow, the combination of these two very disparate artists inspired me. I remember that I once made Courbet’s pencil portrait as part of one of my Unisa assignments and realised only then I could associate his appearance with that of Che Guevara (Che and Fidel Castro had become most black people’s heroes in South Africa because of their involvement in anti-colonial struggle, not only in Cuba but in parts of Africa as well). 

MP: Apart from Friedrich and Courbet, are there any other landscape artists that have influenced you or made a strong impression on you? What is it about their work that draws you?

MX: Robert Gwelo Goodman’s Valley of a thousand hills, as well as a number of South African landscape artists, has always interested me immensely, though I am always conscious that I do not want to have the same attitude, since I am not a cultural outsider. I do not approach landscape with the same colonial gaze (though some white artists might have sensed a deep dedication to Africa at some point). Gerard Bhengu is one artist that I respect for his attention to detail and skill. I have critically discussed his work in Re-Visions[2] So, it is a combination of artists’ dexterity and actual content that interests me. 

Now, these ideas make more sense because I no longer believe in a bearded ‘Father’ who is seated on a huge white throne. I do believe in the divine as an omnipresent, omniscient and eternal force that animates what I see as landscape. Briefly, this was the moment when I really started focusing on landscape as a genre. I have gone through various ways of conceptualising landscape and what it means from various perspectives, especially after studying towards the PhD at the University of the Western Cape. [3]

A view to Sabuyaze Hill, Maphumulo, 2010. Oil on paper (Photo courtesy of artist)

MP: You spoke about the time you were living in Madadeni and were commuting by taxi and kept looking at a particular building in the landscape, which you later discovered was the Fort Amiel Museum. You said this experience ‘haunted’ you and that you then painted that scene from your memory so that you could stop ‘suffering.’ Are there other examples where you have painted particular places, especially places that you encountered at certain points in your life? For instance, did you ever paint Sabuyaze Hill? 

MX: Yes, I also painted (and drew) Sabuyaze Hill more than once. My solo exhibition in 2003 at the African Art Centre included a painting with Sabuyaze Hill. One of the main reasons why I found myself revisiting that scene is my childhood experience. Sabuyaze is the hill that seemed to move towards me after some rainfall, as if it would swallow me up. Earlier, I did mention the strange mist that would cover the top part of the hill, which then made me imagine that it was actually moving towards me. The gigantic size of the hill was so overwhelming that, if you think in terms of scale, I definitely felt helpless and dwarfish. This often happened when my mother would send me to convey a message to one of my paternal aunts (the late MaXakaza Zondi). The mist would be so thick that one would hear voices of people (which really did not exist) in the distance and this gigantic hill would simply add to the experience.

Secondly, Sabuyazehas always had a special significance in my mind because of its unrecorded historical connection to King Shaka’s exploration campaigns. We were told that the hill got its name from Shaka’s disappointment. When he sent a group of warriors to explore the top of the hill, he was given a disappointing report: warriors had returned empty handed — there was no game to be found there. Sabuyazemeans “we returned empty handed.” A local high school, which I attended from [today’s] Grade Eight to Ten, was also named after the hill. What always surprised me is that most local folks saw nothing special about such a place. Perhaps this is because when local people were Christianised, the Umphumulo Lutheran mission, with a day school, church, hospital (where I was born) and teachers’ college (which was later turned into a theological seminary where the art and crafts centre was housed before it was moved to Rorke’s Drift) was built in the same neighbourhood. Now, historical narratives about pre-colonial bliss were considered too traditional or connected to ‘savagery,’ since the mission became a symbol or centre of western civilisation or human advancement. Such historical narratives were quickly regarded as peripheral. I guess I was a bit rebellious if I still thought that my own past was still relevant, though the South African history was known to have started in 1652. It is difficult to express in words why the hill became so important to me, but perhaps there was something in the subconscious chamber of my mind that wanted to keep me attached to my past while I was also involved in a cultural dynamism of some kind — going to school and church, etc. Most of my works are based on such unexplainable reasons.

Most or all of my Maphumulo (or KZN in general) landscape images are based on my conscious interest in remaining connected to that childhood environment which I often regard as the place that, in a way, sustained my existence. Walking and running in that landscape, often bare footed, seems to have been very significant to me, but I doubt if I would have had this thought if I had never left it for other distant places such as Ulundi, Alice, Madadeni, Pietermaritzburg, Cape Town, Minnesota (USA), Vanderbijlpark and Durban. I would have taken it for granted, I suspect. This is almost the same as my tendency to appreciate the full moon when other people think it is just a banal heavenly object. I experience this quite often and many people think that I am quite strange.

Landscape with Isinyonyana Hill, Maphumulo, c. 2003. Oil on masonite board. Private collection (Photo courtesy of artist)

The other painting I would like to comment on is Landscape with Isinyonyana Hill. This is near Vuma, where the Lutheran building was used as both a school and church. The painting shows a dust road which was constructed in the early 1980s. Local people had to walk, and this is why I decided to make it. I admired folks from around that hill because they had no grocery shop and no road around the hill. They had to walk or use their donkeys just to come to access what was then regarded as some elements of ‘civilisation.’ They had to drive their cattle herds around 2:00 or 3:00 a.m. in order to secure prime places in the queue at the cattle dip, which was several kilometres away from the mission. Those who had cars would be forced to leave them at homesteads that were accessible by car before they could walk down to the deep remote country side. I always imagined that the environment was actually full of ghosts due to its remoteness. However, despite all these difficulties, I still felt that those people were lucky to have such a majestic hill in their neighbourhood. I could easily relate with such environments, because I grew up in such a situation up to the age of eleven. This concretely confirmed to me what the Natives Land Act of 1913 did to the majority of our people — allocating us arid land which is hardly accessible by modern modes of transport. Just on the highveld, not very far from the area, there still are vast hectares of land that are white owned farms and blacks are definitely servants there. What has been worrying me for some time now is that I have been asking myself if such landscape paintings and/or drawings really express such black plight because many collectors who love them simply admire what they see as their aesthetic appeal. I got this worrying idea/question/thought when I studied the social significance of photographed landscape. I started wondering if the camera is not more honest than me, the artist.

MP: Do you paint these scenes from memory or in situ, or with the aid of photographs? 

MX: I sketch a lot if time is available. If I take photographs, I ensure that I add my own visual details in order to deal with questions of composition, colour, texture and perspective. Most of the photographs that I take are then translated into quick sketches since I deliberately add mist and light, which the camera often does not witness on the spot. I do a lot of manipulation to create a reason why one should collect my work. I want my work to meet my requirements — to say what is within my mind or what I intend sharing with the viewer. As I have said earlier on, I always want each piece to be imbued with that special emotional impact; otherwise, every viewer can just walk past it. Though I get emotionally involved with every piece, I still try to remove or detach myself and imagine that I have never seen it — in order to put myself in the shoes of the viewer and critically challenge myself. If I do not feel what I want the viewer to feel, I know that it is a dull piece. If I cannot taste it, nobody will.

MP: You have spoken about how your landscapes of specific places include interventions that relate to both composition and the emotive qualities of the painting. In other words, while you draw on specific places and experiences you are conscious of your role as an artist in creating images and in enabling an aesthetic and conceptual engagement with the viewer. I am wondering whether any of your landscapes are composite images that draw on elements from two or more places into the same composition. Are there such examples? 

MX: Yes, that is true. I am always conscious of my role as an artist and that it is my duty to create a specific experience that the viewer should have. This assists me to avoid simply recording these scenes for the sake of recording them. However, to many people who have never acquired any art education, my work simply looks like mere visual recordings or ‘pictures’ that can be used to decorate dwellings or office spaces.  

Landscape with Road to Mphise II, c. 2018.  Oil on canvas. Private collection (Photo courtesy of artist)

Concerning examples of composite images, Landscape with road to Mphise is one of my paintings that has a mysterious, atmospheric element about it.  It does not look completely terrestrial; in our real, material world, the earth is perhaps never seen emitting light. But I break most ‘laws’ of what the secular world understands as ‘reality.’ Reality is supposed to be tangible and visible. Once other claims are made, especially if they are not based on ‘scientific truth,’ they are often dismissed as invalid. At times, I defy this principle in my work. However, this painting is also about areas that have remained underdeveloped for decades now. It is a lonely road that traverses an area called Mphise, a remote lowveld between Maphumulo and Kranskop, where I used to travel on my way to visit relatives. That area is beyond Mphise, and it is called Mambulu (from one major river that sustains the community there). What fascinates me about the scene is that, for me, it represents the people’s resilience because though the road looks so bad, showing that the place is hard to navigate by foot and by car, there has always been a growing number of people who buy cars and run trading businesses within the community.

But the same difficulty to navigate the terrain here always reminds me of a Nxumalo man who died there due to driving at night. The area is known to be haunted by ghosts, which is why I wanted to imbue it with a spiritual element in visual terms. The man was driving his tractor, leaving the Mphise area for the highveld (where we settled from my childhood). The memory of his death never subsided, because I heard that he was threatened by a ghost that would not allow him to drive past the narrow part of the road. Some people believed that there was a ghost that always manifested itself in the form of a cow and, as a result of this knowledge or belief, many motorists would avoid driving past that spot at night. For me, this is one of the paintings that combines a number of small narratives based on memory that is attached to a place. You have never heard of such places; they are very, very remote and insignificant within the dominant South African narratives. I believe that this is parallel to what Courbet did — elevating rural scenes with unknown peasants rather than depicting heroic, historical figures. 

Kwa Masiwela (a.k.a. Woza Landscape), c. 1999. Oil on hardboard, 51 cm x 80 cm (Courtesy of Pretoria Art Museum)

Woza landscape [Kwa Masiwela] is also based on a combination of experiences. [4] What is depicted in the painting is even worse than what I explain above. The terrain is completely inaccessible by car. This is where I spent about eleven years of my childhood years before my parents decided to relocate just next to the R74 road connecting KwaDukuza (Stanger) and Greytown. I often joke that nothing is accessible from this area, including mainstream Christian churches, schools, hospitals, clinics, etc. It was a burden to get anywhere from this place. But what still puzzles me is that there are people who still live there!  

Though I often pay tribute to places that shaped me at my early development years, they also carry painful childhood memories. One of our neighbours, a Mr Ngubane, was a migrant worker in Durban. He would always leave his inherited wife and children at home in order to fulfil his duty as the family’s breadwinner. (He had taken over his late brother’s wife and decided not to take a second one. He then treated his brother’s daughter as his own and, later, then the wife gave birth to his only son). He was a nice, polite man who always made me feel envious of his children because they were able to enjoy his company perhaps once a week.  My own father, who worked in Johannesburg, would visit us only during Christmas, Easter and during what he called ‘long leave’ (often in September). But what affected me very badly is that this man did not reach home after disembarking from a late bus that would always carry passengers every Friday night. Most Durban migrant workers would visit their families on Friday, after knocking off from their menial jobs in the city. This Mr Ngubane disappeared between that ‘Xakaza’ bus stop and his home. Bus stops were named by locals and there was a B.I.S. Xakaza General Dealer shop owned by a Mr Xakaza who was highly respected by locals as ‘an exempted’ black. [5] His wife started wondering what might have befallen him, because he had told her that he was coming to visit. If you check carefully, the painting shows a high cliff that ends with a forest at its foot. I heard that, when an expedition of local community members was dispatched to search for Mr Ngubane, he was found dead at the foot of the cliff (Sibhadi). It was suspected that some spiritual forces or witches’ familiars might have pushed him over the cliff because he was familiar with the area. I just thought that ghosts might have done this to him but could not rule out a possibility of the involvement of zombies or tokoloshes. So, my fear of living and moving around such remote places simply increased. This man’s decomposing body was carried in a blanket past my home and this left me with disturbing memories. In fact, part of Sabuyaze Hill appears on the top left corner of the painting.

MP: And what of wholly imagined landscapes? Do you ever paint landscapes that are entirely or mostly drawn from the imagination, or are there always traces that take you back to specific places?  

MX: Though I often feel that imagined landscapes may be too fictitious, I made one or two paintings based on imagination before I left Newcastle. The first one was of a landscape with a rough foot path with blood stains of drops. The path led to a grave which, for me, symbolised the demise of the Apartheid system, since I made the painting just after first democratic elections. Another one was of a landscape with a grave. It has a figure of a ghost hovering above it and the tombstone showed the lifespan of the system, 1652–1994. However, I already had a feeling that the dead monster was still haunting the newly-formed nation. I made this one, too, before I left Newcastle, but I cannot recall why I felt the presence of this ghost in the late 1990s. More often, imaginative landscapes result from my urge to make a visual statement that cannot be based on places that I see on a daily basis.

MP: From your discussion of your paintings, it becomes clear that the human element is very present. These are mostly places that you associate with your own experience and with your memories of lives lived there. Your hills have names; they are repositories of local histories that are little known outside of the communities who inhabit these spaces. And yet, aside from indicating human presence through small, usually isolated houses, and roads deep in the distance, your landscapes omit direct representation of people. You also dont include animals, domesticated or wild. These are deliberate choices — you have indicated that you used to paint people. 

MX: True. This strategy makes my depictions less obvious so that some time may be spent in front of each piece.

MP: Its worth noting that you did your doctoral thesis on David Goldblatt and Santu Mofokengs use of the landscape in their photography. This means that youre obviously conscious of critical discourses concerning landscape tropes, such as the idea of the colonial gaze that accompanied the narrative of uninhabited land. If a white artist of settler origins was painting landscapes devoid of people, whether this was happening in the past or in the present, its likely that this critique would be made of their work. In addition, you have acknowledged the influence of German Romantic artists such as Friedrich, whose work advocates the idea of sublime, spiritual communion with nature. Again, a white artist evoking that idiom would be dismissed as Eurocentric. Yet, its clear from this conversation that your perspective is not that of the colonial gaze. You look at land from a history of living on it, not as property to be possessed or a geological or botanical resource to study or mine. But superficially, your paintings resemble established tropes of western landscape. Youve also acknowledged that the people who buy your work may not be looking through the same lens as yourself. These are some of the complexities that fascinate me about your work. 

MX: Definitely. I regard myself as an artist occupying a direct opposite position in relation to that of a colonising ‘Self.’ There was a period when my paintings deliberately ‘erased’ white presence or civilisation. I also believed that Africa was still in its own process of civilisation which was disrupted by colonising powers. However, when I studied further, I learned that it would be senseless to ‘freeze’ Africa in time or to suggest that it was a stagnant space — nature outside human society. This helped me change my radical approach which was not productive.

MP: I happened to visit the African Art Centre at the time of your first exhibition there. I recall that most works were sold. Having no prior knowledge of you, I must admit that I was a little cynical. I presumed a white clientele and thought that they would be comfortable with images of the unspoilt landscape, rendered in a pictorial style that evoked European landscape painting. Several years later, we got to spend some time together. You warned me against swimming in rivers because you were taught to view them as fonts of power, mystery and danger — indeed, awe in the true sense of the word. This contrasted radically with my view of rivers as enticing and refreshing sources of relaxation. My point here is that your attitude towards natural elements, and consequently the way these ideas manifest in your paintings, has affected the way I see the landscape, especially in KwaZulu-Natal. I often think of your work when I look at hills surrounding where I live in Inchanga, since the terrain is similar, and I become conscious that I dont know the names of any of the hills other than the one I live on. When I drive through scenic terrain, I wonder about the stories of places that I have no idea of. It looks beautiful but, given hundreds of years of conflict, violence and dispossession, what historical trauma lies below the surface? Some landscapes, such as those associated with major battles, have been heavily invested as commemorative sites. But what of those that are deceptively devoid of historical drama? And with a historical perspective, one is inevitably bound to reflect on contemporary debates about land, from questions of restitution and ownership, to questions of ecology and industrialisation … My point is that, hearing you talk about your work, and knowing a little about history, I have become intrigued by the absence of grand narratives in your work, and conscious of my inability to project historical accounts into your landscapes. These landscapes are not empty of content, but what, and how much should I read into the absencethat is visualised? 

MX: True. What I am conscious of about my landscapes is that they are supposed to talk to locals who know, or have forgotten, local narratives which do not fall within what we call ‘grand narratives.’ This elevation of seemingly banal places and spaces is almost parallel to my belief that well-known historical figures are not the only figures that matter. Simple, local people are also important as they are engaged in daily struggles and issues which never get documented. This is what I meant in my point about Courbet. He defied the academic standards of the Salon and, instead of submitting paintings on great, historical figures, he just submitted landscapes and figures of simple or unsophisticated people, local people. Many urbanised folks of Paris, for example, were probably not attracted to such social realism. But, hailing from such lowly backgrounds myself, I really identified strongly with Courbet’s approach. It is also true that most of my paintings have specific local hills, rivers, etc. As the product of my community, I just believe that locals should be able to identify with them even if they may not afford to collect them. ‘Visual consumption’ is always one of the goals when I present my work in exhibitions. 

MP: While I grapple with what I see as a paradox central to your work — namely that historical presence and contemporary relevance is evoked largely through the absence of narrative details — I wonder about how most people read your works. Im struck by the observation that. while many public and corporate collections have purchased your works, no one has really written about your art in any depth. This brings me back to wondering who is buying your work and how do they read it, and whether, if they are only engaging with it as landscape,’ this concerns you at all? 

MX: You are right. This is what has been worrying me for a long time, since I started exhibiting and having some of my pieces collected. What I do suspect is that some people (those who write about and collect art) may assume that my work is simply about reviving the tradition of Gerard Bhengu (his landscapes) — one prominent KZN academic once made such a comment. But Bhengu’s art was produced solely for a specific market — collectors who were uncomfortable about what they saw as ‘modernism.’ I am also aware Bhengu almost competed with the camera. When I noticed an element of subtlety in Goldblatt’s work, I realised that most of my paintings are not directly moralising about the socio-political injustices that we have experienced in this country. I am not sure if this is what people read in my work. Because of many inexpressible ideas that flow in my mind while I am working on each piece, it becomes very difficult to articulate through words what my work is really about.  

Mario Pissarra is an art historian and founding director of ASAI.


[1] This is an edited transcript of an interview that took the form of several email exchanges between September 2019 and January 2020.

[2] Mzuzile Mduduzi Xakaza, “From Bhengu to Makhoba: Tradition and Modernity in the Work of Black Artists from KwaZulu-Natal in the Campbell Smith Collection,” in ReVisions: Expanding the Narrative of South African Art, edited by Hayden Proud (SA History Online and Unisa Press, 2006), 34–45.

[3] Mzuzile Mduduzi Xakaza, Power relations in landscape photographs by David Goldblatt and Santu Mofokeng. (PhD thesis: University of the Western Cape, 2015).

[4] Xakaza comments, “One of the areas within the Ntuli Tribal Authority, where I grew up until I turned eleven, is normally called ‘Woza.’ I never understood why the area got such a name as it simply means ‘Come.’”

[5] Xakaza explains that ‘exempted’ blacks were those “who were granted exclusive, petty privileges, making them look almost as ‘the master,’ though this did not mean equality with whites. Such individuals would be allowed, for example, to own and carry firearms in public.”