Sthenjwa Luthuli in his studio, 2020
Sthenjwa Luthuli was born in Botha’s Hill, South Africa in 1991. In 2010 he joined the BAT Centre for Visual Art, the classes there familiarised him with the art industry and encouraged him to further explore and develop his creativity. He creates highly intricate, meditative work by carving detailed patterns into wood blocks. His supple figures bend and contort to give a sense of gentle motion. We asked Luthuli some questions ahead of his participation in our eagerly anticipated group exhibition The Medium is the Message.
UL Could you tell us a little about Kwa-Zulu Natal? How has growing up there affected your work?
SL Kwa-Zulu Natal is a place where we embrace our rituals and culture, for me this is one of the most important things an artist can do, especially when we are challenged to adapt and survive in a society that is constantly changing. Growing up in KZN I couldn’t adapt in the system while I was at school, that is why I ended up dropping out and started looking into my background. I looked at how I was raised and started to put everything into drawing, to create my own space of existence.
UL Could you explain the process of your work, from the first steps to the finished piece?
SL In my process of working I first create ideas from my own space which I call “unknown space”, that is where I exist. I then bring these ideas into the physical realm: I start sketching the ideas I created using pencil. After that I start carving which takes me at least three months per piece, then I do the final stage which is painting.
UL Why do you work with wood? Is there something in particular about the material that interests you?
SL The wood comes from nature. In our culture as Africans we value everything that comes from nature. In addition it is inspired by the Masters of Art. With the wood I challenge myself and explore more ideas that are more flexible, my practice is about flexibility.
UL You cite Wangechi Mutu and Yinka Shonibare as big influences on your work, could you tell us why this work inspires you?
SL In the African continent and globally they really inspire the young upcoming generation, they promote the African culture and make it more valuable for all of us. Yinka uses the shweshwe patterns in his sculptures which helps his work to become the language of the whole world.
UL Your work involves headless figures in abstract space, why do you choose to portray people in this way?
SL Well I strongly believe that I’m different to others in the way that I understand things: people understand things from theory, I understand things from visuals that lead me to create semi-abstract images. Being challenged by the system at school I found myself creating my own space using the headless figures of the people from where I exist “Unknown space”. They are the people whom I do not know but we understand each other in a way that we can communicate visually with the things that are happening in the physical space which is the earth. They are the like-minded unknowns, drifting separately, disconnected.
UL After the Medium is the Message what is next for you in terms of shows? Do you see the style or subject of the work itself changing in the near future?
SL Next, after this group show, I have my solo exhibition in Cape Town with What If The World Gallery on 18th November 2020, the content is the same but more intense as same it is a solo show. Future plans will depend on my Unknown space as that is the only place where I develop my ideas in a visual language and creativity so far it is promising.
Solidarity – Ubumbano
The Unknown Space