Manyaku Mashilo

Manyaku Mashilo

Manyaku Mashilo

Manyaku Mashilo in her studio, 2020

Manyaku Mashilo was born in 1991 in Limpopo, South Africa and is currently based in Cape Town. Mashilo is a self taught multidisciplinary artist who creates mixed media, paper-based drawings and works. Mashilo is currently exploring the phenomenon of the cartographic portrait: her enmeshed figures are mapped onto the canvas, piecing together dimensions of time, place and space. Here, she talks in depth about her practice and the work she has submitted to The Medium is the Message.

UL Could you explain the process of your work, from the first step - to the finished piece?

MM My process begins with the interactions I have with the people in my life. These are the people who I choose to draw. Our connections are personal and emotional but also have a spiritual energy. 

I start drawing the face with charcoal with the intention to capture a dark contrast which intensifies the person's facial features. I then soak the entire face in about two to three different color acrylic inks. They are applied quite freely to move in and around each other and I sometimes add some water to dilute the color. 

After a day or two, once the ink is dry and infused into the charcoal and paper, I take a white chalk and create highlights around the face to soften it up. I then use fine liner pens, watercolor pencils as well as acrylic pens to mark tiny circles onto the face to create texture. This process takes about two to three days, depending on the size of the portrait. Once the face is established I draw in the body which usually resembles the shape of a blanket or cape. Many South African cultures use blankets to not only represent their specific tribes, but also to commemorate a significant phase or event in life. Blankets form part of traditions cultivated and adapted over many years, and designs will vary depending on the specific tribe or region. There is significance of colour and design in each blanket. Xhosa people for example are often referred to as the “Red Blanket People”; this is partly due to their use of ochre coloured blankets at traditional events. 

I then soak the entire paper in water on the ground and dip acrylic ink to cover the body area as the first layer. Once this dries I start to make markings over the ink. The primary function of the marks is for identification of a person's tribe, family and lineage. I try to reimagine markings specific to the individual I am drawing, and the patterns made by the ink flow usually guide the process. 

Once the figure is established I paint the remaining WHITE space BLACK. Then, I create the room or enviroment I imagine the spirit resides in using metallic pens for the detail. It is important to me that my subjects are immersed in a BLACK space, since there are few spaces where Black people can feel safe to exist and to practice their spirituality without gaze or ridicule. When a Black person occupies space it becomes a spectacle. The radicalism of us occupying space spiritually is even more of a spectacle.The use of black space is intentional not in just the skin but in the space the figure resides in. 

UL The materials you use are interesting. Could you talk about why you like to use charcoal and ink with acrylic? And why do you choose to work on paper?

MM I use charcoal specifically because of how powdery it is. It helps me create quite intense shadows but also can be quite soft depending what you layer it with. I have a strong connection with ink and the way it moves. The natural flow of the ink inspires the markings of my lines, and gives the work movement and energy. 

I like the varying effects you get with ink; it can be very soft or quite intense. I use 300gram Hahnemuhle matt watercolor paper with a cotton weave that absorbs ink but also allows it to flow across the page in the way I want it to. This technique is inspired by some of my favorite artists who use ink : Mongezi Ncaphayi, Penny Siopis and Flourine Demosthene. 

UL Could you explain the poetic title of your work in The Medium is the Message? What is the context for this verse?

MM I will answer this question by discussing each work separately.

In the beginning Mmagorena created the place…, 2020, Charcoal, ink, acrylic ink and paint on paper, Triptych. Each work: 100 x 70 cm

The full title of this work is: “In the beginning Mmagorena created the place. And the place was without form, and void; and Blackness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of Mmagorena moved upon the face of the waters. And Mmagorena said, “Bulang kgoro ya dinaledi”, Kgoro ya bulega.”

This verse is appropriated from an extract from the first chapter of the bible - Genesis:

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. [2] And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. [3] And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.” 

Growing up in a very conservative christian home, you were forced to imagine yourself and your surroundings through the bible first. The following interpretation of the original verse resonates with me:

“It uncovers the origins of evil. It illuminates the meaning of freedom. It expresses the harmony of creation. And it offers hope for the renewal of our natural world and for the healing of our broken relationships.” - Unknown source.

I have changed some of the words in the original verse to reimagine the story in my own version; my version uses Sepedi (my home language).

In the tryptic itself, the three women stand side by side wearing a blanket which spiritually connects them. The blue color of this blanket is referencing the color of the mandatory uniform I wore as a young girl in the church. The arrangement of the three figures, three self portraits, represents the choir of young church girls who would stand this way to create a protective circle at church gatherings. Within this circle, while songs and hymns are sung, ancestors are summoned to be present. This painting depicts a kind of moment in my childhood that I remember frequently being part of---it is meant to represent those spiritual moments we would take part in daily as young women and the sense of community and solidarity we felt in these spaces when we collectively summoned our ancestors, sometimes in celebration and other times in pain. 

Here is a breakdown of the title for a little more context.


This is a pedi word meaning “Our mother”. This is my replacement of “God”. Mmagorena is every Black woman. Mmagorena is the great ancestor we all share.

The Place

This ties back into my use of black acrylic to create safe black spaces where spirituality can be practiced freely.

Bulang kgoro ya dinaledi, kgoro ya bulega

In sepedi this means “open the ancestral shrine of the stars, and the gates opened” 


a group of huts built around a central area which served as meeting-place, cattle byre, graveyard and ancestral shrine. These are ranked in order of seniority. 




Sefela sa Kwantu: Invocation2020, Charcoal, ink, acrylic ink and paint on paper, 100 x 70 cm

This is a portrait of Ayanda. His spiritual or ancestral name is Likhoithongo. 'Ayanda’s pronouns are He/Him.  Ayanda is undergoing the process of intwaso.... and is currently referred to as umKwetha...igqirha in training." 

“Among the Xhosa people, the process called intwaso (literally means "spiritual emergence") or ukuthwasa (as a verb meaning "to emerge as a healer"). “An igqirha is someone who has been called by their ancestors to heal.” While umKwetha means the chosen one.

Ayanda is on a very specific journey which connects him to his ancestors in a way not many people have access to.  

I choose to portray Ayanda not only because he is a great source of energy and teachings for myself and others but also because he has chosen to undergo an extensive spiritual journey despite his positionality in this world. Ayanda is a person who navigates a world which stigmatises his queerness, Blackness, and spirituality. It is important to me that I depict him as his authentic and true self which is beautiful, warm, kind, strong, important and talented.

Here is a breakdown of the title of this work.


KwaNtu, meaning “a place of gathering”


Sung poetry


The act of invoking or calling upon a deity, spirit, etc., for aid, protection, inspiration, or the like; supplication.


UL In the past you have explored the idea of the cartographic portrait, could you tell us a little about this theory and how it connects with your work?

MM I grew up in a strict religious community. Within most homes of this community portraits are hung of the progressions of paternal lineage of the bishops who own the church. A visitor always knew which side of the church this family followed by looking at the uniform in this portrait. I have always understood portraiture as a way of archiving lineage, heritage, and religion. Growing up I did not understand the devotion to this specific portrait---I thought the man in the portrait was God for the longest time---but as I realised later there was a deeper sense of belonging that these portraits gave people. They represented generations of spiritual interventions sacred only to this community. Millions of people live with this portrait hanging in their living rooms as a clear reminder of their spiritual devotion. 

When I started drawing portraits, people commissioned me to draw their mothers and fathers and daughters. They wanted to immortalise their lineage, just like the bishop and his family have done: to create an ancestral map of their family. The idea of cartographic portraits came from an understanding that portraiture goes beyond representation but helps to archive lineage, time, space, and spirit. The portrait reveals the cartography of a people.

UL After the Medium is the Message what is next for you? Do you see the style or subject of the work itself changing in the near future?

MM I am working on some new works for another exhibition curated by Azu that opens in Lagos in November 2020. The theme is a continued look into what it means to be a Black body in space, the current moment of Black portraiture and the future of this genre.

My work will also be included in art fairs in Cape Town, France and Morocco in 2021. I am also working towards two solo exhibitions opening mid and late next year.

Being a part of this current exhibition has given me the confidence to see myself as one of the artists pushing forward representation of Black people within the art world. Seeing Black portraiture and its inclusion in these spaces is very exciting but I feel there is still so much work to do. My new series of works turns the focus onto myself and my experience as a single young Black mother raising a Black child in this world. I will look at the stereotypical narrative of young Black mothers and the stigma society holds against them. I am interested in reframing how the world perceives us, the cultural contradictions around motherhood, and whether the world will ever represent us accurately. This is important for how my son sees and understands me in the future. It is important that the world understands who we are and what our daily lives look like.


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