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South African Illustrator Pola Maneli's Reflections On Blackness

South African illustrator Pola Maneli discusses his reflections on blackness.

All images courtesy of Pola Maneli


Pola Maneli is a South African freelance illustrator and art director who centers his work around blackness and the multi-dimensional experiences of people of color. Blending bold colors and contemporary iconography with floral and faunal motifs, Maneli uses his art to speak out against the notion of a monolithic black culture. As he told us over e-mail, "My work concerns itself with reflecting expressions within the spectrum of blackness."

A quick look at Maneli's portfolio shows the work of an an artist who revels in vibrant color palettes and bold statements on the rampant disregard for black lives in the US and across Africa. "The work is mostly of quite a political nature and looks at everything from pop culture to government politics through a lens of what it means to be black in South Africa," Maneli says. "It all sounds very serious, but aesthetically the work is far from morose." His more commercial work includes the cover artwork for South African supergroup Fantasma's Free Love LP.

Born and raised in Port Elizabeth, Maneli has been drawn to illustration since his early childhood. "I've been drawing ever since I can remember," the artist says. "I would arrive super early to creche and the only other person that was ever there at that time was the prinicipal's son. He was a much older kid, but for some reason he liked me, and took it upon himself to teach me how to draw the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles characters."

Later on, while studying visual communication at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, Maneli began to use his craft as a conduit for social commentary. "I was learning how to decipher visual language at university," he told us. "But even though I was being taught how everything we see alludes to some deeper meaning, it wasn't until I started dabbling in identity politics and the role representation plays in forming those identities that I saw all art as an inherently political tool."

"Like most POC I didn't grow up with a lot of choices when it came to characters/people in the media or arts that I could relate to. I think we're still suffering from that now which is how we've ended up with everyone seemingly only being able to name 2 people of color within the visual arts; Frida Kahlo and Basquiat. I would have loved to have been exposed to more African creatives in the arts as a teenager. I'm starting to unearth those people for myself now, but at the same time I wish I didn't have to dig to find the names of African artists."

Maneli tells us that his recent work is geared towards lifting the stigma surrounding mental health in the black community--a topic that has often been maligned among communities of color as a frivolous adoption of Western culture. "Lately I've been trying to explore the anxieties and depression that some of us within blackness experience," Maneli says. "I feel like that's not spoken about enough; usually everybody just wants to see us lifting our chins up and striding on defiantly against all of the violence that we're exposed to. And I understand the need for a narrative that speaks to our awesomeness and that doesn't portray us as victims (as the media so often does). But I also don't think acknowledging your vulnerability is the same thing as victimizing yourself. If we're talking about portraying people of color in a more human light, then that has to include everything that comes with the full spectrum of humanity - and that means having to talking about sadness."

Maneli shared some of his new illustrations with us--a series of sketches in the style of a fashion lookbook. "[Street Wear] is a way for me to show my appreciation for fashion. Most of the work that I look at and that I'm inspired by is actually photography and fashion. I feel like right now those mediums are the most effective at expressing a tone or mood relevant to black culture."

The signature triangular features of Maneli's characters are based on simplified abstractions of Ndebele patterns, an aesthetic choice which hints at a foundational blackness he hopes doesn't seem too forced. "I use my knowledge of aesthetics and semiotic meanings to depict everything from black rage and anger to effortless cool, pride and satisfaction," he says. His main preoccupation, however, lies in what those who encounter his work take away from the experience. "It all sounds very complex, but really at the end of the day all that matters is what the viewer feels when they look at the work. If it somehow resonates with their lived experience then I've done my job," he says.

Click through the gallery above to view Pola Maneli's conceptual Street Wear series. Check out more of his work on BehanceTumblr and Facebook.

Interview
Image: Courtesy TIFF

Jenna Cato Bass is Capturing the Horrors of an Unhealed Nation

The film marks the South African director's third debut and stride towards making a name for herself in the international film circuit.

Ever since premiering her debut film, Love the One You Love, which won the Best Feature Film at the Jozi Festival in 2015, Jenna Cato Bass has been a name to watch on the international film festival circuit. Her 2017 feature, High Fantasy, was the first of her films to land on the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) lineup, followed by Flatland in 2019. Her latest offering, Mlungu Wam (Good Madam), debuted at TIFF in September of 2021 — marking her third time at the esteemed Canadian film event.

Often provocative, always thought-provoking, Bass' films have come to establish her as a director who looks at South Africa's youth, the lives they're living and the future that awaits them, with a nuanced, open-minded lens. For the first time in her career, Bass uses the genre of horror to dig into an enduring mark of the country's past — that of the fraught, complex relationship between madam and domestic worker, in Mlungu Wam (Good Madam). Set in Cape Town, the film follows the unusual, disturbing things that start happening when a young woman moves back in with her estranged mother, who is the longtime caretaker for a rich, white household.

Bass also co-wrote the film Tug of War (Vuta N'Kuvute), which became Tanzania's first film to be selected for TIFF this year, and she co-wrote Rafiki, which was Kenya's first film at TIFF in 2018.

She spoke to OkayAfrica about playing in a new genre and her hopes for African cinema.

Still from Bass's film Mlungu Wam Image: Courtesy TIFF


This story revolves around the relationship between a domestic worker and her 'madam.' What made you want to make a film about this subject?

When I make films, I like the concept to revolve around something that we all have in common - because, despite the many fractures in our society, these shared places exist. And in South Africa, we felt that everyone - in some way or another - has been deeply affected by domestic work and domestic workers, who are a keystone in our society's structure. Additionally, the 'maid' and 'madam' relationship is the ultimate symbol of race relations in South Africa - as well as how they haven't changed significantly, despite almost thirty years of democracy. So a domestic worker was the perfect character around which to centre a South African horror.

The genre of horror works really well to explore this subject and tell this story — when did you know it would be the genre you'd want to use?

The early stages of developing a film aren't always linear for me. I'll be thinking about a genre I'm interested in, and then parallel to that I'll have an idea for a story or a character, and later on, will realize that these pieces all fit together. In this case, I'd been wanting to make a horror film for ages, but hadn't found the right story… until I had the idea for Mlungu Wam, and I realized I was finally ready to try this genre.

What challenges did you face in making a horror?

It was my first time working in this genre, and it was intimidating because there's no saving you if you fail. We were also working on a very, very limited budget, so it wasn't possible to show as much as we'd like to - but then again, this story was all about the subjective and the unseen, so I did as much research and planning as we could, and just had to trust it would work.

Where did you film, and did that have any impact on the process at all?

We filmed in a house in Cape Town, in a gated community in the Southern Suburbs. The house and the environment had a major impact on the film - especially because we were also quarantining there for the full 7 weeks of rehearsal and shooting. The house was our set and our accommodation, so it was very intense, very claustrophobic, and very triggering for many of our team members.

How did you and co-writer Babalwa Baartman work on the story? You've included cast members in the writing process in your previous work — did you do that here too?

Mlungu Wam was made along similar lines to my first two films, Love The One You Love and High Fantasy, where we started with an outline, cast actors, then workshopped the characters collaboratively before completing the story breakdown and using improv for the dialogue. Babalwa and I had worked together using this method on a short film we made in 2019 called Sizohlala. She really understands the process, and it was a really rewarding experience exploring the story with her and our cast.

How did Kristina Ceyton, who produced the excellent acclaimed horrors The Babadook and The Nightingale, through Causeway Films, come to be involved in this film?

I had met Sam Jennings, who is also a producer with Causeway Films, several years ago at a festival. We really connected and kept in touch over the years, sharing our work, and hoping there'd be a chance to collaborate. So when we were developing Mlungu Wam, I pitched her and Kristina the concept and they were immediately supportive. It has been a massive pleasure working with them both.

Your films are known to venture into themes of identity and healing from the past — how does this film speak to that?

Mlungu Wam is definitely about this too - it's a story about three generations of women (actually four, if you include Tsidi's grandmother, who is an unseen character in the film), how they are haunted by the past and eventually refuse to remain chained any longer. Their healing is collective, linked to each other, and wouldn't be possible for them alone as individuals.

Still from Bass's film Mlungu Wam Image: Courtesy TIFF


You've been at TIFF before - how has your experience of it been this year, with it being a hybrid of virtual and in-person?

Things have been quieter and a bit harder to navigate, but the TIFF staff have done incredible work getting the festival off the ground, despite endless challenges. It has felt very surreal to be here, and a privilege - and inspiring too, that we can still get together to celebrate films, even though our world is in such a mess. We had over 200 (socially distanced) people at our last screening, and that was an amazing feeling.

Yours is one of few African films on this year's line-up - is there anything you'd like to see happen to try improve that?

Regarding African cinema, TIFF has a real range of films this year, across several sections. Compared to many other festivals, they seem really invested in supporting cinema from the continent. Of course, this could be better, but it's also an example to other festivals who claim there aren't enough African films, that this is clearly not the case.

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