In Conversation with Mmangaliso Nzuza
In the following interview with Mmangaliso Nzuza, he shares his passion for oil painting and as October draws to an end, what Black History Month means to him.
Mmangaliso Nzuza, who to his friends and family goes by the name Mmango, is a self-taught artist from Durban, South Africa. Currently, in his final year at the University of Edinburgh, Mmango studies Government, Policy and Society.
Inspired by a teacher in preparatory school, Mmango pursued art through high school, delving into different mediums but primarily sticking to pencil and charcoal. It was only during the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020 that Mmango began oil painting for the first time; ‘I felt during that difficult space, it was time for me to move out of my comfort zone, and to start painting.’
The fictional figures featured within Mmango’s artwork, as seen on his Instagram @mmangalisonzuza, are an attempt for him to ‘materialise’ his ‘own experience’. This process of materialisation becomes almost literal in the drawing stage; opening up about some of the difficulties he encounters throughout the artistic process, Mmango admits, ‘Sometimes it gets to the point where I have to take pictures of myself or my own body parts to correct whatever it is I’m trying to paint’.
I can’t help but reflect on Mmango’s choice to use the medium of oil paint and wonder whether this in part captures his dedication to representing black lives. Due to the nature of the substance being so rich, and the flexibility and depth of colour that it allows, this kind of layering lends itself to a sort of physical complexity which Mmango alludes to in his work through his layering of paint to depict skin tone. The classic writing advice that is ‘to write what you know’ is perhaps echoed in Mmango’s artistic process, as working with oil allows him instead to paint what he knows; his art is an outlet for both his personal experiences and his observations.
Producing visually pleasing art, but that is also encoded with messages and symbolism, Mmango describes oil painting as, ‘a process of learning and discovery’. Growing up in a rigid and conservative environment throughout his life, Mmango captures and addresses social issues such as racism, sexism, and mental health through his art; topics that he struggles to openly talk about due to his social anxiety.
Megan: I’m interested to know, when did you start painting and why?
Mmango: I’ve always loved the arts from a young age, whether it be from sketching inanimate objects, to doodling cartoons either at home or at school.
Megan: Could you talk about oil painting specifically, what’s the artistic process like? Also, what made you choose this medium, is there a particular reason behind this choice?
Mmango: I was particularly drawn to the texture, vibrancy, and richness that oil paints provided in comparison to acrylic, especially when it came to the layering of my skin tone to the figures in my artwork. The process was surprisingly easy, using my prior knowledge of lights and darks and creating depth when it came to shading, I applied the same thing to painting, which ended up working out.
Megan: Could you talk about the inspiration for your artwork in the past and present? Are there things that you find yourself coming back to?
Mmango: I’ve been collecting GQ magazines every month since 2015 - I’ve got a whole bookcase row full and more. I really enjoyed the photographic compositions in fashion magazines and others such as Esquire and i-D. Also, when I look at a few of my favourite music artists such as Kendrick Lamar, Beyoncé, Kanye … how they not only produce work that’s visually pleasing, but that includes symbolism and messages that we can take away with us, to appreciate and learn from.
Megan: What is the most enjoyable part of the artistic process for you?
Mmango: Wow, the painting. I’m actually really upset with myself for not at least giving it a try years back during high school because when I begin layering, blending, and creating depth within the artwork, I get really excited seeing everything come together.
Megan: Something I’ve always wondered is how do you know when your artwork is finished, how do you know when to stop?
Mmango: It’s almost like intuition. The usage of lines and the overall artwork “looking unfinished” is what makes it my style. Back when I used to complete my artworks fully, I would get really bored whenever I would look at them, to the point where I would really dislike them. I mean, even now, I look at the artworks I’ve done, and I still say to myself, “I can do better”. I’m still growing and learning.
Megan: When looking through your artwork, I noticed a consistent feature was the representation and portrayal of black lives. Could you talk a bit about this; what does this mean to you, and what are your reasons behind this artistic and potentially political choice?
Mmango: It’s who I am and what I believe in. Especially when I talk about mental health, as mentioned before, I have debilitating anxiety. I find it extremely difficult opening up or expressing myself, and so for something I feel so strongly about, I needed a way to talk about it.
Megan: Would you say your art feels personal to you?
Mmango: I mean, all my pieces are personal to some degree. In some, I like to paint my figurative figures in mundane daily activities, in others, through using symbolism. It’s really those that touch base on my personal mental health that are difficult working through as it requires honesty.
Megan: Do you set an intention for your artwork? As in, did you have a particular aim in mind before you started?
Mmango: It did start off as just a personal outlet for me, but when I began sharing my art on social media, I would get messages from my friends and followers on how they appreciated that I would highlight specific issues that they could also be experiencing themselves. That was a moment of realisation for me, that my art can be used not only as therapy for myself but can be used to highlight issues in our society, being a source of comfort and relatability for others too.
Megan: Do you have a particular audience in mind when you’re painting?
Mmango: No not really. It’s important for me that everyone takes something away from my artwork, and I hope that it’ll make you think about it even after you've seen it or gone through the rationale of it.
Megan: I know that you have some of your artwork hanging up in your flat, could you talk about the presence that it has in your home? What’s that like, being surrounded by your art?
Mmango: That was my flatmate’s idea. I felt really weird and almost self-conceited about it to be honest, but he was adamant on wanting people to see my artworks when they enter our place. It was the first time my friends have seen my artwork in person, so that was really cool too. As one of my friend’s said, “It feels like your own little gallery”.
Megan: What goes on behind the titling of your pieces?
Mmango: I used to find it really pretentious and hilarious how artists would name their artworks the way that they do, as it makes them seem much more thought-provoking than they really are … until I began the journey myself, and learnt that it’s what you want the viewer to know, see, or feel.
Megan: I noticed that there seemed to be a slight political edge to some of your pieces, thinking in particular about ‘Hard Knock Life’, would I be right in making that assumption?
Mmango: You’re correct, for that artwork, it was in relation to our personal lives and the experience of living in a system of oppression; even in our daily lives, doing ordinary activities, we still feel it. It is important to highlight that.
Megan: During big moments of social unrest, such as the Black Lives Matter movement and the global pandemic, how was your creative flow affected? What was the process of producing art like during these times?
Mmango: My creative flow was definitely amplified during those tumultuous times. Especially since we were consuming so much of what was happening, both in terms of the virus, and in terms of how emotionally taxing it was coming across images and articles during the BLM movement. That was when I would turn to art to calm me down, and as cliché, as it sounds, to express how I was feeling then.
Megan: Moving on from the summer of 2020, and thinking about our present situation in October 2021, what does Black History Month mean to you, and why do you feel it is important and necessary?
Mmango: It means not only acknowledging the disturbing past and learning about it but celebrating who we are and how far we’ve come. It’s important when having to teach it to others who try to diminish our experience, especially since what’s occurred in the past still affects us to this day.
Megan: As a Black man and minority, what has your experience of living in Edinburgh been like? Do you feel that this experience relates in any way to your artwork?
Mmango: I do think it relates to my work whilst being in Edinburgh because if I think back, I’ve attended predominantly white schools all my life, where all my teachers were white too. It did affect me in high school since I was boarding, and having a safe space was hard to find, so we would resort to assimilation and code-switching. Reading literature by writers from the African diaspora such as Chinua Achebe and Zakes Mda played a role in my navigation of racism and feminism. They also helped me in my security as a Black individual, so from then on, coming to Edinburgh was not a huge challenge for me; it’s been a pleasant few years actually.
“‘After August’ was made just after South Africa’s Women’s Month. A country where we have one of the highest rape statistics in the world and are battling against gender-based violence and harassment towards women. This month is a time meant to celebrate them and what they’ve accomplished, yet even after that month has passed, the issues are still very much prevalent. The facial expressions of the women are visible and there’s another with her hands on her hips as if to ask, “What is next?”. I specifically chose the black dresses to represent the grief of those who have departed from us due to violence against women and the deep hue of red as the background for bloodshed. I was uncomfortable throughout the process, but it’s important as it is reality, especially for them.”
Where to find Mmangaliso: