On Art & The Happiness Of Humanity: A Dialogue With Wilson Ngoni
Wilson Ngoni is a painter and writer from Botswana. He is a maestro whose art reflects art today and has frozen moments of the day to day African life in all forms. He says, Botswana art lies on the bristle of mu brush. Since I am insufficient in religion, the art of painting is my destiny. I live to do three things: to fall in love, to paint, and to eat all the chicken I come across.
BY KEAROMA MOSATA
This conversation took place in Botswana via email.
Kearoma: I want to start off by saying how excited I am that we are finally doing this. After two false starts with this interview, I am happy that we are finally doing it.
Wilson: Thank you, Kearoma. The false starts were nothing but a hiccup.
Kearoma: My first question is one that I have been itching to ask. I observed when we met a few months ago that you are a very spiritual person. It is embodied in how you talk and overall demeanor. I remember you bonding over plants with my mother and growing plants is in itself very spiritual. Does your spirituality influence your art?
Wilson: I would like to think so. What I feel inside and what surrounds me influences my paintings. Take for instance, when plants are in full bloom, it is my favorite time and I find that sitting outside in my studio really inspires ideas for new work. Sometimes, when I am down, I paint happiness and when I am happy and hyper, I do sad paintings. I do this because I don’t want my art to harm me. It is through this that I create a balance. Look at it this way, imagine a big truck moving at high speed and hitting a fly. I don’t want to be the fly or my art being the fly. I want balance between me and my art.
Kearoma: That is very interesting. I also find that I write very sad plots when I am happy. My latest short story was on grief, which is something I experienced a few months ago but never really sat down to write about. It only came to me when I was in a better place emotionally.
Wilson: Yes that is the balance I was talking about.
Kearoma: When I was preparing for this interview I was inspired to base this one on three themes, which are; spirituality and art, activism and art, and art in Botswana.
I chose these based on you, your art and the current state of art and creativity in Botswana.
I particularly chose activism as art because of femicides. Women are being violated and killed in this country. What are we doing as artists and creatives?
“What I feel inside and what surrounds me influences my paintings. Take for instance, when plants are in full bloom, it is my favorite time and I find that sitting outside in my studio really inspires ideas for new work. Sometimes, when I am down, I paint happiness and when I am happy and hyper, I do sad paintings.“
Wilson: I love those themes. I am saddened by what is happening. Artists have a societal responsibility to engage Batswana and to be open about what is happening. Re rata go bipa mpa ka mabele. We see what is going on and each one of us has to use our art, anyway we can, to loudly proclaim that it is wrong. To also alert the higher-ups to lend a hand in stopping this.
Kearoma: I agree, a Setswana ideology is to ignore the big elephant in the room when it comes to such issues. We would rather show outrage in combis, in our offices and on Facebook. But no one wants to come up with solutions. It is like we are saying, yes, women are being killed, we see that. There is nothing to do. It is how it is supposed to be.
Wilson: Yes, it is a cultural thing to be ignorant and keep one’s head down. It only ever becomes an issue we want to engage if it directly affects us or our family members.
Kearoma: I agree. What issues has your art been vocal about?
Wilson: My art in recent years has had a lot of themes and has been inspired by reality and what is happening around me. I have paintings that were inspired by environmental issues, HIV/AIDS, gender based violence and cancer. It is very easy to use art as an activism tool because art moves people. It invokes feelings and certain paintings can change a lot. They can change religious views, political views and even cultural norms which we grow up following. Art is very powerful.
I have a motto when it comes to my art. I want to “contribute to the general happiness of humanity.” In order to do that I cannot ignore what is happening around me and people’s other emotions. To get to a state of happiness, I need to first take note of what people are feeling. Are they sad? Are they angry? Are they frustrated? Then I need to figure out why they are feeling that way. It is only after that I can say I can make them happy this way.
I have had people come up to me, commending me for my work because it makes them proud to be a Motswana. It gives them a sense of belonging. In that same way, art can be used to change views and to alert and to use your term as a form of activism.
Kearoma: That is true, art is indeed very powerful. I believe with its proper use it can change a lot. Let’s talk about your recent showing in Thapong. The collection was titled “Relentless”. Tell us about it.
Wilson: I did that showing to heal myself. I wanted to draw energy from it and in so doing pass on the good energy to everyone else who got to see it.
Kearoma: Is that why you called it relentless?
Wilson: Yes, I have been painting for a long time. I lived and breathed art. I have been very resilient till I felt myself slowing down and losing momentum. I called it Relentless because I wanted to motivate myself to come back to the art, to the beat and pace I have been used to. Like I said, it was to heal myself.
Kearoma: I hope your goal with the collection was met.
I remember seeing in the collection a painting of an old man staring into the distance. It stayed with me for a while because I felt like he was someone I could meet on the way to the shop. And from the painting, I could hear what his voice sounded like, what he would say. I was almost as if I could see his soul. Do you study your objects before painting them?
Wilson: The painting you are talking about is called “Ancient”. I do interact with the people I paint first. I travel across the country and meet different people. I talk to them, eat with them and only when I stand in front of the easel do I paint from memory. Interacting with people makes it easy to undress their soul. Just by looking into their eyes, you can pull away the curtain that’s their soul. You can see when they are disappointed, cagey.
The old man in the painting struck me as being hard. I don’t quite know how to explain it but there was hardness about him. Almost as if he is summoning up the will to survive by being hard and barricading himself from the rest of the world.
Kearoma: I am always intrigued to hear artists describe their work and how everyone interprets art differently. Sort of like in fiction how a plot will mean one thing to another and the opposite to someone else.
Wilson: Indeed. I am also fascinated by people describing the feelings my art invokes and their interpretations of my works are sometimes far from mine and I get to see my own work in a whole new light too.
Kearoma: One theme I haven’t touched on is Art and Botswana. Let’s talk about the art scene in the country. When we last talked we had talked about mentorship of up and coming artists and you mentioned your dream to start a center for young artists to paint and workshop and grow their art. How far with that?
Wilson: So much pressure, Kearoma.
Kearoma: No pressure. I loved the idea and I am rooting for it and for you. That’s why I want to find out more about it.
Wilson: It’s a work in progress. The only barrier is financial limitations. Finding sponsors for art in this country is like trying to get water from a stone. I do mentor young artists though; I let them come to my studio. I look over their work. And thanks to social media my mentorship runs cross borders. There is a lot of young talent in Botswana.
Kearoma: That is great work.
Wilson: Yes, I believe that my experiences and history will inspire them and get them to work hard if not harder to achieve their wildest dreams. With hard work anything is possible.
Kearoma: Have you collaborated with other artists? Not necessarily visual artists, maybe writers, musicians, poets?
Wilson: I have collaborated with some of the visual artists, I mentor. Whenever I have a show I invite them to showcase with me. As for other mediums of art, I have not had any collaboration with them.
I don’t know if you have noticed this, there is no culture of collaboration in Botswana. Everyone wants to make it on their own. Then beat their chest when they get to the top and say “I am the best”. I really wish this could change. We could do a lot, grow each other and the art scene in Botswana if we let go of our big egos. Sometimes I consider collaborations and think about the stress of it all, it would involve working on my art, managing an artist then managing their big ego and coddling them. I just want to create. I believe collaborations with other genres would benefit us greatly. I have seen it in some of my travels, a poet reciting next to a painting or drawing. That is powerful. Merging two art forms and making beautiful moments with it.
Kearoma: I agree, I think I have noticed something similar with writers. There is no sense of community.
Wilson: Yes, many successful artists, be it painters, writers, musicians they made it because of support. Because they worked with and learned from those who came before them. Not necessarily mentorship but like you said a sense of community. Of saying, “here is Kearoma, she is a writer, let me feature her work.” We talk of Botswana being a big nation of cooperative and people with botho but the truth is no one wants to help anyone. And sometimes, I blame the media for these egos; they play a hand in inflating them. I always see articles like “teen makes a living from art”. What exactly is making it? One big successful show or one big cheque doesn’t equate to making a living. Especially when the artist is just starting out. I applaud hard work and passionate artists but sometimes the media is not honest. It takes hard work to finally breathe and say “yes I have made it”. There are no shortcuts. Maybe there are shortcuts but at the end of the day the work has to be there it has to be good. Another problem is the curse of the millennial; they are entitled and believe in the shortcuts I was talking about. Some artists don’t want to hear creative criticism. They want to make it now, without putting in the work.
Kearoma: That is very powerful. One last word to artists in Botswana?
Wilson: Work hard, work hard and work hard. It takes time but sometimes you are lucky. The most important thing is to work hard.
Kearoma Mido Mosata is a Motswana writer and blogger. She was shortlisted for the inaugural BSHD Tourism Fiction Award in 2016. Her work appears in print in 36 Kisses and Other Short Stories & Poems and as part of It’s The Devil You Know- Collection of Works on Gender Based Violence. More of her works are online on Brittle Paper, Kalahari Review and Arts & Africa. Kearoma writes about a lot of things but lately, her writing has been inspired by the idea of displacement, the self and home. Her first Non-fictional short story “This Is How We Grieve” is part of the recently published 3rd Journal of The Single Story Foundation.
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