Born and based in Cape Town, Asemahle Ntlonti calls Engcobo, Mqonci in the Eastern Cape her home. She graduated from the University of Cape Town’s Michaelis School of Fine Art with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in 2017, where she majored in sculpture. Complementary to this she was also part of a performance collective called iQhiya. “I fell in love with performance,” says Asemahle. “My work is performance, sculpture and recently painting. ”
She also works with found material as well as on canvas. “I am multidisciplinary artist, so all those things mixed up together.”
She was awarded the 2018 Young Female Residency by The Project Space, a non-profit cultural institution founded by the late Benon Lutaaya in Johannesburg, South Africa. In 2019 Ntlonti attended a residency at the South African Foundation for Contemporary Art (SAFFCA) in Knysna and Saint Emilion, France. Ntlonti’s work has been exhibited widely in South Africa and abroad.
My sculptures are based on miniature objects that you'd find everyday at home, but I enlarge them: for example, matchsticks which I enlarge. Or like the safety pendant, where I also incorporate beadwork. Each piece tells a story.
My love of art started from around 11-years-old when I started drawing from a child's perspective. My work speaks to heavy subjects, but showcased in a very playful way, which sort of eases a lot of things. Throughout my undergrad I was making work about the history of this country and that of my family: about trauma and violence, which started to feel very heavy on me. So I started adopting this approach. If you can say something that a five-year-old child can understand, then you have achieved something. It's always been like that, I remember I made this piece with plastic plates, from afar, you'd think they were smarties, but when you come closer, it had all these surnames - speaking of collective and speaking of community, and I like that effect, of drawing people in and grabbing their attention. I also enjoy borrowing from my culture.
Colour is important in my work. I'm always investigating and curious about colour: rearranging, curating it in a way that will speak of a mood.
There’s the sculpture and there's the paintings on paper. And there's also performance. It’s like a puzzle that one day, hopefully, everything will come together. I'm very patient with my journey and very patient and understanding that it's coming in small pieces. And it's at the same time it’s also for me to understand myself in this world.
At first, when I started off, I was just using what I could find on campus. Born from necessity, I initially lacked the equipment I needed; but now, it’s become more than that. Things that were loved before and were used in a different context, and I'm just trying to glue in the life that it had before. It could be something that I find when I'm at home; materials like paper, flour, rice, or objects that I find in my backyard, or when I'm walking, like say, potato sacks. All these things I just find interesting. Materiality is quite a big thing, it's an investigation, a curiosity. And sometimes I don't have a plan of what to do with that material. So it becomes a discovery in a way, just going about the world, and you're just discovering things, and you add into your life and it into your work.
First I decide the colour scheme. And sometimes I have an idea of the form and everything that's in my head. I then mix colour, and paint it onto paper and patch that together onto canvas. And then after that, it's cleaning whatever is attached to the canvas. So sanding, washing, scrubbing. I still use the elements of sculpture in painting. And then afterwards it's putting the work up and trying to sort of understand where you're going with it - sometimes you know immediately, and sometimes it takes me a while and it leads me to just sit by myself in silence and try to understand what I want to say. Sometimes I don't want to say anything. I just like the colours mashed up together and it's beautiful. Just making something that is beautiful and honest, and honest in its beauty. Sometimes it requires me just to be still. Because that's where the important elements come into form. Is it silent? Is it loud? Is it quirky? I take it as it comes.
I do look at my family history. And I sometimes tie it with what has happened in this country. And that is the backbone of my work. Collective history is very important to me.
Family history is still something that I use in my work. I look at the Eastern Cape, I look at the landscape movement within Eastern Cape every December I go there. I listen to what my grandmother has told me, what I know from speaking to the women in my family, through interacting with people and sometimes it comes in the form of dreams. I use art as a way of knowing who I am and where I come from.
I investigate the beautiful things about my culture and where I'm from and a lot of times in the Eastern Cape our life is very minimal. Though minimalism doesn't come from a have-not perspective. We use what we have around us to make things to build, to eat, and art is also like that.
Intuition teaches one to listen. We’re surrounded by a lot of noise and constantly busy, so it’s hard to be able to honestly get what that intuition is saying. I just walk into something and I'm like, okay, what next? I listen to what my intuition tells me. And that's why sometimes the artwork itself tells me what to do, because it's that intuition. It's that voice that is like, okay, this is what you're doing. I'm just here as a vessel.
The minute you step into your studio, the hardest thing is to remove the outside world, to just shut out the outside world as much as you can. I don't want to be making and thinking about what other people think. Is this good enough? The minute my mind is clouded with those things, it just makes the process unenjoyable because the outside world is living rent free in my head. So for me it's to get to a point where it's so silent in my mind. I'll try as much as I can to create a space that is somehow meditative, a space where I can be myself.
Art making requires a lot of courage, a lot of boldness in yourself, and accepting that this is who you are. And accepting the flaws and the beautiful things about yourself - if you're able to transfer that onto an artwork.
I like referring back, because it helps me understand my thought process back then, and how it has changed, and how I have gotten to a point where I understand other people's perspectives. If I speak of time, in a decolonial sense, I step into a very spiritual platform, when I speak of time, it becomes a different thing. There is no right or wrong. Things will happen. It's like nature.
It takes time for me to understand all of these ideas that I have. It's like working with a chisel and a board, trying to master or shape it in a way. I'm spending a lot of time trying to find a way to say what I want to say, or find a technique or find a formula that will be able to express everything that is in me.
For instance, if I wanted to make this bottle, I'd make it out of water. I'll make it out of anything and make it out of all the equipment that I have. And this is going to take years because I’m in the studio trying every day how to make glass from scratch, eventually, over time, you will get something perhaps it won't be as glassy as actual glass, but then it will be your glass that you've made, and your understanding of what a glass is. And, that is how I am treating my work and my life. I am trying to be free as much as I can to remove myself from all these things that weigh the body down.
I'm treating the studio as though it's a lab, by experimenting with all these different tools. I'm just literally there, it's a mess. I'm trying to understand myself in this space in Tulbagh. What are my thought processes? How was my body reacting to the space? How am I reacting to space? Is it adding something to my work? Is it taking something away?
It's unfortunate that I kept coming in and out, that the process kept being disrupted. I kept travelling between Tulbagh and Cape Town doing Live Arts Festival and the residency. And perhaps that is it. That is the residency itself, I'm speaking of movement. And speaking of the people that work every day, and go home to different spaces. Being in a quiet space and having to travel back into the city life allowed me to be conscious of my body in both surroundings and hopefully it reflected in the work I produced when I was there.