Bonolo Kavula: Looking closely at the textile stipple intricacies in her art

Bonolo Kavula

By Mamelodi Marakalala

Bonolo Kavula tells a significant tale of African heritage through her intricate artworks and artmaking process. She pushes the limits of everyday materials to bring about the “cultural, ancestral, archival and historical” elements that have been the backdrop of her life. She also leans into individual, collective, and intergenerational memory to reflect her relationships with these elements, especially as inspired by her loved ones who have passed or those still alive and their interactions with traditional materials. One such inspiration came from her mother’s red shweshwe dress, a traditional garment that Kavula cherishes. 

She has exhibited works across Cape Town, in Johannesburg, and in countries such as the United States, Germany, and Switzerland. Kavula’s works have been well-received by her contemporaries and multiple critics. “I am particularly moved by the works that are rendered in shweshwe and thread. Rebaone, Tuelo, and Sewedi all have a delicate and almost transparent nature, which acts like a veil to the world. Through what I deem to be a process of discovery rather than one of creation, she indicates a place where conceptual thinking and tools are used to complexify what is already at her disposal,” art researcher and writer Nikita Keogotsitse writes

What became even more intriguing to me about the shweshwe and thread artworks was the phenomenon existing beneath the materiality of the objects. That is, the psychological ambit that the materials carry when you delve further into her process. Kavula uses a paper punch to create tiny discs from shweshwe textiles, which she connects by threads to create diversely and intricately designed artworks that look like stipple grid patterns. 

When a fabric is punctured, it is slowly left with holes and is no longer what it once was. The holes become many or bigger until the fabric has dissolved to nothingness, which can invoke a sense of loss. On the other hand, this sense of loss in Kavula’s instance of artmaking is not the marker of an end but, rather, it signifies a beginning. Considering how she uses art to honour her family and their ancestry, there is a grand rumination of African traditional perspectives around life and death in the nature and inevitability of the whole process. African cultures approach death as a transition from one life to another, a transformation from one being in the human realm to a significant entity in the ancestral realm. 

It is believed that those who are deceased gain special powers to influence and guide their descendants through life. This belief is starkly reflected when the shweshwe fabrics that Kavula uses perish as they take on new abstract forms that art audiences can interpret. As noted in her artist statement, “Kavula’s work can therefore be likened to rhopography – a painting genre in which everyday objects used by people are brought before our eyes or put on display in a way that makes us think about them anew and makes us contemplate human presence and absence.”

In Don’t Ever Let Go (2023), the tiny discs in variant colours form a square with the many long threads that hold them together dripping to the floor. If you look long enough at the artwork, you can see multiple geometric shapes appear and disappear with every shift of the eyes. The yellow discs become prominent, or the blue, and then suddenly it’s the green. There is almost an optical illusion that makes you want to hang on to the single frame your mind caught, to make out what shapes there are before you see them another way. When connected to the idea of heritage, this can be likened to the practice of finding one’s place in life or in their heritage. Life and heritage are vast aspects of the world that we find fulfilment in understanding, in drawing conclusions from that build culture and character, and – leaning into the title – in never letting go. 

Nonyane (2023), which is Sesotho for “Bird”, is a larger artwork that has far more complex textile stipples that have formed big horizontal and vertical zigzag courses. This further highlights the intricate nature of Kavula’s art practice and the cultural themes she presents. The title reminds me of the culturally symbolic meanings Basotho place upon birds to deliver strong messages about human existence, the psyche and spirituality. Birds appear in many folktales and historical accounts in the ways they were, and continue, to be used to connect Basotho to the natural world and spiritual realms. Different birds are thought to represent good or wickedness based on their features and ecological capabilities or behaviours. The form of the artwork has elements of a bridge to be crossed, or a path to be followed, further alluding to how she unravels the purviews of heritage in her reimagining of the shweshwe textiles. 

The Basireletsi, or “Our Protectors”, artwork (2023) was made using Indian ink and acrylic on wood relief carving and introduces a new material and technique that reveals Kavula stretching herself to more creative heights. Wood carving is one of the oldest crafts on the African continent that crosses the borders of artistry, entering realms of ancestry and spirituality. This artwork depicts a variety of triangular shapes, some with darker shades of brown than others. Grid lines cover its surface like the lines of latitude and longitude running over the Earth that help us read maps and find locations. I see Kavula’s Basireletsi as a reflection of how Africans have relied on elders, leaders or healers to guide them in protecting themselves against evil existing in the world. As I trace the gridlines on the image of this work, I am reminded that many of our families engage in rituals prescribed by their guide and believed to be from their ancestors, exactly as they have been prescribed, to keep away bad luck or ailments. 

Bonolo Kavula is scheduled to showcase her works in a group exhibition at Patrick Heide Contemporary Art in London. “Since its inception over 15 years ago, Patrick Heide Contemporary Art has been dedicated to works on paper. Currently, the gallery collaborates with artists whose practices extend beyond drawing to include painting, sculpture, video, and installation. The gallery remains dedicated to showing process-based, repetitive, meditative, minimalistic, non-figurative, abstract and conceptual art. We are excited to present Bonolo Kavula’s new works in our summer group exhibition, opening in July. It’s fascinating how her art is infused with her own traditions and culture; incorporating and reimagining abstract and minimal aesthetics; combining print, design, painting and sculpture,” says Anastasia Lebega, the gallery manager of Patrick Heide Contemporary Art.

Lebega continues, “This exhibition will bring together four international artists representing different generations: Jonathan Callan, Oskar Holweck, Sam Lock, and Bonolo Kavula. Each artist, through their abstract practices, engages with textual and visual information and language in unique ways. Kavula is currently working on the series for the show that will result from her experiments with canvas and paper. Similar to how she uses tiny Shweshwe fabric cut-outs tenuously connected by individual threads in her previous works, the artist will assemble punched circular discs from magazines and books of her choice. In this way, printed publications will be deconstructed and reconstructed again, reimagining their content and being transformed into new abstract dimensions.”

Titled Summer Exhibition, the showcase takes place from 11 July – 21 September 2024. It will allow us to grasp Kavula’s experimentation with different materials that then become the different channels through which we can further understand African heritage, considering that it has shifted in history and continues to be imaginatively reinvigorated in real-time through alternative ways of seeing or making.

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