Glass Play: Malebogo Molokoane’s art practice and the “A Re Tshamekeng” exhibition


A Re Tshamekeng is a Setswana phrase for “let’s play”. It is also the title of Malebogo Molokoane’s art exhibition that was at Absa Gallery until the 14th of March, following the Tshwane University of Technology graduate and part-time art lecturer’s win of the Absa L’Atelier Gerard Sekoto Award in 2022. This award is an initiative of Absa and the South African National Association for the Visual Arts (SANAVA) in partnership with the Institut Français d’Afrique du Sud (IFAS) / French Institute of South Africa, established to support the development and growth of African artists through a residency, a well-travelled learning experience, and exposure in the art market, just to name a few of the benefits. 

The body of work in the exhibition takes the form of board games, indigenous games, as well as glass busts and portraits emphasising facial features and expressions. Molokoane has used both her personal and artistic journey and experiences to explore the complexities of the human condition, being in a space, feeling and conveying emotions, and engaging in play that unites and brings a glimmer of joy. 

A Re Tshamekeng will be touring parts of South Africa, making its next stop at the KKNK in Oudtshoorn, Western Cape from 23 – 31 March 2024. Molokoane, who is delighted to share her story as the talented hands behind these works, will also be in the province. IQOQO caught up with Molokoane on her experience applying for and winning the Absa L’Atelier Gerard Sekoto Award, going to Paris, and showcasing her works on this large scale. 

Mamelodi Marakalala: For those who are only coming to learn about you from A Re Tshamekeng, which reflects your journey as an artist, who is Malebogo Molokoane? 

Malebogo Molokoane: Malebogo Molokoane is a young lady originally from the North West – in Rustenburg, Thlabane. I love challenges and doing what other people don’t like doing. 

As you can see throughout A Re Tshamekeng, it’s something that is very personal but also that which people can relate to. I’m not just talking about myself and my journey. I am helping others, as well, to express themselves. As humans, we go through a lot of things. I, myself, have gone through a lot. Hence I created all these board games and indigenous games so that I could overcome that fear and allow people to be engaged with parts of themselves through my work. 

In that sense, and in essence, I am a person who’s very genuine, very kind, and very choosy towards who I bring into my life. That’s why I ended up being very strict about what I wanted out of life. That’s my Malebogo for you.

Mamelodi Marakalala: You use a distinct medium to tell your artistic visual stories. How and when did you come to see glass beyond its typical functions? Also, what tools or methods do you use to handle glass to make different art objects out of it?

Malebogo Molokoane: That happened in 2017. It was my first year when I got introduced to glass. As a first-year student, everybody gets to explore different mediums and different electives and all of that. It was initially strange to me but very interesting. As a student, it was about me doing my work and pushing through just to get good grades like everybody else. 

Funny enough, glass chose me as a medium. I was chosen amongst the eight students who got 75 upwards [as their marks] to start working with glass because, at the time, things were very strict. They wanted a limited number of students to actually be in the studio and become glass students. I decided to take it as a medium and me being me, it was just doing schoolwork.

Glass has different techniques. For instance, in the workshop, we have a hot shop and a cold shop, we have the kiln side where we work with kilns only, and we have beading stations. For each station, you get to use different tools. Mostly because I enjoy kiln work, you will see that when cutting glass, there are different ways to do so: you can use a glass cutter, you have your grozers, you have your happy snippers. You also need safety tools; meaning your goggles and various others, whether you use the cold or hot shop. You need to be dressed in a proper manner, you can’t dress up and be all girly-girly and have long nails. You also need to wear closed shoes. If you have long hair, you tie it just to be safe. For the hot shop, we have jacks, we have tweezers, we use punties, we have flowing pipes, and there’s a lot that happens in every station. Naming all of them is going to take forever. 

Glass is very fascinating because you also get to use all the different mediums that are taught within the art industry: sculpting, painting, and moulding; it’s like with ceramics where you use clay to make the artwork.

Mamelodi Marakalala: Moved by your exhibition, I tried to look back and think about what personal relations I have had with glass material. My love for the look of windows when it rains and the sound of raindrops against them immediately came to mind. Something about this simple phenomenon screams peace in the world, to me.

What personal history of this sort comes to mind when you look back at the place and significance of glass material in your life? 

Malebogo Molokoane: For me, it was how invisible it looked. It’s transparent and the different shade I would see when I looked at glass was the colour green. For me, it was that thing where I was just very fascinated and I just wanted to give it a knock, to give it a bit of a bang to see if it would break or if it won’t. I would actually take a piece of something just to knock at it so that I could see if it would go ahead and crack. 

It was very fascinating to learn that glass differs, and that you get different types of glass. I enjoyed seeing the different types and the different dimensions because I am more into calculating stuff. With seeing the thickness and the thinness of glass, it became about asking myself what it is that I can do with this. If I can just poke it, will it fall into pieces or not?

Mamelodi Marakalala: Please share your Absa L’Atelier expereince. How was the application process, finding out you won the Gerard Sekoto Award, going to and staying in Paris – the city where Ntate Sekoto himself lived out the rest of his life – and coming back to showcase your work on home soil? 

Malebogo Molokoane: When coming to my Absa L’Atelier experience, this one is going to be a great one! I had no clue about the Absa L’Atelier competition, honestly. When it came about, my lecturer said, “You know what, Malebogo? I think you should enter this year’s Absa L’Atelier. I would like you to enter; just try for the sake of trying and do it for the glass people.” So me being me, I responded, “Why should I do that? You know how I feel about competitions!” I just love being in my space. I just love being me and working, and not being known. I love my privacy. 

Anyway, she convinced me to enter the competition, which I did. The process of having to enter the competition at the time was very difficult, on my side. Not difficult because of the struggles and challenges that I had at the time. It was in the sense that I applied like everybody else but after registering, when coming to uploading images, I struggled. I couldn’t. Then I told myself this isn’t rocket science, I can do this. I went back to my lecturer and told her what was happening, that it was not approving me. She said, “Try again. Use my laptop this time.” I made about six more attempts using different laptops, and it still denied me. Then I lost hope. 

I got an email, and that was after the competition closed. It was from the Absa L’Atelier team saying that they had technical difficulties with the system because there were a lot of applications. They were giving us a day just to submit images of artworks because I had already registered. When I tried again, the same thing occurred. So Caitlin was like, “Okay, Malebogo, what’s the plan?” My plan was to just drop it. 

She insisted that I should just send them an email. She said, “Remember, we are doing it for the glass people. Besides the glass people, I want you to learn and grow from this and encourage others of the possibility of being part of this experience, regardless of whether you win or not.” I thought I wasn’t going to win because it was my first time applying. 

In the end, I sent the email and they replied asking me to try again. I tried and it still did not approve me again. Finally, they told me to send them the images and their titles and mediums so that they could submit them on my behalf. So, they did that. 

Judging from the experiences of other people, like my classmates and other colleagues, it is an easy process. It opens on a specific date, this year it will open on the first of April. That is not a joke, not an April Fool’s thing. What people need to do is go onto the system and submit their portfolio, CV, artist statement, and images of their artworks. You just need to follow the specific instructions. It doesn’t want money or anything else outside of your work. It was just that I had a bit of a challenge, which ended up being resolved also.

Mamelodi Marakalala: Sure, and then you soared from that experience. 

Malebogo Molokoane: Finding out that I won the Gerard Sekoto Award was crazy. I remember I was from the workshop and we were blowing glass, it was very hot on that day. I was with a friend, Steven, and he asked if we could watch the Absa L’Atelier programme because they were announcing the winners. I was very sceptical that my name would be called out, especially since it was my first time applying for this sort of thing. Still, we ended up watching the ceremony on stream. It was a nice moment to just see my artworks. 

When I initially saw them, I was surprised and that’s when Steven said, “You won! You won!” I ran. I ran because I was very confused. I didn’t know what to do with myself. I hardly slept for three weeks during that time thinking about what was happening and what would happen next, they mentioned that I was going to Paris. Sleep was the last thing on my mind because what if I died? 

It was the fact that I did not know the weight of the competition. I knew nothing of it at that time. The Absa people were very kind, they sat me down and explained everything. And that was the first half of my experience. 

There I was going to Paris. I’m going to be honest with you, the first month of staying in Paris was not easy. There was a bit of a challenge; I was in a whole new country, I didn’t know anybody, and there was a language barrier and all that. Fortunately, I had a comfortable stay, thanks to my sponsors (Absa and IFAS – the French Institute of South Africa). They were very generous as they sponsored this trip. I stayed at the residency that I was placed in, in the city. It was very clean. My studio was big – the biggest one of the three South African studios there. Overall, it was a great stay. 

I could not make a lot of glass art because they don’t have a glass workshop near the area of my residency. All of that was very far from me. So I had to come up with an idea of how I was going to push my artwork, and then I started doing drawings. I was very fortunate because I met Zanele Muholi and she would come to visit me at my studio. She introduced me to her team, she started mentoring me and encouraging me, and that’s when everything changed. That’s how everything I learned in Paris became beautiful to me. 

I started exploring because now I had the confidence. It was not just meeting with Zanele and other South Africans, but I also met other artists within the residency every time they would get us to do a studio opening and things like that. 

By myself, I would just go for a walk and explore Paris. I would say I went to a lot of places because I explored almost every tourist hotspot. I went to museums. I travelled long distances, like to the countryside, where I met this one guy who is also a glass artist. We started collaborating. I got invited to participate as an artist and exhibitor at UNESCO Africa Week. 

But I hated some stuff, obviously. You know how everybody has the assumption that Paris is a completely beautiful place. Yes, it is beautiful, but we do have to acknowledge that they have their own flaws like everyone and everywhere else. They have a lot of rats, for example. So, some things were not nice. The part of getting to explore my art and experiencing the cultural elements, I deeply enjoyed. 

I want to thank Zanele and her team, the ladies in Paris from South Africa, the delegates of UNESCO, and everybody else for being so kind to me. I assure you that Absa and IFAS, including the SANAVA, as well were very caring. They would check up on me to see if I was okay. I was the happiest person in the sense that I went there to get knowledge, and I also made family and friends. 

I came up with this whole idea of my journey [for the exhibition] when I was in Paris because of how things were, especially when coming to race. It was not nice, considering that I was staying in a rich suburb and one of the few Black people in that area. I did not care at that time because I was doing my own thing. I noticed that whenever I walked around, I would see people playing games, and that was the one thing that allowed everyone to unite. So I found enjoyment in that.

Mamelodi Marakalala: A Re Tshamekeng is the name of your showcase – a phrase representing the artworks perfectly well and tapping into the human journey and the need for play. Some pieces are very nostalgic and heartwarming, and playing has indeed united people in wonderful ways.

Why ‘re tshameka’, Malebogo? Tell us more about this exhibition and your creations. 

Malebogo Molokoane: Coming back to showcase my work on my home soil. was an incredible feeling. I completed the work within thirty-eight days, as it’s never easy in our studio to just do work. There are rules. I had to wait for students to be done with exams. As you can imagine, I didn’t enjoy my December because it was all work, work, work, and all through January. 

Having to do all that work, I had little sleep. I would work from 7:30 AM and leave the studio, sometimes, at 4 AM or 5 AM, and that gave me like two hours of sleep. It was all because I had to push. 

It wasn’t easy at first because I had no help. Until I got a friend and business partner, Thato, to assist wherever he could. For which I’m grateful. 

Doing all this work, for me, felt like I was telling a story. I was bringing everything that I saw and learned in Paris and now I’m giving it to the people. So I’m very much happy with the result. I can gladly say it was a success. 

I’m doing it for me and to encourage other Black upcoming glass artists in the industry to go on with their art and succeed. 

I want people to no longer fear glass and no longer see it as something fragile. It is a dynamic medium that can be used to create beautiful artistic work. 

Why “A Re Tshamekeng”? It’s because ke Motswana. I am a Tswana girl and I wanted the exhibition title to reflect this cultural identity of mine. 

The title of the exhibition translates to ‘Let’s Play’. My intention with this body of work was that I wanted people to not fear glass anymore. I wanted it to be seen as more than the material that is used to only make objects you can drink from or windows, and all that. I wanted to bring it to life so that people can see it for the very artistic and very sculptural medium that it is. You can play around with it and create different kinds of designs with it. I was basically schooling people to no longer fear the fragility of this material but to play with and understand its possibilities. One thing I’ve learned throughout my six years of working with this medium is that every time we would have exhibitions as glass artists, people hardly supported them. They said that it is too fragile. They are scared of it breaking and not lasting. 

That is why I thought to create something that people can engage with and relate to.  In the world, we have our differences, we go through pain, and we have life challenges. I am telling the story that glass is a little similar to life. Glass causes pain as much as life does sometimes, even the pain you can bleed from. On the other hand, you can also feel in touch with glass like we feel in touch with our lives. There are moments when we are able to play in life. Glass can last for the longest time just like life can feel like it goes on for a long time. 

Beyond having similarities with life itself, glass can also be like humans. How you treat it, like how you treat yourself, can keep it from cracking or breaking. How we handle glass, like how we handle ourselves and each other, can keep it from slipping out of our hands and breaking. 

Mamelodi Marakalala: So, where to from here? 

Malebogo Molokoane: I would honestly love to have my own studio. If I can just apply for funding to have my own creative space because having a studio of your own is very challenging. You need the finances to maintain it. If the opportunity for that arises, then I will take it. 

I would also like to introduce the glass medium to different schools to bring a variety of options for future artists. Right now I’m just busy with my partners, with whom I have an NPO, to get that going. 

I am still a part-time lecturer at TUT. However, I am looking to expand my horizons by meeting other artists and collaborating. That would be nice. In terms of my professional inclinations, I am more on the side of the making than the lecturing. I am a creator. I love using my hands. I want to explore artistic ideas, make artworks, have more exhibitions and work with other artists. That’s my ideal practice. So from here on, whatever opportunity arises that will enable me in my endeavours, I will take it and run with it. 

I am very grateful when I get opportunities to create trophies and things like that. I do get invitations to design and then I submit. Sometimes my artworks go through and sometimes they don’t, but I plan to just keep pushing and going with those opportunities. Whatever challenge comes, I face it head-on. 

In future, I just want to have something of my own that will allow people to visit and explore glass with me and learn from what I’m doing. I just want to grow glass art-making in the arts industry. That would make me the happiest person.

Mamelodi Marakalala: Are there any final words you would like to leave our readers with? 

Malebogo Molokoane: What I would like to add is that what I noticed in my journey of this whole solo exhibition is that people are seeing the art, enjoying and engaging with it, which is amazing. 

When I was creating the body of work, I was also challenging people to think. So the only tip that I would give people is that when watching my work, look closely at and read deeply into every individual art piece. It’s kind of like a mind game where you have to go on an adventure while carefully examining a map. 

There are like 23 artworks in the exhibition, a majority of which are installations. If one takes them away, one by one, they would realise that a lot of work has been done and that there are many secretive aspects within the works that need a more attentive mind to be further understood and related to.

Most popular

Similar articles