Zanele Montle the inaugural winner of WOMXN TO WATCH award paints ordinary women into existence

By Edward Tsumele

The women are painted in bold colours, and their postures are suggestive of women steeped deep in Zulu Culture, and there is no doubt about their closeness as a family unit. Sometimes they appear to be in a contemplative mood, and yet at other times they are just ordinary women minding their own business.

These are the figures that have motivated the adjudicators of a new fine art award, WOMXN TO WATCH award to award this hugely talented fine artist who is increasingly getting commissions for her family friendly art works of mainly female figures whose settings are in a home environment. CITYLIFE/ARTS introduces an artist to watch, Johannesburg based fine artist  Zanele Montle the first winner of this brand new art award.

Annually, one top performing, South African womxn artist will be selected to receive this award. The award aims to shine a light on the top womxn talent in South Africa. Artists from across the country will be able to apply for the award. The award is held annually, with only 1 artist being selected.

The award provides the artist with the following for a period of 6 months: a studio space, at End Street Studios, which includes parking, electricity and water and uncapped internet,  the opportunities to participate in any group exhibitions curated by the META foundation, the opportunity to participate in any August House activities, a solo show with the Project Space and

 featured (included in) August House/Meta foundation website and publicity materials

Why is this award important?

According to a 2010 national study on the visual arts, conducted by the Department of Arts and Culture, only 12% of women make a living from creating art in South Africa. Of which, 9% are White and 3% are Black, Colored and Indians combined.

And this year’s inaugural winner has placed the bar high with regards to her art concept as well as execution as I discovered when I chatted to her this week.

Though the artist does not say so explicitly in her art practice, looking at her body of work in her End Street Studios’ Studio at August Houseart hub, East of Johannesburg, implicitly this body of work speaks a lot about women visibility and their voices in society.

It is therefore not so much a coincidence that the adjudicators saw it fit to award this new fine art award to this artist, a holder of a number of fine art qualifications, a diploma in fine art from the University of Johannesburg, a Bachelor of Technology from Tshwane University of Technology as well as a certificate in art education.

“My art is about memory, longing and grief at the same time. What happened is that when I moved from Empangeni  in KwaZulu-Natal, to Johannesburg 10 years ago for education,  I struggled to fit in as I missed my family back  so much. I have eight siblings, having been born in a family of nine. Our dad, a policeman died in 1995, when I was three years old. To this day I have no recollection of him, except through a painting that hung on the wall in our house,” she told me in an interview held at August House in her studio where she was busy working on her latest body of work.

Till this day, the artist does not know how her father died, and this is a subject difficult to discuss for the family many years after his tragic death.

“I do not know how he died, except that he must have died on duty. I think he was shot dead on duty. This is a subject that is hard to discuss as a family, except us kids as we grew up and started asking hard questions. But as a family we have never discussed how our father died, and maybe we should now,” she told CITYLIFE/ARTS matter-of-factly.

Johannesburg based fine artist Zanele Montle

But in her body of work that she was working on, or that she has exhibited in the past, including as part of the Thami  Mnyeli  Fine Art Competition Top 100 in 2015, at Art It is Gallery in Parkhurst and the body of work she is currently working on as part of this award, there are no male figures as all figures are female.

I asked her as to whether this was deliberate on her part. “Yes it is deliberate,” she says and suddenly falls silent, seeming to be in deep thinking. She then changed the narrative. “It is intuition.”  Well I did not probe further, choosing to leave it at that.

I then concluded that it must have something to do with the absence of a father figure in her life as she and her siblings were raised by her single mom. It could also be deeper than that.

However, like she said with the mysterious death of her father, it is probably the right time now for her to reflect on the motivation why she is intuitively driven to drawing women figures and never men.

But then she has this to say, and probably this gives us a sense of how passionate the artist feels about representation in her art practice.

 “Winning this award and having this opportunity right now is actually a privilege as the lockdown has been a challenge for many artists with regards to a number of issues, such as space to work. So many other things happened during the lockdown, such as the emergence of the movement Black Lives Matter. For me representation matters and it is for that reason that besides practising as an artist, I am also an art teacher, teaching Grade 1 to Grade 7 learners at public schools. It is also pertinent that I am a black teaching art to learners at public schools.

For example, throughout my university time, all my teachers, except one teacher at UJ (University of Johannesburg) were all white.  When I was a gallery manager at Hazard Gallery in Maboneng in 2017, it struck me that black people, except those connected to the art industry, such as artists themselves, do not generally visit exhibitions. And also there is no conversation going on about art in black communities. I therefore decided that perhaps as a black artist I should contribute to triggering that conversation. I started off by producing art podcast and now I am teaching,” Montle said who is married to her architect husband she met at UJ when both of them were students.

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