Simphiwe Xulu. Photo by Siya Zungu

Simphiwe Xulu. Photo by Siya Zungu

Simphiwe Xulu is a proud son of Eshowe, KwaZulu Natal. Raised by a matriarch, with superwomen for sisters, he’s a cautious radical who straddles the ideal, the real and the virtual. At 28, he’s challenging the notions that hallow the stiff walls of the exclusionary art world. His first exhibition, Selfie25, launched in October 2015 at KZN Gallery, moved to the Constitution Hill in November 2015 and went virtual on selfie25.org in May 2016. The collection, using the ‘selfie’ as a lens, acknowledges and celebrates 25 Africans he finds extraordinary. I had a chat with him on WhatsApp…

Larry Khumalo (LK): Digital as process and medium? Ranking digital art with the works of those we’ve traditionally considered artists – Sekoto, Makamo, Batha, Sithole – that’s new…

Simphiwe Xulu (SX): Digital is the now and the future. Most exciting is that the rules and processes of digital art are yet to be defined, so digital scares the art world more than many are willing to admit. At least in South Africa I think this is still the case. We love the romanticised perceptions of the artist, and what should define output and are addicted to the personal touch in the artwork. Digital, while allowing artists to create freely and absolutely, can remove the element of personal touch that the art world has been confined by. In that process though, digital artists create art and experiences that are totally new and bound by new rules. Very much unlike the comfort the world wants from artists who consistently give us art through more traditional mediums, like paintings.

LK: So you are saying digital is impersonal, or rather, differently personal? This means ‘new rules’ with which to consume art – all art. Would you comment on that idea of ‘differently personal’?

SX:  I think “differently personal” is more accurate. For me, creating new art experiences that connect to people using the digital medium is a more exciting artistic challenge. It’s treading the path less known and constantly investigating the new. The positive of “cracking the digital da Vinci code” is that you can expand the reach of your work exponentially. The negative is that it is still so hard for the art world to monetise and take big risks on digital art. If my biggest message as an artist is to create a 3D interactive art exhibition that everyone around the globe can access – how can someone buy my work so that I can make money? How can that person feel like they own an artwork crafted from my hands?

As an artist, I am concerned with creating and crafting a new experience through art. So, it becomes personal for me because everyone can experience and access something I am making in the exact same way. That for me, is a lot more explosive and amazing than selling a piece for R3 million. What makes it high risk right now is the current understanding of art. I even have a theory that my computer will probably be the most expensive art thing I  when I die, because all my ideas live in it.

LK: Doesn’t that bring the question of Intellectual Property especially given that digital plays in a space of openness and making the IP issue not only urgent but  more difficult. Do you find this to be a conversation worth having?

SX: Dude, that’s a huge conversation to be had. But right now, let’s get laptops and creative software and cameras and internet connection to the creative kids. Let us start experimenting and creating paths on this new medium. Give us an opportunity to create as freely as possible first… just like what happened in all former, current and future great economies.

LK: I have to say though, you are brave. You are young, black and entering the ‘art bubble’ guns blazing, disrupting. You remind me of Jesus in the temple, whipping all the traders. What’s driving you?

SX: Hahahahaha! Jesus in the temple! I can’t beat that comparison. That comment right there drives me dude 😆. If I didn’t push so hard, I would never have the opportunity to share time and mind space with people who say such things. I guess, I’m just driven by that I come from an amazing family. But amazing as it was, ownership and greatness was never preached to me or my community growing up. It’s crazy that I somehow stick out for doing what I am doing in my world because Silicon Valley and Hollywood and Dubai are real places – people with amazing ideas are building the world! But if I have done so little and I still stick out, that shows that there is a massive problem, and imbalance. What happens if I stop? In my entire network of people, who gets to where I could possibly get?

LK: As you speak of your entire network of people, most of whom are like you, digital natives, you do know the ‘art bubble’ is not open for change? Not like that at least. Ironic isn’t it, how a space that ideally breeds and nurtures dissenting view points is averse to change. 

SX: Yeah dude. And, its especially averse to change if you are preaching change, but you don’t look the way someone preaching change “should look.” You’re from the wrong background, wrong family, wrong skin colour, blah blah… it’s an uphill fight but it’s a beautiful struggle.

LK: Why should we care about Selfie25?

SX: Selfie25 is an experiment. In a world with so much negativity, I’m trying to create a new digital narrative that highlights young and brave African people who represent the best potential of ourselves as people… and in the process, experiment with the idea of streaming an art exhibition… an idea from Africa. I’m discussing cryptocurrency Bitcoin on that project. I’m discussing art, our future young leaders, technology, pop culture – many underlying themes from the people who muse my mind.

Constitution Hill Launch - Photo by Dumisani Ndaba 01

Constitution Hill Launch – Photo by Dumisani Ndaba

LK: What was your process?

SX: Beyond tons of research on each individual (of which I scaled over 50 people). Each artwork was actually initially moulded and designed on paper first from a framework of my face. Hahaha! I felt that would be a more honest portrayal artistically as I do feel that all these individuals are an extension of me as much as they are an extension of every South African. I got totally lost in the work, I disappeared from life for almost five months creating the artwork.

The code behind the project excites me. I can track it from the day I announced it on Facebook without sponsorship and about 5 likes on my post, all the way to the project trending on Twitter. It feels like being a scientist, seeing your experiment work.

This idea is in no way my success alone, it is the collaborative success of many exceptional individuals who believe in me.

LK: I frame your exhibition in the same manner that Warhol was framed – pop culture mooning the pretentious -isms of fine art. Am I right in doing so?

SX: Hahaha! Playing with my emotions there. Anytime some slight gradient of Warholness is evident in my work, it shows I’m on the right path. It’s really early days for me as an artist contextually… I’ll find my own unique voice in the process I am sure, but if I don’t – it’s still great to have paid homage and learnt from the works of such crazy men.

LK: I have seen and listened to a few interviews you’ve done and you sound like you surprised yourself with ‘pulling this off’. A lot of us consider the things we are passionate about to be easy to do, because they come easy to us. But you ‘pulled this off’. Talk me through your challenges?

SX: Everything every black kid who ever tried to be more than what he had to be, those were all the challenges. I think as human beings, we are bound to reason – and art challenges even the concept of reason. However, the greatest challenge in art and design I think, is always the same in the end. It’s all about finding space and time to focus on creating and executing your entire idea in its fullness, disengaging your mind from everything that actually has nothing to do with your ability to create (lack of money, laziness, fear, failure). Every person alive goes through these things, but once you understand the power of an idea and the power of your art and design – you realise that you have the skill-set and vision to build paths for the world that did not exist before. The greatest challenge is to not allow things that affect the whole world make you think that you cannot create dude! Some guys have all the money in the world, but they have created nothing… So, to just focus on creating and finishing – that’s the holy grail.

LK: I detect in your rhetoric a certain ambassadorship of Eshowe, the kool kat if I may, taking the world by storm. Doesn’t that feel burdensome?

SX: Hahaha! Not really dude. I just want to be really good at the only thing I can do – I think it’s important that there are people who stand for that message. Some of us are really good at things that people don’t really understand. I’m just saying, it’s ok for black people to invest and support their weird kids everywhere.

I am about to finally open a design studio with my sister thanks to funding from the Umlalazi Municipality – there is a lot of expansion and growth to look forward to. Hopefully the Arts & Culture Trust and Nedbank Arts Affinity will be excited with all outcomes from the current Selfie25 project so that the next one can build off the cool work we were all able to achieve together.

LK: To what extent do you feel that as a black artist, you are forced by the world to play ambassador to the black perspective, whatever that is?

SX: That’s a good question. It comes down to the whole debate of “are you an artist or a human being or a black person first?” Beyond everything, I want to be allowed to be exceptional at what I do first. But the truth of the matter is, not many black kids are doing what I’m doing. Not many have the chance to even try. So, a lot of the encouragement can come from people who just wanna see ONE guy make it! “Can just one person I know who looks like me make it…?” Flip, now that I think about it, it is a burden. Hahaha! Because people do place their expectations and dreams on you! But the challenge is not allowing that to stop one’s process of creativity – Warhol, Biko, Jesus, Tupac, RuPaul, etc. they all went/ go through it.