Mr Media X could easily be one of the deities on Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. The only thing that would stand in his way is that he is no egomaniac, in all senses of the word. His ego is healthy and well checked. He has enough of it to face a ‘canvas,’ in all the ways the ‘canvas’ comes to him. He has enough ego to care, enough to ask why and do something about it. Mr. Media X is Simphiwe Xulu, a new media artist who pushes conventions and boundaries in every space he inhabits. He is an interesting collision of hard and tender, and that is also what makes him one of the most interesting minds of our time, here on the African continent, and beyond.
Born in King Dinuzulu township in Eshowe, KwaZulu Natal, Xulu was the only boy in a household of successful women. Art was not the career his mother and sisters particularly encouraged, it’s not a sensible choice for any middle class family, especially not one with siblings who are lawyers and doctors. Therefore his choice to study for a BA in Fine Arts and Media at the University of KwaZulu Natal elicited some criticism and resistance. But conceptual art? And new media art? That would have been anyone’s guess. Because how do you explain to your sensible family that your career choice is pushing the boundaries of public consciousness and public discourse?
It’s been over a decade of creating art and Xulu’s work emanates from the intersection between traditional art, media, the Internet and technology. His practise has seen him produce bodies of work at this intersection, reflecting on the most honest definition of art. This is true in the sense that art is a means and craft of codifying, reflecting and archiving humanity. It is also true in the aesthetic sense, where narratives of beauty and norm are endorsed using millions in currency, by a select few. The latter is one of the reasons why, according to him, art is the most overrated term in the world, and the former, why it is the most important practise for humans. But Xulu does not care. Well, not always. It depends on how he feels that day, whether he is willing to indulge anyone on whether new media art is art at all, or whether he will ignore that asinine conversation and focus on what matters most: access.
Xulu’s most important fight is for the spread of, and open access to, technological literacy and its vocabulary. His work is actively enlarging this vocabulary in South Africa and across the African continent and his projects rope in progressive traditional cultural institutions to help frame this progression. Not in the linear way like in classrooms and in academic papers. He is doing so through human experiences, facilitating a differently personal relationship between people and new media art, and perhaps all art. His works plant seeds that give people the agency to interrogate the world around them better, cleverly.
In 2015, he launched Selfie25, a celebration of the legacies and contributions of 25 future icons of South Africa. In this body of work are 25 digital imaginations representing these 25 characters. The work was first exhibited at the KZN Gallery in Durban, sponsored by Nedbank. It was his first solo, in his hometown, and his intention was not to build a collector’s series for people to buy and enjoy at home, although people insisted and he sold them all. The work was about presenting opportunities for people to touch and feel art, and take selfies and be comfortable with it, in a hallowed space. The work traveled around the country and had a virtual gallery too. Selfie25 was a battleground for an honest definition of art. The work expresses Xulu’s emotions regarding the self-obsessive nature of people with publishing power, and it infects its audiences, and unites them in a conversation on new media, the cult of self, and the pervasive nature of the Internet.
In his vast body of work, Xulu keeps coming back to access to technology. He wants the world to give township kids access to computers and the Internet, because that, according to him is all that is required to unleash their creative genius. He is also advocating for technology as a lens to understanding and amplifying African cultural properties. His body of work called Mambokadzi, which was a collaboration with two artists, Regina Kgatle and Vuyi Chaza, is a set of playing cards that use Bantu cultural symbols and femininity. Another body of work called Izimo ZesiZulu investigates original Zulu shapes and their origin of reference. In these works, he deliberately brings together African iconography, in all its mystic glory, and visually represents it in digital format. It’s very normal to think that there’s a tension between the digital and the mystic, but there is not, because both are inherently human and human beings are the custodians of the both mystic and the digital. And this is the paradigm shift that Xulu’s work is achieving, a comfort with the humanity of and in digital, because only then we will be able to use it to the best of its potential. While the traditional art world is preoccupied with boxing digital as a process or a medium or a method of production, Xulu is waving his flag frantically, to bring attention to the truth that digital is a context that defines human life today. Our lives are built on it, both in private and in the public sphere. It is in everything. It is everything.!
Looking at Xulu’s varied work, from instabitions to virtual reality and conceptual work, one realises that we don’t seem to want to appreciate the value chain of new media art. It prompts the sharing economy and that fundamentally undermines the exceptionalism of the art world. Suddenly, a vast number of people can access this tool, platform, medium, means of production, means of presentation. I think we are afraid of the scale, and what the inherent decentralisation of power in this realm could mean for the art world. Because the resulting breadth of art becomes much broader than the gatekeepers of traditional art want to handle.
This openness is not only in art as a discipline, but it is also in ideation. It begets the freedom of a truly blank canvas. And if art is in service of the idea, then we are really elevating the forms and means of capturing humanity, archiving our thoughts, feelings and experiences for ourselves, and for the future. What this possibility means for Xulu is opportunity to reach into the archives of humanity and map today using historical imaginations. In Ukuthwebula, a series of photographs where he undergoes ‘image and spirit duplication’ of his self and his favourite artists, he writes himself and bodies like him into dominant narratives of artistic genius that were exceptional. It’s as if he is saying ‘Duh!’ to the establishment. The work launched at Grahamstown National Arts Festival in 2016 as part of AvP Collaborative Exhibition. In Orange, a multidisciplinary body of work that includes performance art, he interrogates the duality of outcast and artist, and laces it with commentary on mental health, capitalism and technology. Part of that body of work includes a series of portraits where he merges art pieces from between the 14th and 17th century with ordinary people living in South Africa, today. Both Ukuthwebula and Orange are love letters to the masters of yesterday, and also compel the masters to give a nod to the people who make today.
Living today, we know that traditional analogue handwork is not the only true expression of human feelings, thoughts and experiences. We know that digital is not only part of our arsenal in self expression, it is also the context to our current existence. So why traditional art is too stubborn to let technology enter, I do not know. But with minds that push and prod and interrogate and investigate like Simphiwe Xulu, we are halfway to figuring out the digital Da Vinci Code. Because new media art, much like porcelain and pencil drawings, is fragile too. Etched in those bits and bytes is human memory, in all its complexity, and requires us to safeguard it. It too belongs to museums. But beyond that it, it also belongs with every human being. So let’s open access, because of digital’s potential to unite people, their ideas and create an experience for the world that is meaningful and moves us forward is unparalleled. And to quote Xulu, “get laptops and creative software and cameras and internet connection to kids [in underserved communities]. Let them start experimenting and creating paths on this medium. Give them an opportunity to create as freely as possible!”
The featured image is from Orange. The rest of the project can be seen here>>>
The Ukuthwebula photo essay can be seen here>>>
You can access the Mambokazi African Playing Cards exhibition here>>>
You can see some of the work from Izimo, The Origin of Zulu Shapes here>>>
You can check out his catalogue here>>>
Simphiwe Cebo Xulu is Mr. Media X on instagram. Check him out here>>>