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'Ashes to Life:' In Conversation with John Vusi Mfupi

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Having recently exhibited his work at the Saatchi Gallery as part of the START Art Fair, London, ART AFRICA spoke to John Vusi Mfupi about his upcoming exhibition 'Ashes to Life,' which opens on the 29th September 2016 at Candice Berman Fine Art in Johannesburg. Here Mfupi speaks about his use of collage, the importance of education and the burning of schools in Vuwani, Limpopo.

AA Newsletter 2016 Sept29 Mfupi1John Vusi Mfupi, I Have A Dream, 2016. Burned paper collage, 120 x 76 cm. All images courtesy of the artist.

ART AFRICA: You’ve exhibited your work as far afield as Argentina, Portugal, Malaysia, and Scotland. At the same time you have worked with over twenty schools locally, developing an appreciation of artistic culture amongst South African youth. How have these respective experiences shaped your career as an artist?

John Vusi Mfupi: My focus now, is to discover my own culture. It's an interest fuelled by my travels overseas, and I want to transmit that to my audience. It is my duty as an artist to get people involved in art, especially the young ones. Travelling and workshopping with other artists around the world grows you as an artist. You learn new things and how other artists are using materials. 

Please tell us about your upcoming exhibition ‘Ashes to Life’ at Candice Berman Fine Art in Johannesburg?

South Africa is on fire. Seeing institutions like schools, varsities and libraries go down in flames rang a bell that something was totally out of hand in South Africa, 2016. The series was inspired by the burning of schools in Vuwani, Limpopo. I saw the incredible selfishness in those acts and I felt the need to protect these children, whose education had now been endangered, while simultaneously celebrating their youth. I pick-up the pieces by burning the white paper to various degrees to create sepia-like portraits. The focus of each portrait has altered slightly, with the eyes quite literally telling the story, as the title of the exhibition suggests.

AA Newsletter 2016 Sept29 Mfupi2John Vusi Mfupi, Looking Forward, 2016. Burnt paper collage, 120 x 76 cm.

Your work is described as a celebration of youth and mobility, ‘dealing with human life matters that affect people globally.’ Most of your current body of work depicts people going about their everyday lives; whether working a farm, watering the garden or playing football. What informs your choice of subject matter?

Celebrating youth has always played a central role in my art, as well as in my teachings... I'm just telling stories. It’s a daily life experience. I used to work with schools on a full-time basis and normally when I would drive past there, I would capture all those kids playing football. I don’t struggle with subject matter because it’s whatever I experience in my day-to-day.

AA Newsletter 2016 Sept29 Mfupi5John Vusi Mfupi, Fresh Produce, 2016. Magazine collage on paper, 76 x 120 cm.

On speaking about your use of material, you say that “the only thing you need is colour,” hence your decision to work in collage. What prompted this move and how has this transition affected the way you approach your ‘canvas’?

I majored in painting at third year and after graduating I discovered that as an artist you need space, not only to work, but also for storage. My solution was to replace paint with magazines, thus killing two birds with one stone. Canvases are bulky, paper collages can be packed flat and easily stored. With collage, I would make twenty or more artworks and stash them under my bed. I was only a couple of years out of college, and it was tough getting going. I had no space and had to buy art materials; I started using magazines because the only thing I needed was colour.

AA Newsletter 2016 Sept29 Mfupi3John Vusi Mfupi, For The Love of the Game 4, 2016. Magazine collage on paper, 50 x 50 cm.

Your latest body of work incorporates the use of burnt newspapers, found objects and pigments, as opposed to magazine cuttings. How did you arrive at these materials, and is this an avenue that you would like to explore further going forward?

My 2016 collection of works sees myself taking my signature style in a new direction. The colourful bits of magazine paper are replaced with white paper, burnt to various degrees. As I mentioned earlier, the series was inspired by the burning of schools in Vuwani, Limpopo. Art is about being innovative, so I will continue to work with this technique and keep on experimenting with paper art.

John Vusi Mfupi's exhibition 'Ashes to Life' will be on show from the 29th September 2016 at Candice Berman Fine Art, Johannesburg.

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