A Conversation with Khanyisile Mbongwa

Khanyisile Mbongwa is an artist and co-curator of Infecting the City, a multi-disciplinary public arts festival that takes place in the heart of Cape Town. As an artist, Khanyisile’s work has taken her all over the world and won her numerous awards. Currently, she is a Mellon Scholar at The Institute for Creative Arts at UCT. 

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in the arts? 

My grandmother, who use to tap dance. But it was her call for me to constantly imagine beyond the reality we existed in that has always kept me in a whirlwind of invention, making, doing [and] exploring possibilities. Also not being afraid to dream and work with the magic passed on by my people.

Tell us about Infecting the City and what your role entails? 

Infecting The City is a public art festival that engages with the communal spaces of the central business district.  It is firmly focused on making Cape Town a more public city by providing a platform for a broad spectrum of artists and art forms to have a voice in what matters in this moment. I play a curatorial role in mapping how the festival will excavate the city as way to find the complexity and the nuances to the rights to the city.

What are you most looking forward to during the festival? 

Opening the city up through music, memory and migration and how the various work situates itself as happenings and encounters to be witnessed by city dwellers. The work of [Mandla] Mbothwe and [Mandla] Mlangeni who unpack collective and individual memory, [Philiswa] Lila and [Aphiwe] Mpahleni’s work that open up conversations on the history of language, religion and African tradition. But also the more playful moments in between the more dense works. The audience experience is lightened through the improvisation of the city space by Action Arte and DELFT South Panstula. The workshop series is also something I am looking forward to which sees the artist [Enkidu] Khaled leading a participatory process of engaging with historical narratives that results in a seamless performative workshop.

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What would you like the general public to know about the festival? 

It is free and open to all. People have the possibility to encounter some of the most extraordinary art works ranging from dance, performative installations and music that explore our current sociopolitical and socio-economic landscape with delicacy, critique and divine intervention. 

You are currently a Mellon scholar at the Institute for Creative Arts at UCT, Co- curator of Infecting the City and Executive Producer of Handspring Trust. How do you have to manage your time to tend to all of those things? 

I’m no longer the Executive Producer at Handspring Trust, I was last year while I was doing my masters. I look at all of it as a curatorial intersection where being a masters student is much more about me thinking through the theory and concepts, and working with Handspring Trust and Infecting The City as moment to apply some of the thinking process. Time management is integral with the kind of work I do as it requires sensitivity because of the narratives the work itself unpacks.

Although no longer the Executive Producer would you mind telling us a little bit about Handspring Trust? 

Handspring Trust is a nonprofit organization that uses puppetry arts as a tool to create spaces for skills development and for working through the challenging history of the post apartheid aftermath. One of the most profound project Handspring Trust has been involved in is The Barrydale Puppetry and Play Parade which required a collaboration between Handspring Trust, Ukwanda Puppetry and Design Collective, Net Vir Pret and Centre for Humanities Research.

What is something you are most proud of?

My ability to dream and imagine beyond my circumstance and then working on shifting my dreaming into the reality I live through.

What have you found to be your biggest challenge? 

The anxiety that comes with being a black womxn*. What that means here at home and in the world. Black anxiety is the kind of anxiousness that comes from or is born out of the reality of black life [that] has been as colonized bodies, apartheid and post apartheid and the kind of inheritance that comes with being a black girl from ekasi and refusing to die within the construct of what and why townships exist in the first place. This anxiety comes from the journey of unlearning all the things we were taught on how to hate ourselves and learning black self-love which compels you to choose yourself in ways the world chooses to read as being violent because the world does not know how to deal or accept a black person loving themselves.

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Khanyisile at a SLIP event.

What is your perception of the current climate for womxn artists in South Africa? 

Womxn creatives have always existed and have played an important role in the progression of art. Now we are finding womxn creating more spaces for self-development and visibility in the way we choose how we want to define ourselves. Womxn, black womxn bodies is still a contested space, and I think now womxn are no longer playing the role of being reactionary but rather finding and negotiating with ways of living life and creative work that is a constant response to reality of being womxn, of being black womxn. We are responding! Responding not in a way of ‘returning the gaze’ but in a way that inserts our presence as vital voices who have always helped shape resistance and revolution both in our domestic and professional spaces.

As an artist, what do you wish you were asked more? 

Hmmm… I think one of the questions that I find problematic is: Khanyi, how does it feel to be a black female artist… As much as I understand what the journalist or public is asking, I feel it is asking the wrong question because what else have I been besides black and female? My voice comes from this place. I think if the question was phrased differently to  highlight the continued racial and gender injustices of my country and the world towards black womxn, my response would less sarcastic.

Who are some South African womxn in the arts that inspire you. 

Anny Ibembe (the womxn who does my hair,) Vuyo Koyana, Mamela Nyamza, Ukhona Mlandu, Koleka Putuma, Portia Malatjie, Ernestine White, the young womxn in Umhlangano the UCT student movement at Hiddingh, Didintle Ntsie, Thandiswa Mazwai, Lhola Amira, Brenda Fassie, Nina Simone, Lebo Mathosa, Mama Miriam Makheba, Tsitsi Dangarembga, Noviolet Bulawayo, Bessie Head… There are many more but the womxn who inspires me the most is my Grandmother, there is a great art in raising a black girl ekasi.


Infecting the City runs from the 5th of April until the 8th. For more information about the festival, click here.

Thanks to Samantha Saevitzon and Khanyisile Mbongwa.

* Khanyisile has elected to use the spelling “womxn.”

Cover image provided by Khanyisile Mbongwa.

Black and white imaged sourced from The Stellenbosch Literary Program.

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