Ukhona Ntsali Mlandu is an Arts Manager, Curator and Facilitator. During the last few years she has worked alongside some of South Africa’s leading arts institutions and organisations including Artscape where she spent several years heading up their Resource Center, PANSA, FTH:K and Siyasanga Cape Town Theatre Company before going on to become an independent Arts Manager. She has launched her latest project makwande.republic, a residency program set in the heart of her hometown village in the Eastern Cape. We sat down with her to chat about moving back home, creating makwande.republic and having to coin a new phrase to encompasses her multi-faceted career.
Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in the arts?
I don’t remember an ‘aha!’ moment. I just know that I’m inclined that way. My interests have always been around literature, writing, expression [and] different ways in which artistic people are able to create meaning and negotiate meaning. I can’t point to one person or one moment. It just is a result of me listening to myself. I can’t say that I’ve always known but I’ve always known that I am going through life with permission to do whatever I want.
Professionally how do you choose to define yourself?
I’ve come across a thing that I now own, that name is called “Ideas Engineer.” I would spend a lot of time [thinking about] how you were brought up versus what the world tells you [that] you can and cannot be. On a bad day, I would feel like I needed to choose one and stick to it but then on good days, I’m like, “I’m vast in what I’m interested in. I’m vast in what I’m capable of doing.” But if I were to narrow it down, Ideas Engineer resonates the most because it really encompasses my facilitation work and my curatorial work and all the different things that you’ve seen that I’ve done, but it’s grappling with ideas. I think in questions. I think that’s when you start to unpack ideas and see the possibilities.
I love that you’ve coined that term because you do so many different things that live within the same world but are usually kept quite separate in terms of the structure of the industry. I feel like that term will resonate for others.
I respect people who are purely what they are and that works for them. I know that when I try to imagine what the future looks like, I know that it’s not necessarily true to think that anyone can exist in one sector. There are intersections, there are cross-cutting themes, there are solutions that are needed in certain industries that I bring as somebody who has a creative instinct. When I look at the future, I think [that] those of us who are able to imagine themselves in this way will not be caught off-guard by this fast changing future that we don’t know anything about.
You are the first Arts Manager, Curator and Facilitator that I’ve gotten to talk. I feel like those are professions that people don’t tend to usually know about. How did you know that this was a natural career progression for you? Was there someone for you to look up to that made you realise that you wanted to follow this path? Does that exist?
I think enough people do a lot of interesting things, it’s just that the people who are at the forefront in the sector are the people who are on the stage. I really do feel like some amazing arts administrators are out there but they are best kept secret. I was even wondering how you may have found me. I get that people talk and they acknowledge what I do and the way in which I do it but I’ve understood and made peace with the fact that arts administrators are unsung heroes and people who do this big nameless thing that we do become the faceless and the nameless. But I mean social media does a lot in making visible that which would otherwise be missed. I have deliberately used my social media to give pieces of myself personally and professionally and pieces of myself having a real life experience to kind of go, “Hey, I live here in my contradictions [and] my multi-thought dimensions but I am here.”
How do you balance creating your own work while also facilitating other people’s work?
I think balance is such an elusive thing and I know that people reference this word “balance” but I am just like, “Stop the bus!” There are days when I feel like I’ve got it together and there are days where my support network has to pick me up off the floor because the balance doesn’t seem to be happening. I think I put a lot of intention around who I attract as possible playmates. I think about that a lot. I research people before I agree to do things with them. I’ve made some choices where even in that moment I go, “I’ll complete this project but you are never going to see me again.” That’s a hard choice because the bills have to be paid. It’s a combination of making the intentional decisions, the mysteries of the universe that bring you to the work that you are called to do and then occasionally, and when I’m moved, challenging myself to do that which is keeping me up at night. Also, if your creativity and the way that you do things speaks to me, I am going to be over there finding ways for us to collaborate one day. If that day is not now, and you don’t even know I exist, I’m just like, “I’ve put you on my list and I trust that at the right time our paths will cross.” A combination of that is what gets me to, not achieve the balance, but negotiate the space that I am in all the time. Some weeks being better than others, some days being better than others.
What is your perception on the current climate of the South African arts world?
I don’t know because I decided last year that I was going to go back home to a village and stay there. But even then, I had stopped being present in particular events. I didn’t feel like they were adding anything to my life anymore. Like opening nights, I would still go and see the shows but I would see them on another night because I didn’t feel like I was adding anything new to the space. People who are younger than me, who have entered the industry later than me, always feel like they have to… it’s almost like they have to give me some sort of reverence and that was making me uncomfortable. Having left, I’m like, I don’t know if I can say I know what’s happening but then I go, “That is just Cape Town.” I do keep my finger on the pulse on what is happening. I would say, again, I love how the internet has shifted the power scales in the sector [and] that it’s no longer up to some old dogs of the sector to make visible those who are doing amazing work or even having the audacity to start something outside of the cliques. However, having said that yes, people are doing amazing things but it’s an issue that the finances and the backing and the support of creative endeavours is still something that, again, is very elusive because of how giving to the arts is not positioned properly in this country. It becomes something that one needs to do because of the tax breaks and something that they must do because it’s positioned to say something about them if they are supporters of the arts. Most of my training was in the States where it is a thing of esteem to be seen to be supporting the arts. So while people are pushing ahead because of their passion [and] doing their amazing work, I want to arrive at a point where we are not killing ourselves to make the work that we need to make, that we can still live decent lives while we do this thing that we are passionate about because I don’t know about struggling artists and romanticizing that. I like nice things, I deserve them. It’s not something that I sit comfortably with like, “Do the work… and the passion…” It can all go together. It has to and it must.
I wanted to touch on what you mentioned about going home and now starting this residency program. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about that?
I went home last year in June. I packed my bags and was like, “I’m done with Cape Town.” I wasn’t sure what it was that I was going to get home and do. I tried other avenues of ideas of what I thought I could do and then eventually, sitting at home, my phone stopped working. I think my ancestors were just jealous and they wanted me to themselves because part of me was informed by the dream world of dreaming of home in particular ways. It’s part of my existence. I cannot exist in that spiritual realm, that logic of the now, the imagining of the future. Time is not a linear thing for me. I live between all those spaces. All of those things live in me. I sat with it and I sat with myself. The silence was great in the beginning. The silence was too loud at some points. I came face to face with myself and then I started getting into working the land and rekindling old relationships because this is where I grew up and this is where my people are from. I’m known there and trusted and respected there. I don’t have to prove myself to anyone. My very existence legitimises me in that space. People look at me and they see generations of people. My whole being comes with a history that has so much dignity which is a new thing since I left when I was 13, because in these spaces, as a black woman in particular, you are always having to prove yourself. So then I was like, “I bet you there are other people like me who need to come and feel enough somewhere. What would that thing look like?” As soon as my network provider had sorted me out and I had a phone, I was like, I’ve been away from connectedness which is something that we all want nowadays, that disconnection, but I valued connection again. I valued that I form part of a large community of people just by switching on my Facebook and making a status update. There is a whole other network which I had come to take for granted and now it meant everything to me to know that somewhere my contribution matters and these people see me for that aspect of who I am. I challenged myself that I was going to make this makwanda.republic thing even though I didn’t have half the answers. I took the risk, formed a closed group and told them in the most raw way that I could find to say, “I don’t know what this is going to be but I get the feeling that somebody else needs this.” The support was great and off we went. By then, I had hosted Wanelisa Xaba. She had needed to take time out from Cape Town. She came and we spoke about it. We were like, “Why do we wait for a perfect condition? What is a perfect condition? This is it! You’ve got your homestead, you’ve got a tranquil place. You’ve got people who will come wherever you are. Do the thing.” That’s what happened. Then I hosted another friend who had just finished editing a movie. For her, It was downtime and our kids reacquainting with each other. I could see how the thing served different purposes for different people. [I] started sharing images of the village, which is amazing, and the kind of lifestyle that I’ve had to curate for myself while there and then people started going, “We want.” And then somebody was like, “How about this Easter?” From the series of “yeses” and then having the foresight to enhance this journey, I approached four curators; Koleka Putuma, Faye Kabali-Kagwa, Mawande Manez Sobethwa [and] Lonwabo Gqaliwe to say, “Imagine what this thing could look like together.” Even though we had plans and we tried to curate it, we knew that at the same time, the core of it is about responding to the needs of the people there and we were more interested in the process [of] what happens when you remove city slickers from a city environment and you tell them, “Here is a blank slate. See what comes up for you.” Parallel to what [the] city people get, what we get as a village is an archive. When you Google [Goshen], you only get to hear about the time the Germans came. We are reimagining the archive here and we are reimagining the space and we are taking ownership of the kind of narrative that we attach. I don’t think it’s the kind of work that will only end up with my particular directions. If next year or next time someone else is going, “My village. You’ve done this before. Can you assist me too?” I think it’s important especially the Eastern Cape, the archive that is there that hasn’t been negotiated, interrogated [or] spoken back to. It’s work that needs to be done and it seems like our generation is called to do the work because I’m not the only one who is getting these nigglings. I am hearing these nigglings that make sense logically but they have a deep spiritual something where something somewhere has decided that this is the generation that is going to have the conversations on this level without necessarily blaming the older generation, they did what they could under the circumstances with what they had. Our particular generation, we have insight. We see things in particular ways. There are certain liberties that we know to be ours that we don’t need to be coached into believing. We don’t thread with any kind of apology when we ask for the things that we ask for. That is the generation that our ancestors want to do that work. I’m excited and I’m scared but it is the work.
What are your hopes for the rest of your career?
I’ve found a basket for everything that I do now, it’s makwanda.republic. Some parts of it live in the village because the work calls but I will live where ever it makes sense. Makwanda means made multiply, made manifest. This makwanda philosophy is a philosophy that I can carry into anything that I touch. I’ll be doing that kind of work wherever it calls. I’m a good facilitator. I love doing it. I am a good teaser of ideas. That could happen anywhere and so I continue to be available to do the work wherever it is.
Who are some South African women in the arts that inspire you?
Phodiso Matloga, who is the current Artscape Resource Centre manager, for the emotional intelligence and intuition she brings to everything she touches. Pam Dlungwana who gets up to some of the coolest things who is on my list of people I would like to play with. Koleka Putuma is dope. Zipho Dayile for adding her self and a tinge of effortlessness to what she does… not that we owe the world to make things that take effort to look effortless. Mandisa Ngqulana for always choosing herself with every project and new venture she takes on or walks away from. The women at Botho Concepts [Palesa Mokomele and Zuki Nomnganga]. I love the texture of what they do. Philippa Namutebi Kabali-Kagwa who is a writer and storyteller of the heart who also my mentor. She teaches me to go after what my heart desires and always holds me in her heart through moments of uncertainty. Faye Kabali-Kagwa who is just a walking endless ocean of fresh ideas and someone who questions everything. Asanda Rilityana is a force to be reckoned with. As far as I know she works as an actress but I see a whole heap more and I look forward to her coming more and more into her own. Aphiwe Hlehle, Nolufefe Ntshuntshe, Babalwa Zimbini Makwetu are other examples of ridiculously talented actresses whom I dare say are underrated. Thumeka Mzayiya is other worldly in her talent. Bukiwe Menziwa is also someone I have watched chart new territories and run her own race. Nomfundo Xaluva is all that and a bag of beetroot chips. Nadine McKenzie from Unmute is my leader. She’s a trailblazer! Taweni Gondwe, Rose Francis, Ingrid Irma Jones, Phumelela Nqelenga, Warona Seane, Azola Anele Goqwana, Danai Mupotsa, Ongezwa Mbele, Faniswa Yisa, Jacqueline Manyaapelo, Lee-Ann van Rooi, Mammie Qwazi, Kay Smith, Vuyokazi Ngemntu, Fundi Zwane, Motlatji Ditodi, Ncebakazi Mnukwana are a chorus of many womxn whose very existence in the creative space makes my soul come alive and the fact that they are womxn I have access to and/or who support my dreams and/or I have had the pleasure of working with, is just testament to how charming, charmed and enchanted life can be.