Interview with Io Makandal

Io Makandal is an interdisciplinary artist based in Johannesburg. Her work explores binaries between artifice/nature, chaos/order, utopia/dystopia real/imaginary spatialities during the Anthropocene. She is also intrigued by how human and non-human beings are evolving in hybrid environments.

Could you tell us a bit about yourself?

I am an interdisciplinary artist based in Johannesburg, South Africa. I have a deep love affair with drawing. I also have two dogs and am due to give birth to a human in a few days time of doing this interview. 

Where did you grow up? 

I was born in Johannesburg and I grew up in several places. The first place was in an old stone house with a thatch roof and wooden parquet floors that was surrounded by undulating veld (wild grass fields) and wattle tree forests on the outskirts of South Africa’s capital city, Pretoria. This veld performed an important part of my childhood as I would play in it and often burnt it down with the matches I was not meant to be playing with. Around the age of 16 years old I moved to Johannesburg. A few years later I moved to Cape Town to study fine art at Michaelis School of Fine Art. Soon after completing my degree I returned to Johannesburg where I have based myself ever since.

What initially inspired you to pursue a career in Art?

There is not a single moment and rather a number of experiences and conversations that inspired me to pursue a career in Art. Perhaps it was the distinct devotion from very young to figuring things out through making that inspired me to make that a primary part of my career.

How would you describe your creative process?

Oxymoronic – structured chaos. 

Does your city and surroundings influence you as a creative and individual?

Absolutely. Johannesburg, which I strongly identify with as home, informs an integral part of my artistic practice. Johannesburg as a place, a space, a being, a way of being has played a significant part in shaping my creative outlook. How can a place not? I am interested in urban structures and ecologies around the world and Johannesburg being home is my primary interest. 

What do you struggle with the most in terms of working and living in a city like Johannesburg? 

That’s a hard question to answer simply. Johannesburg is a complex post-colonial and specifically post-apartheid city with post-colonial issues. It has so many idiosyncrasies that make it equally wonderful and difficult to exist in it. Perhaps I don’t see the things I struggle with as struggles and rather as the matter that makes me love Johannesburg more. She (yes, Johannesburg is a ‘she’ to me) is a schizophrenic beautiful, ugly place. She’s full of extremes and contradictions – one simultaneously gets to live with the luxury of first world benefits alongside third world problems- to live in this city one should be awake, aware, sensitive and robust all at once of these contradictions, plights and privileges. I know, from sharing and speaking with many foreigners visiting the city from Europe / the Westernised World particularly, that it is a jarring city to experience. Having said that, she’s not everyone’s cup of tea but she sure is culturally diverse, beautiful in her own way and highly stimulating with no shortage of things to do and explore. 

The responsibility of the council in every city is to provide a solid foundation of design, art and cultural facilities, is that evident in Johannesburg?

It is evident, but could be better executed, sustained and managed. Design, art and cultural facilities are largely privatized which is an issue, but as a creative living in such a city with such a council, one becomes highly innovative and adaptive and no opportunity is taken for granted. 

Do you think it is also the responsibility of the artist/creative to improve the quality of people's lives in their city?

I think it is the responsibility of the artist to reflect / critique / provoke and or stimulate people’s lives to think about how they exist in their city and their worlds around them, ultimately to become more conscious.

Can you tell us about any current or future projects that you are particularly excited about?

I am due to take part in an exciting group exhibition titled “Rocks” that will be held at Gallery, Gallery - a new experimental space in Johannesburg. The show will be considered as a "curatorial essay", bringing together works by Nina Barnett, Nolan Oswald Dennis, Jared Ginsberg, Thami Jali, Nabeeha Mohammed, Daniella Mooney, Sean O’Toole, Matty Roodt, Jonah Sack, Sitaara Stodel and myself. It opens on the 14th September, which coincides with several art fairs over that time. Johannesburg is usually is a hot art flurry during mid-September. 

Otherwise I am currently doing my master at Wits School of Arts. My research is in the concept of the third landscape and particularly in the South African context a space described as “Uitvalgrond”, which translates to “waste-land”.

If you could add or change something about Johannesburg, what would that be?

Don’t we as the inhabitants of a city continuously add or change something about the city we live in all the time with the work we do?

Describe the perfect day for you in Johannesburg.

Springtime (September) meeting up with a friend for coffee at Leopard cafe to later go to the studio in town to work, later take a walk with my dogs on Melville Koppies for the sunset and to watch the full moon rise over the view of the city, followed by a night out starting with drinks at a friend.

If you could choose any artist/creative to collaborate with, who would that be and why? 

Oh boy! There are too many. To name some though, I would choose Julie Mehretu, Sarah Sze and Dineo Seshee Bopape, because I respect their work and practice so much and have complete crushes on them and their work, honestly. 

What do you do to switch off?

I take walks through the streets and steal plants to propagate.

What Does Home Mean to You?

Home means a space that resonates with a personal foundation of memories.

Sometimes people relate a specific smell to the city they live in or the place they grew up, does Johannesburg evoke a personal smell to you?

Undoubtedly. Johannesburg smells like the crusty dust between your toes.

What is your favourite time of the day?

Late at night.

If you weren’t living in Johannesburg and could choose any city to live in where would that be, and why?

I’m purely basing this answer on what I have experienced before, otherwise I am sure there are many other incredible cities to live in, but I have not had the opportunity yet to experience them and can only imagine how it may feel to live there. However, if I were to choose a city in Europe it would be Berlin. I know it’s perhaps a popular one on many artists’ lists, but I would choose it, because, firstly, I’ve stayed there before and so got to experience it as one of the few cities in that part of the world that has a good balance between being unfamiliar enough to be stimulating and interesting, yet familiar enough to feel like home. It is also relatively central to the contemporary art world, say, compared to Melbourne, which I think would also be a great city to live in, albeit quite far geographically to get anywhere else in the world.


A selection of places in Johannesburg - recommended by artist Io Makandal. See all of Io's favourite places here

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