Africa Dispatches: The fine art of Mr_MediaX [interview]
by Mandy de Waal (@mandyldewaal) Cebo Simphiwe Xulu, aka @Mr_MediaX, describes himself as “an internet troll disguised as an artist”. Jokes aside, he’s a new-media artist who’s attracting attention when he’s not managing his day job as the art director behind Something Else Design Studio. “As an artist, I obsess about coming up with new ways to do the same old things,” says Xulu, adding, “Or I just copy the same old things, in a new way.”
Xulu says he was born and raised in the rural King Dinizulu township of Eshowe in “the most-matriarchal middle-class family.” He grew up believing that TV was real. Xulu graduated in fine arts and media from the University of KwaZulu-Natal, but spent most of his varsity time learning how to live life as the (now deceased) popular underground comic, Mr Njejust. “Since late 2013, I decided to bring all my mother’s worst nightmares to life by trying to live life as an artist and entrepreneur in the creative industry. The nightmare continues to evolve into a beautiful dream,” he says.
Xulu speaks to us about them interwebs, the definition of art, the relationship between commerce and art, and much, much more. Read on.
Mandy de Waal: How did you and the internet first become friends?
Cebo Simphiwe Xulu: There is an infamous internet film on YouTube called “Where the Lonely Kids Go When the Bell Rings”. I was pretty much a lonely and insecure kid all through high school, who watched way too many Van Damme films and WWE. I wouldn’t advise being socially awkward and bucktoothed in your teen years to any young person. Try something else. However, I have always found the internet to be the ultimate muse for the lonely mind. And, up until today, we keep this passionate love affair going. The internet was my first.
MdW: How does lack of internet access affect art and artists?
CSX: It affects EVERYTHING. Negatively. It’s the pink elephant in the room. It’s the second lump on our president’s head. It’s hard to understand and accept. It sours the entire conversation. It affects everything. It makes everything that is meant to be amazing about art in the digital space seriously uncool. The lack of internet access creates the ultimate ceiling for every phenomenal yet disadvantaged creative mind today.
Those who lack access to the internet do not get the same opportunities to be part of the conversation. The tech/digital divide means less collaborations from local creatives. Less sharing of ideas for the disadvantaged. Less sharing of information.
MDW: So, what is art, actually?
CSX: Hahaha, who knows? It’s possibly the most-overrated word in human history.
MDW: Who decides what art is and isn’t? What does this say about commerce, art and power?
CSX: The people with financial power still make the big decisions in the art world. I don’t want to turn this into a race issue — but the reality is that, as long as old white money is not invested in your art and ideas, you’re going to be involved in a daily fight of constantly explaining and justifying yourself, your work and your art. As a black kid in South Africa, you are still not worthy or intelligent enough to create and live off ‘art for art’s sake’. I’m a young black creative, and I’m very aware that art and awesome is really a very big and collaborative process. Incredibly big. And my design studio exists as a platform to come up with creative work and ideas that can handle very big projects.
But then there’s the ceiling I spoke about again. Being aware of certain things when you have my skin colour is very dangerous, because it makes you ‘expensive’ and problematic. And I’m not allowed to be expensive. My art projects can continue to trend every week; my gallery showings can be packed to the brim every single time I showcase in Durban and Johannesburg. But, right now, the art collectors — they don’t see me
MDW: What is the relationship between art and society — what does art do for, or contribute to, society?
CSX: Personally, I believe at its greatest potential, art and artists help bring inspiration, experience and new ideas to the world. It is an unexplainable responsibility. Selfish and delusional as we are, we dedicate our lives to providing food for the mind, as well as being a mirror for our society. I believe every company should have an artist freelancing there or at least have one running around half-naked all day.
I believe there is no difference between that 2050 concept car by Ferrari, the new architectural design by MDRVD and experiencing an Instagram exhibition (Instabition) by Phindile Thengeni. It is all art to me. The only real difference is that Phindile is a black South African [woman], and she will constantly have to explain, justify and fight for her art in society. She has the same skillset to help the world learn and create all these new things that we love and dream about in elevating our human experience — but we would rather exhaust her, underrate her and marginalise her in her moment until she disappears. Then a non-black South African or European does exactly what Phindile is doing
MDW: You are a digital artist — what does that mean?
CSX: I’m not too sure. It depends how I feel on the day. Maybe it is because I spend too much time online and I have an art degree. In 2016, adding the word “digital” to anything makes it seem more important. All my art projects can be accessed and experienced via a link — maybe that’s it?
MDW: Popular culture has a big role in your art. Why is this?
CSX: At some point I accepted that, ever since I was young, I have always consumed way too much media. Too much American culture. Too much television. Too much internet. Too much fantasy. Too much pornography. I don’t read enough long books. I look up a lot to the works of Andy Warhol, Nam Jun Paik, Judy Chicago and Adam Pendleton. I always think to myself “What Would Andy Say?”. It is an awful, shallow and terrible fact to admit, but pop culture raised me.
MDW: Who consumes your art?
CSX: People with FOMO. People with a fear of missing out. Internet people. My friends on Facebook and those who follow my social media. My mom is a new addition to that list of consumers.
MDW: Are you making money? If not, how do you support your art?
CSX: Hahaha, definitely not from creating art. Coming up with creative projects for brands and smaller clients still sustains me more than anything else. I have also pushed my family’s “support button” to the limit. But I work with a network of young creatives to achieve everything I’m doing and the corporate world needs to also understand that.
But the model I am creating art under is not really to make art that people will buy and have up in their homes. I never dreamt of that. I am more interested in creating interactive experiences that speak to the now. I’m more interested in multidisciplinary art and creating artwork and products that add colour and interactivity to life. The value in my work is more enjoyed by being present/involved to experience it.
MDW: What have you learnt about the relationship between commerce and art?
CSX: I have learnt that they both need each other, but art comes first. One of my greatest inspirations, the late Durban graffiti street artist, Pastelheart, taught me this. When creating, I’ve learnt to try abandon all thoughts of commercial gain or personal struggles — whether financial or whatever. I’ve learnt to get lost in the vortex of creating so that the art is exceptionally art before it is anything else. If you’re the real deal, the people can/will get behind you and put you in position to speak and create as freely as you desire.
But, because of black tax, the great challenge and statement is to be able to live and sustain yourself and others off your art and creativity within your lifetime.
MDW: What do you think about advertising and art?
CSX: Advertising and art are not the same thing, but the two can be married, co-exist, make love and make babies. Like a gay marriage between Juju and Msholozi — it is possible.
MDW: What is the relationship between advertising and art? And culture and art?
CSX: All these components speak to each other. There is no advertising without culture. There is no culture without art. And when done well, they all seem to speak on elements of the human experience at that time — whether it be ignorance or those things that we celebrate. However, the state of advertising and art in South Africa is still too white-owned and still too old-school. The same problems from 1994 to 2006 are still the same problems in 2016. In advertising, all the cool work is still going to the same agencies. Black-owned ad agencies are still not trusted with really big work. Articles are written, a few people get angry, and absolutely nothing really changes. Ad agencies (the so called hubs of creativity) still believe in locking millennials in office spaces all day. I work with the outcasts, the kids on the ground and on the streets daily — they are my network. And they are so exceptional!
And no one wants to come speak and involve these kids on the ground and see what is happening because the kids on the ground are fearless, they know their worth and they’ve got big ideas. So advertising agencies appear scared to involve these kids. Because it is better to marginalise them ’til they starve to death. These millennials will make some creative directors look very outdated, and ill-advised — and creatives only based in Johannesburg and Cape Town do not constitute “the kids on the ground”.
MDW: Your message to marketers?
CSX: Involve us in the process. We’re so hungry to learn. A bit more information-sharing would help. A little bit more faith in black agencies, black artists and black kids with big ideas would go a long way. A little bit more faith in Mr_MediaX! Yes, we live in our heads, but we know and understand what is going on at places like Silicon Valley, Kenya and Berlin. We’re very aware what companies like Google and WhatsApp are getting done. Check out what we’ve done and evaluate whether we’re not worth more investment and support in the long run. From our little township offices, we’re fully involved in developing projects experimenting with virtual reality. We’ve got creative ideas and projects in South Africa to compete with all the stuff happening overseas but you’ve got to involve us in the process.
Xulu (@Mr_MediaX) is currently working on his first ‘digital’ performance art project called Orange. He has also just wrapped up a month-long residency and collaboration at the Fakugesi African Innovation Festival, where he exhibited and recreated a new set of playing cards called Mambokadzi in collaboration with Vuyi Chaza and Regina Kgatle. These are playing cards based upon African symbols and African queens. Xulu is open to collaborations.