Young, Gifted & Killing It: Austin Malema
Veli Ngubane: Tell us more about yourself: where did you grow up and what did you want to be when you were growing up?
Austin Malema: I grew up in a small village in venda called Tshiozwi just outside Louis Trichardt, Moved to Johannesburg (Randburg) when I was 12. I think, growing [up], I was like most kids: I was unsure about being a soldier, a doctor or a lawyer.
VN: How has your upbringing and culture influenced your creative journey and perspective?
AM: My upbringing has contributed a lot to my creative journey and most of the time I don’t see it until later in projects or images. I remember some of the images I took in Nigeria that, when I looked back at, symbolised my commute from Venda to Tshiawelo (Soweto) to visit family. Most of the things we [see] as young kids are embedded in the back of our minds and we only notice them later on when we are really not aware or conscious of them.
VN: Please explain what you actually do and how an average day looks for you?
AM: No day is ever the same for, to be honest, depending on what I need to do, I wake up, go to the gym, come back home, freshen up, check the calendar and see what has to be done. If there is no shoot, I meet up with my business partners, Kelly and Sivuyile, and talk through what needs to be done or deliveries of projects that we have completed. On other days, I wake up, shower, collect my gear and head to a shoot that might last all day long or just half the day; then it’s back home / the office to edit.
VN: How would you define creativity and who qualifies to be called a creative?
AM: Creativity is the ability to navigate through problems and come up with solutions to solve the problem but you also express yourself in the process. Everyone is a creative as we problem-solve on a day-to-day basis.
VN: Please tell us more about your creative journey: where and what did you study, and what was your first job?
AM: So, a lot of people know Austin Malema as a photographer but, in the industry, there are people who know me as Mpho Austin Malema, the editor. I studied at AFDA for four years to get my honours degree in motion picture medium. The year after I completed my degree, I worked at AFDA as a junior lecturer in the editing department for a year. The same year, the honours film I worked on went [on] to represent South Africa in at the student Oscars; we came ninth overall but we won a SAFTA for best student film. The following years I bounced around the industry as an editor on different shows, [including] Skeem Saam, The Real Jozi A-Listers [and] Selimathunzi and eventually landing on The Queen. A few months after The Queen, I quit and chose to be a photographer and, as they say, the rest is history
VN: You’re a well-renowned and successful photographer in your personal capacity. What inspired founding a photography and videography agency?
AM: The idea behind Pixel Kollective is to create a platform for young photographers who are about to start in photography. I’ve experienced a lot of failures in the industry and made mistakes that I would like to caution others on.
VN: What is your personal long-term goal as a photographer?
AM: The long-term goal is building a portfolio that covers different aspects of photography, from beauty to automotive and events. I would like to get to a point where I can do any form of photography. I do not want to be boxed in [in] photography. If I can also double up as a photographer and a director.
VN: What is the long-term vision for Pixel Kollective?
AM: The long-term goal for PK is to become a photography agency that represents photographers. Right now, we are not there yet. We are just a small company that caters to a few clients with the founders of the company.
VN: Why do you feel that there’s a need for more young, black-owned ventures within the creative industry?
AM: There is a lot of space for us as young black creatives to navigate and grow; as we grow we create opportunities for more young black people. Who [better to] tell authentic black stories than black people? The more black people are in the industry, the more we grow as an industry and as individuals ,we change position in companies, we start our own companies, which hire more black people, reducing unemployment
VN: Is it important to have culturally immersed creative entrepreneurs like yourself working alongside larger, traditional agencies?
AM: I think it [is] important for larger traditional agencies to work with creatives like us because we are the word. We know what the streets are talking about — what is in and what is out. You always catch agencies using slang that is outdated because they waited two/three months to add it as copy on their [own] and, when they finally did, it was late. Most of the messages the agencies try put [out] are for people like us; why not have us speak to our own generation?
VN: What do you think the industry struggles with transformation, especially in ownership of advertising agencies?
AM: I think the biggest struggle with transformation in the ownership of advertising agencies is the fact that most “black”-owned agencies are still owned by white people, who are either silent partners or they own a minority of the shares and use a black person as a front. This really sucks when you find out as a young person who thought your people are doing great but you realise that they are just fronts. The bigger problem is that most prominent positions in big companies are held by white people, who will easily give an account to a white-owned agency [than] to a black owned agency. The change is happening but it’s happening very slow; we can see the changes and we shall see what happens in the next few years.
VN: Where and when do you have your best ideas?
AM: I don’t have a radio in my car so I have the best ideas in the car, driving around, maybe from job [to] home.
VN: What advice can you give to young creatives wanting to get into the business?
AM: This will sound like a cliché but you need a lot of patience and you need to be [a] hard person emotionally, as people in the industry do not care about how you solve the problem but they want solutions. You need to love what you do so it doesn’t feel like a chore.
VN: Tell us something about yourself not generally known.
AM: I am the Original Stan.
VN: What exciting projects are you working on at the moment?
AM: Currently, we are in post for some work we just did for The Queen Mzansi; recently shot a great project with Vusi Thembekwayo; but the biggest project right now is Pixel Kollective, for me.
For more, go to Instagram.
Veli Ngubane (@TheNduna) entered the world of advertising with a passion after completing his BSocSci (law, politics and economics) at UCT and a post-graduate marketing diploma at Red & Yellow, where he’s currently advisory board chairman. He also sits on the IAB’s Transformation & Education Council, is a DMA board member and has judged Loeries, Apex and AdFocus. He is the Joburg MD and founding partner of the largest black-owned and -managed full-service agencies in the country, AVATAR. He is also co-founder of M&N Brands, which is building an African network of agencies to rival the global giants. In his monthly column “Young, Gifted & Killing It”, he profiles award-winning, kick-ass black creative talent in South Africa.
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