Keeping it light by weighing in on the past
The knowledge of her history has become a constant thread in Lulama ‘Wolf’ Mlambo’s work, intentionally informing what it means to be a 21st-century African woman and artist. By
“Ididn’t quite know much about my heritage and my culture growing up,” says artist Lulama ‘Wolf’ Mlambo. “Because I went to a Western school, everything was quite contemporary in how things were done. It was post-apartheid and I just happened to be in an integrated life with society already by then. Only in my late 20s, I found that I needed to know a few things about where I come from.
“I found that, as I went back, I am of Khoi descent, with migrating Xhosa parents, and it just sparks such pride in me. I’m here now, from different kinds of people who have different views on how they have evolved in their lives,” she explains.
The knowledge of her history has become a constant thread in Wolf’s work, the lifeblood pumping through her art and intentionally informing what it means to be a 21st century African woman and artist.
Wolf draws on ancient techniques to paint, explaining that rock art is a significant influence in her work, both in the way she presents her figures and in the colour palette.
Just as people have been etching their lives into stone for thousands of years, Wolf is pulled towards etching symbolism in her canvas, “to find the symbolism in-between”.
This makes her work deeply personal as she paints the stories of generations before in a way that speaks to the future as well as contributes to a modern interpretation of art.
“Simplicity and earthy colours that bleed into nature are very big for me. Spirituality as well – finding the spirituality between how ... we interlink what we think Christianity or God is in a perspective that we may have not known before,” Wolf says.
“I want to live in a place where I am allowed to do as life happens to me. And if I do find myself being a bit more political about how I express myself, that’s the space that I’m in because of where I come from.
“And if I do find myself in a space where I am more liberated and restful … that should also be accommodated for artists today because we are living in a dual world.”
Working with minimalist techniques, her canvases are uncrowded – stark figures hover over brighter colours; the geometry of the shapes is reminiscent of abstract art although the scenes depicted are more contemporary.
The characters are misleading: is it a beak or a nose? Is there a mouth open with a glass, or a bird/human raising a leg? Is it an arm or something else?
The viewer is left to interpret, imagine, extend the story beyond the frame – where past and present seem to intertwine but also contrast: black against beige, light blue against navy blue; and ancestral drawings familiar to South Africans are merged with Picasso-esque figures.
“I want to speak a simple language. I simplify it intentionally so that it can reach as many people as authentically as possible.
“I want to bridge the gap between contemporary art, abstract art and neo-expressionist art, and try to show the similarities between what has been created before and what was created in the Western world post-war; those influences fed each other from different cultures.
“So if I can reach as many people [as possible] with that simplified language of Africa, especially from my perspective, I think I would have done my job in becoming a global citizen,” Wolf notes.
“I will definitely, though, advocate for more liberation … and for formlessness and experience, and I will advocate for an easier life. And that speaks more to where I am right now in my practice. I want to see how far it takes me with the intentionality of keeping it light.”
“Keeping it light” is a maxim she deliberately applies to her practice. Wolf says she could never relate to the distressing stories of Van Gogh cutting off one of his ears, Matisse’s difficult final years and Picasso’s concerning morning routine, and she does not believe in the “tortured artist” narrative.
If I can reach as many people [as possible] with that simplified language of Africa, especially from my perspective, I think I would have done my job in becoming a global citizen
“I grew up knowing a lot about art history and learning about artists’ actual lives outside of just the techniques. I found myself being very demotivated,” she says.
“I didn’t like that perspective. Yes, I have issues, but I am not a tortured soul. So rather, let me skip that title, but I’ll carry on creating.
I became very intentional about it when I got back into the studio.”
Instead, Wolf is leaning into joy.
“I was at my happiest when I created; my music was the loudest, I was eating anything I wanted, I was making all the mistakes I needed to.
“Yes, there were moments of fear and trying to make sure that things were going the way that I wanted them to, conceptually, but the moment in there was a bit more spiritual and joyful for me, because I was fulfilling something I knew I was supposed to do for a very long time,” she says.
And when she is not okay, she drops everything.
“Then I go back into a place where I can understand, what am I doing? Why am I here? And why am I feeling this way? I almost ‘therapise’ myself out of that pain to go back into the studio. It has helped me tremendously,” Wolf explains.
“I want to do that for my own personal life and be intentional about the happiness, even with the sadness.”