Artist Spotlight: Puleng Mongale

Puleng Mongale is an accidental visual artist. Nothing about her talent is, but today we’re going to trace how this Sotho girl from Orlando East found her way from teenage award-winning poet and thrice failed blogger (4th time’s the charm) to a visual artist who has found a new way to mix media in her soulful collages that feature her but centre something much bigger.

Her collages are at once deeply cultural, at times ancestrally-imbued yet somehow modern. I’ll let her tell it though! The Artist Spotlight is where we highlight uplift and engage fellow artists, get behind the process and the person (it’s also my excuse to ‘professionally’ fangirl) .

Ntoetse: thank you so much for agreeing to do this hle Puleng, I really appreciate it. Especially because reaching out to you was very spontaneous, it was a very fangirl moment I was like *gasp* “oh I love this, I must talk to her!”.

Puleng: *laughs* no worries. You’re welcome.

Ntoetse: OK, uh, I guess I’ll introduce myself because *laughs* we’ve never actually spoken before (we’ve texted) I’m *long pause* 27- sorry 2020 has been a lot- I’m a writer, a doctor and this blog is my experiment in sharing my writing.

Your work really resonated with me because ke ngoanana oa mosotho and someone sent me your piece (after I wrote Culturally Speaking) “and it was 1. untitled and 2. according to your caption, a reject from a collection and I thought to myself: ‘if this is what her rejects look like…’ So this isn’t going to be a deeply arty piece where I talk about your technique or brush strokes. It’s more about making art accessible to future and wannabe artists, so it’s aimed at yourself before you got started.

Puleng: *laughs* well, I loved your blog I read some of your pieces and I saw that you wrote about your experiences as, like, a Sotho girl and felt that they were quite similar to mine. Growing up in the city and going home every now and then and having similar experiences. I actually shared it with a friend of mine who’s also a writer and she thought it was cool, she asked why you’re not doing this full time then we remembered what you do.

Ntoetse: Aw, Thank you! I appreciate that so much! It came from a conversation I was having with another friend about how much we know and how much of the Basotho culture we’ll be able to pass on when our parents and their parents pass. It was a very stressful conversation and it ended with us deciding to be in it together because we can’t be alone.

Puleng: Exactly.

N: Let’s dive in or else I’ll just blush. As you know, the questions are the same standard 12 for everyone. We’re just going to chat and if I’ve done my job right you won’t notice that you’re answering them. There’s no order.

P: OK , let’s go.

It gets better, 2019

Ho lokile, 2020

N: What came first? The blog, the photos or the collages? Because one of the first questions is to map out a course from your youth to being an artist selling their work.

P: I think, it’s always been there. I’ve always been very expressive even as a kid. I used to cut up my clothes so much, alter my sneakers. I’d steal my mom’s clothes and mess with my hair and dye it all the time.

Then in high school I always loved English class and I started writing poetry and my English teacher noticed and started to help me with it. She shared additional books [with me] after school and she said “let’s enter some competitions” and I did. I started to win some prize money and I did that for about 3 years straight. I’d get a prize everytime –

N: Yes girl!

P: *laughs* – so I thought, OK I’m gonna be a writer! After I matriculated I went to varsity and studied English and Communication Science [from UNISA] graduated in 2014. Then I went to Umuzi Academy [2015] still pursuing copywriting because that’s the only media that I knew; due to lack of exposure I didn’t know that what I’m doing right now could ever be a thing.

N: I’m sorry could you please help me make the distinction between screenwriting, scriptwriting and copywriting. Is copywriting specifically pertaining to advertising? Like the people on Generations? *laughs* I’m showing exactly how much I know about advertising.

P: Yeah, basically *laughs*. There’s different teams involved and junior positions but the part of the advertising team that incorporates the research and creative teams processes into written form. It’s writing but brand-heavy, brand-specific. It’s quite a lengthy process. The thing that you read on the billboard or editorial is a form of copywriting. So I did a lot of digital and social media type copywriting.

N: Interesting. Thank you for that. So at Nandos, the person writing things in the middle of the night, working hard, it’s the copywriter? Great. OK , sorry to interrupt. Please Continue.

P: I worked at a few agencies and didn’t ever really have the best experiences. It always had this underlying feeling like it wasn’t the right fit. I knew I was creative but I wasn’t able to express myself the way I had hoped. So at the time: I’d quit a job, then do a passion project in like, photography. Every time I’d take a break from copywriting, I’d do a creative thing. Even Intimate Strangers came about like that

Intimate Strangers part 1:When The Madam is Away The Help Will Slay was her first photography project in 2017. She was the creative and art director; recruiting her friends to star in (Motshewa Khaiyane and Motsatsing Ntsamai) and photograph (Kgotso Mahlangu and Kgomotso Nteo Tleane) the series.

N: I wanted to ask about Intimate Strangers specifically, not the collage because that came later, because it was one of your first non-writing blog pieces. Did you conceptualise it and just call some friends to make it happen or?

P: Yes, so, at Umuzi, I met a lot of creative. In our year they incorporated lots of other multimedia artists and digital creatives so I saw photography students all the time and I’d never really been interested in picking up a camera. So, yeah they said “sure” and I just had to tell them what I was thinking and they agreed to shoot it as I saw it. And I trusted them because they’re brilliant.

N: That’s so cool. And they came out stunning and… You know what I’m gonna fangirl so let’s just move on. I noticed in my research (because research sounds much better than stalking) that it was the first one and that your blog Where it Rains was initially a writing blog until that post and then it was just photography thereafter.

P: Yes, it was first a writing blog. And, you know, it was my like my 100th attempt at a blog.

N: *laughs* this is the kind of information that the people need to know!

P: Yeah. Starting a blog is hard! And that’s why I haven’t been able to maintain it. You know? Because it’s not just being consistent it’s also contending with the many voices in your head and struggling with what you should be thinking about or what you should be writing about. Writing is very difficult it’s not a simple thing. At some point I was disheartened because, I don’t know what to call it, I don’t wanna say ‘Woke Era’. But when we were starting to unpack the big things like Patriarchy and White Supremacy and all of that and there were already so many voices speaking around that so I just didn’t feel right just talking about my acne and pimples and stuff.

N: Eh eh girl. It’s your corner of the internet, you can do what you want and write about whatever you like! But I hear you, I understand.

P: *laughs* yeah, but for me writing was difficult in that sense. It just felt so intimidating and it made me forget completely that I had been writing since I was a child.

N: and winning money for it by the way *laughs*

P: So at some point around age 25 I stopped.

Untitled

N: OK. So the blog, I know is a direct translation of your name, Puleng (Where it rains in SeSotho) so you don’t need to explain that but indulge me: what were the precursor names? In those other “99” attempts.

P: Where It Rains is the most consistent name but I kept making then deleting it over and over and I didn’t ever put anything on those early blogs! And one of the first ones was this stupid one called: Susie Says.

N: *laughs* Who is Susie?!

P: *laughs hysterically* I don’t know! It’s because I didn’t want anyone to know it was me. I once messed up my login details and asked my friend to help me and she asked “who the F is Susie?!” *laughs*

N: OK, so in the timeline. The final version 4.0 of Where It Rains is established 2017 because that’s the one you stuck with? And your website?

P: Yes and the Website is est 2019.

N: Got it. Let’s flashback to, say, 2016 just before it all got started. What did that Puleng need to know or hear. What would you tell her?

P: That everything happens in its own time. It’s not even about hard work sometimes although I’ve always worked hard, you know, put in the work. That applies, especially with things like art because it’s a lot about coming into yourself. It’s very interlinked with your personal progress. Everything’s happening in its own time. I didn’t even know then that I’d ever pick up a camera it wasn’t ever on the cards.

N: And what would you say is your art form? Are you a visual artist? Because I like to think that art forms are like muscles that you as a creative stretch and there’s a lead muscle but you could theoretically work multiple muscles.

P: Yeah, I would’ve said digital collage artist but yeah I’m a visual artist. It’s true because I never even thought I’d hold a camera.

N: Like, I’m a writer, with decent rhythm but if you checked my Pinterest board you’d swear I was a dancer. And it plays out in your case because you started, your entry, was as a writer and it opened this up for you. You never even thought you’d hold a camera. Wild!

N: So who were the early supporters of your work? who made you feel like you were on the right track (other than your English teacher)?

P: My friends. My partner. He’s a multimedia person and I used to dream a lot and say “I’d love to do that” and he’d say but, “I can show you how to do that”. He took me to Rosebank to buy my first camera. I had just been retrenched and had a little bit of money and decided that I needed to do something with it; I wanted one of those big one you know *laughs*? And he helped me get my small one that I use now and encouraged me “it’s about how you use it” he said because the quality was great.

N: OK so you had guidance. Because when people start taking about camera types and sizes I get dizzy. Sslr? Nikon or Cannon? D-something my goodness. So how did we get to self-portraits?

P: *laughs* Exactly. I started taking photos of other people and places in a very photographer way and found that it felt intrusive like I was revealing or invading, which is how I started taking pictures of myself. My pictures aren’t, like, technically correct but I don’t mind because they come out how I envisioned and you can make the ‘imperfections’ part your personal style. When I got backlash for Intimate Strangers-

N: You got backlash? Why? It was so joyful. And accurate (in a surreal kinda way).

P: – People were saying that I was glorifying domestic work and that it was taken through the white gaze and all kinds of things (even though people in my family have been domestic workers) and it was a whole thing. It was even on Facebook.

N: Wow, I guess we erred on the side of the extreme in those early days of self re-discovery. The pendulum really swung you know?

P: I even took a break. I picked up the camera and then started doing collages because I felt I couldn’t get my point across well with just one (or two) pictures and in a collage you can say a multitude of things without having to explain.

Then I needed money really badly for some gallery thing and a friend of mine told me I could get a lot for my art, and to just set up a website and start selling it. Also a a lovely German writer who was staying nearby, Flurina, did a profile on me. She contacted me through my partner who was working with her. Akere I was initially selling my artwork to make enough money for my first exhibition. Flo gave me R6000 and told me she didn’t need an artwork in return, just “do what you have to do to get your work out there”. So yeah my fellow creative friends were really helpful and told me yeah, they were working in the field so I believed them [editor’s note: shout out to Vuyiswa, specifically].

N: Well, at least they haven’t lied to you yet. That’s incredible. And the photography? Did you take any supplementary lessons or photoshop/lightroom courses?

P: Not really. My partner saw what I was trying to do and the collages that inspired me and said “I can show you how to do that!” and every weekend for a few hours he showed me how to use Photoshop and I use Light Room on my final stage and we did that every week until he got to a point where he was like “OK, you’re fine, keep going”.

N: Do you feel like you’ve made it and, however you respond, can you share with us what “making it” looks like to you?

P: No! I haven’t made it.

N: I don’t know, selling portraits and raising thousands mere hours after starting your website sounds pretty close to me. *laughs*

P: *laughs* Sustainability. Making it would mean my art is sustaining me, paying my bills, feeding me and my son. There’s still so many things I need to do. I’d like to be in exhibitions, have gallery residencies, travel the world and see different countries while doing that. I’d like to have something tangible to show for it, you know, like something to leave behind for my son. Money as well but-

N: Legacy.

P: Legacy.

N: what gets you up in the morning?

P: My son! He’s up at 5am!

N: *laughs* I didn’t mean that literally but it works. How old is he?

P: He’s 3. He wakes up a bit later now. I also wake up excited about the possibility of creating something. The possibility. It’s always evolving. And I’m always exhausted. *laughs*

N: What’s your top 5 highlight reel?

P: shucks, I’d thought about this but I’m blanking. Uh, OK:

1. When I bought my first camera, laptop and tripod. Those were a big. 2. All the write ups have been cool. Especially for archival purposes. I get to see how I change. 3. Selling my artwork. I can’t get over the fact that people have my sh*t up on their walls! I still remember my first customer Kgomotso [editors note: shout out to Kgomotso! Specifically.] 4. That I get to do this art and work while being a mom. A working mom. 5. This upcoming exhibit! I made a mistake when I originally posted it saying it was my first exhibit when it’s not but my stuff is going to be up next to brilliant artists and that’s awesome.

Is that 5?

N: yes, that’s 5. I was going to let you keep going! What would you like people to know about your art that they don’t already know? That’s not already out there?

P: *nervous laughter* that I don’t consider it to be myself in my photos or artwork. I don’t know, that sounds weird. It’s like it makes itself sort of. I set out to do one thing and then something else happens. These were supposed to be, like, adventures of a City girl and the next thing I’m like: seshoeshoes and my grandmother’s house?! I’ve kind of surrendered to being a vessel. You know? Does that make sense?

N: That makes perfect sense. Many of these blog posts started as me just jotting down a quick idea and the next thing I know, it’s been 4 hours, I’m hungry in the dark and I haven’t cooked yet. I completely understand. Are you telling me these were supposed to be a Johannesburg meets Sex and The City-type thing? *laughs* Wow.

Mosotho/The Women In Me, 2019

With Love, From Joburg, 2019
Guided, 2019

P: I know!

N: I mean I’m free styling now but is your grandmother an important figure to you? Because when I look at pieces like Ho lokile (which I love BTW) I see mine. And, it’s OK if you choose not to answer this, are you gifted or called? Because some of your work makes me feel like you’re channeling something…

P: well, I’m named for (and by) my late great-grandmother. She’d say:”Pula ke bophelo”. And even though I didn’t really meet her, I feel connected to her, it’s complicated. I suffered and was admitted for anxiety and depression at age 19. I still take my meds but even then I knew I needed more answers and we consulted ngaka and while I’m not specifically called as such, I’m still trying to figure out that part of my journey.

N: I don’t think there needs to be a timeline or answer and as someone who is reconciling with the African side of her own Spirituality I hear you.

[Editors note: the audio literally cut out at this point unbeknownst to me, and there was surge in technical difficulties. I’m not particularly superstitious but I take this as a sign that the details needn’t appear here unless I am able to faithfully reproduce them (which I sadly can’t do from memory alone). As a woman of faith and of science who is currently keenly reconciling with her ancestral lineage and the cultural aspects of my spirituality, I encourage all who are interested to look into Puleng’s recommendation to me: Afro Savvy on Instagram (and YouTube). But more importantly, discuss it with your elders. It’s a conversation worth having especially if you’re already feeling inclined to have that conversation. ]

Manyeloyi (a phelang)

Things depression taught me: there’s life after survival
Encounters With the Departed, 2020

N: while we’re in the ‘whoo-whoo’ of it all, I have something to share with you. It might be a little creepy but I think it’s beautiful. You have a blog entry (25 things at 25) where you say: “I have a younger brother. We are ten years apart. My parents let me name him. Result: Naledi.” WELL. I have a younger sister, we are 10 years apart, my mother let me name her and she is Naleli! I swear I dropped my phone when I read it.

P: Whaaaat?!

N: I can’t make this up. What are the odds?!

P: Oh my goodness! That’s crazy. Wow. That’s not what I thought you were gonna say at all! Wow.

N: What does love look and feel like for you? This question is inspired by a YouTube video from the lovely Shannon Boodram where she compares loving someone to plant care. She basically says you can have the best intentions and still kill a plant if you don’t follow the care instructions. So what are your “care instructions”?

P: I need space, give me lots and lots of space. Love also feels like coming through when I need it most. I cherish the people who come through for me when I need them. But yeah, space *laughs*. Not just romantically either.

N: and that’s our interview! Do you have anything to add? Anything you’d like to plug?

P: Well, the artists I like to plug always appear on my Insta stories so… No? Nothing comes immediately to mind.

N: Well, thank you Puleng it was a pleasure!

P: Thank you! And you should do more of these interviews! I really enjoyed it. And your blogging. Your writing is really sincere. I gravitate towards sincerity. I like it.

N: Thank you so much! I mean, I’m no journalist and these interviews are largely an extension of my fangirl-ing. Also, I’ve tried but you know… Artists *laughs* but note taken!

Follow Puleng’s work on Instagram: @pulengmongale

Check out (or purchase) her art website: Pulengmongale.co.za

Look back at her blog: Where it Rains

Lefatse la basadi, 2020

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