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Photographer Mpumelelo Buthelezi: Touched by an Angel [Interview] cover

Photographer Mpumelelo Buthelezi: Touched by an Angel [Interview]

In her poem “Touched by an Angel,” Maya Angelou describes humans as “exiles from delight” who “live coiled in shells of loneliness / until love leaves its high holy temple / and comes into sight / to liberate us into life.”

Using the phrase “touched by an angel” as a source of inspiration, South African artist Mpumelelo Buthelezi appears as the central, shrouded figure in his pandemic-era black and white photo series, Ukuzihlukanisa. “This body of work asks us to consider a time when man (human), as described in the Bible, was holy and without sin,” says Mpumelelo, who uses common household materials—foil, bubble wrap, and bedsheets—to emphasize the isolation imposed by widespread lockdown.

Using the phrase ‘touched by an angel’ as inspiration, South African artist Mpumelelo Buthelezi appears as the central figure in his pandemic-era photo series, 'Ukuzihlukanisa.'
‘Ukuzihlukanisa’

Shot from his bedroom in Johannesburg, Ukuzihlukanisa began as a self-portrait series that eventually expanded to include Mpumelelo’s friends, whose presence in the photographs reflects “a need for companionship,” even in the most introspective places. Despite their addition, Ukuzihlukanisa remains inky, intimate, and mercurial, a tortured confessional whispered to the blank walls of an empty house at the end of the world. A sense of unease permeates the images, settles into the cloth folds covering the central character in Ukuzihlukanisa, and exposes the eternal spiritual conflict between humans and themselves. “In essence, this work is about what it means to be human,” says Mpumelelo, acknowledging it’s “an existential question that most people grapple with.”

Leaving his hands exposed in much of the series, Mpumelelo explores the phrase “touched by an angel” from a human perspective, imagining physical touch as a form of love that’s vital to our spiritual health.

In Today's Q+Art Interview…

Mpumelelo Buthelezi discusses the two most heroic women in his life, the morning routine that keeps him sane, and why he strives to make a difference in others’ lives.

Using the phrase ‘touched by an angel’ as inspiration, South African artist Mpumelelo Buthelezi appears as the central figure in his pandemic-era photo series, 'Ukuzihlukanisa.'
‘Ukuzihlukanisa’
‘Ukuzihlukanisa’

How do you start your day?

Mpumelelo Buthelezi: Before anything, I always thank and consult the source, which is God, by praying, then thereafter read a scripture or morning devotion and listen to music. Normally, that’s my daily routine, which keeps me sane and going in my creative process.

What is your motto?

MB: My motto is that we owe it to ourselves to create change. And as a Black society, we need to stop being embarrassed by the things that embarrassed us. I use my work as a story to tell and to educate the audience around you, and when you stop being embarrassed by your story, then you start celebrating your story.

Which living person do you most admire?

MB: It’s my current mentor and art advisor, Zanele Muholi.

Using the phrase ‘touched by an angel’ as inspiration, South African artist Mpumelelo Buthelezi appears as the central figure in his pandemic-era photo series, 'Ukuzihlukanisa.'
‘Ukuzihlukanisa’
‘Ukuzihlukanisa’

Who are your heroes in real life?

MB: Personally, my heroes are people who constantly keep on playing a significant role in my life, and it’s my comely mother, Kholekile Buthelezi, and my perfectionist, whom I call DJ Granny, Mrs. Thembi Mighty Buthelezi. So, these two intriguing human beings are my source of heroes in every aspect of life.

What does success mean to you as an artist?

MB: I often struggle with having to answer this question, and mostly when I’m being interviewed. But in simple terms, my true definition of what success means to me as an artist is: Let us spread our knowledge without fear of being vilified or losing anything. Let us share brilliance, let us share wealth, let us publish more books featuring the works of Black people, by Black people, for us, by us, on us—for posterity and to be able to change people's perspectives in the work that I do. To be honest, it's all about making a difference in people's lives and also instigating social change through my artistic practice.

What is your greatest fear?

MB: My greatest fear is dying with potential and without accomplishing my dreams and plans as an artist.

If you could have dinner with any artist, living or dead, who would it be?

MB: Locally, it [would] have been the late Santu Mofokeng, and internationally, it would have been Ansel Adams.

‘Ukuzihlukanisa’
‘Ukuzihlukanisa’

What role does the artist have in society?

MB: I think the most crucial role we as artists play is that to be human is to live your life with purpose and to be able to make a difference in someone else's life. A responsible choice is a choice that takes into account the consequences of each of your choices. In order to make a responsible choice as a human, you must ask yourself, for each choice that you are considering, what will this produce? Do I really want to create that? Am I ready to accept all of the consequences of this choice?

What do you consider your greatest achievement?

MB: Being validated by [the] international art scene and traveling the world for free through my artistic medium. It’s still a constant reminder in what I do that the universe is approving and validating it. Also trying to maintain the same discipline in my creative realm.

What do you do to maintain your mental health?

MB: Constantly validating my self-introspection by distancing [myself] from art entirely, taking breaks from social media, reading books and keeping taps with my family and loved ones, and forever listening to good music. And that works for me, I must say.

Using the phrase ‘touched by an angel’ as inspiration, South African artist Mpumelelo Buthelezi appears as the central figure in his pandemic-era photo series, 'Ukuzihlukanisa.'
‘Ukuzihlukanisa’
‘Ukuzihlukanisa’

Mpumelelo Buthelezi: Website | Instagram | Facebook | LinkedIn

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. All photos published with permission of the artist(s).

Want to be featured on NOT REAL ART? Email editor@notrealart.com with a short introduction and a link to your online portfolio or three images of your work.

Morgan  Laurens 

Morgan Laurens (she/her/hers) is NOT REAL ART’s editor in chief. Morgan is an arts writer from the Midwest who enjoys saying “excuse me” when no actual pardon is needed. She specializes in grant writing and narrative-based storytelling for mission-driven artists and arts organizations. With a background in printmaking, pop culture, and classic literature, Morgan believes a girl’s best friend is the pile of books on her bedside table.

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