In the centre of Mfuleni extension 4, close to a bar called Upstairs Lounge, lives Xolani and Ayakha Sivunda. At their house, a flat piece of wood creates the surface for his “studio”. It is cluttered with paintbrushes of different sizes, acrylic paint, and a bottle of glue.
An unfinished painting hangs on a makeshift easel made out of wood and nails. It is a portrait of a woman, looking up in anticipation. Everything has been painted, except the eyes, mouth and ears.
“I spend most of the time on the eyes. I want people to be able to connect with the picture,” says Xolani. He adds that he likes to do portraits of African women.
Xolani’s main focus in his art is expressions. “If I don’t feel okay, my portrait will show that this artist was not okay today.”
He is a full-time painter. It all started back in Mthatha, Eastern Cape, when he was about eight years old. “My mom used to make fires outside. So I picked up the charcoal afterwards and just started to draw with them.” Now 32, Xolani explains that he would also draw on the old skins of the sheep his father slaughtered.
Currently he is exhibiting in Art.b gallery in Bellville. “In July we are going to have a group exhibition again. I am going to paint six works for that exhibit.”
The main challenges of being a painter is the price of the materials. “It is very expensive. Especially the oil paint.” As a member of Art.b gallery, Xolani enjoys some discount when he buys the materials in Cape Town.
The painting on his easel is almost ready to be submitted for a competition in Hermanus.
He is very active on social media, calling himself a hustler.
“Every time I go to social media I look at ways to sell my art.” This is the way Xolani came across Salesian Life Choices, where some of his drawings will feature in a book that they are compiling.
“I used to sell my art at Greenmarket Square, but I stopped because I want to develop my skills even more,” Xolani explains. He boasts that his paintings were quite popular on most days, selling at prices ranging between R3 000 and R7 000, depending on the size.
He is eager to showcase more of his artworks. His wife, who has been silently recording our entire meeting on her phone, is eager to help. His friends, Pumlani Magawu and Sango Dambha, wait with great anticipation.
With the help of his wife, he quickly fetches a portrait done in charcoal. “I love charcoal, but I can’t do it too often anymore. My nose starts to bleed if I draw with it for too long.”
At 12 years old, they moved to Khayelitsha, because his father had worked there before. He was a traditional healer. Xolani drew elephants and crocodiles, and his father would hang them up where he worked, to illustrate that he was a traditional healer. “I am part of the Tolo clan. In my culture we use crocodiles and elephants.”
“My father taught me to never forget my roots, where I come from. Never change my clan name. I am Tolo and I won’t change,” Xolani says very proudly.
His father also taught him how to play the keyboard. He played in church, but he rarely plays anymore since he doesn’t have a keyboard.
Most of his family live in Khayelitsha, and he occasionally visits them. He points to his friends, saying that socialising with them makes him happy. “And this is my wife. Did I already tell you this?”
They have been married since 2011 and they have two children, six and ten years old respectively.
Sango has an Orlando Pirates shirt on, and I ask Xolani if he enjoys sport. He loves soccer, and supports the Kaizer Chiefs. “We fight a lot, but not physically,” Sango says between copious amounts of laughter.
When Xolani’s father died, he went to Johannesburg to work in the mines. “After working in the mines for a long time, I realised that I was missing something in my life. I felt so empty without art.”
During his time in Johannesburg, he did a short course in the fundamentals of graphic design at CityVarsity. “The course especially helped me with layers, because in graphic design you apply many layers.” He expands on this statement by using his current artwork as an example. “You will see in my art now that I’ve got many different layers and you can look at the detail that it brings.”
It was then that he realised that we would only feel content if he became a painter, and moved back to Cape Town, to Mfuleni.
Sango urges Xolani not to forget to tell me about the push-ups. They laugh.
“I am a big fan of push-ups. I do 40 every morning. I worked hard in the gold mines, so I have to keep my body active at all times.”
Xolani got in a lot of trouble when he was young, and he fought with his teachers a lot because of his drawings. “I would draw many cartoons in the front of my books. Some people didn’t understand that, but now that I am an artist, they do.” – Franco Havenga