Johannesburg-based artist Lulama “Mambo” Wolf has been a rising star in the art market. Her striking, pared-down style that blends anthropomorphic elements with vernacular architecture, natural elements, and more. Her themes are often rooted in the links between science, spirituality, and history, from a contemporary South African perspective, interrogating a pre-colonial African experience.
You connect architecture in South Africa with your contemporary works. Can you explain that?
I’m into vernacular art and texture, which is not necessarily a South African thing. It’s just a vernacular thing from Southern Africa and Africa, the continent. It is a technique that is used by women mostly to decorate and mold their homes with mud, sand, and every natural material that is in their way. I use it on my own paintings to kind of mix the pigments that I have and create different ways of reinterpreting, in a contemporary perspective, how to use those materials.
Your figures tend to be very ambiguous. Some women you paint, you can’t clearly see what they are; they are deconstructed. Can you share the inspiration behind that?
The inspiration behind the characters is a metaphysical perspective that I like going into from an ‘out of this universe’ feeling that I like tapping into once in a while. So, they are recognizable to the eye. But I deconstruct them to kind of make them familiar to someone totally different who might feel it is not a female form, maybe it’s something else. Maybe it is a man. So it can literally be a non binary thinking I can apply to it. But because I recognize the female form more often, because I am a woman, I tried creating with a notion that someone else might not recognize it and might not want to internalize it so much into it being about femininity.
How do you get inspired with the color schemes you use? I notice that you use greens and browns.
The color selection usually happens when I look at nature first and foremost. Anything that can be created outside from the material of nature, I try to use it. And I try to duplicate and replicate the colors that exist one earth and see how I can mix those pigments together. But because I use materials like cement and sand, you can see the colors change over time. Almost like a natural decay of some sort that can kind of morph into something different. So for example, my black will be very pungent in the beginning of the painting and then over time will start to get very charcoal or more grey. The strokes start to come out and it becomes a completely different thing all together. So I think I kind of like that. So I stick to it. It was experimental at first, but now I’ve stuck to that kind of transition of the pigments.
It’s definitely your style. Tell us about the work titled I’m tired of protesting, I need to rest.
It’s called, in Zulu, ‘A Ke na nntwa, Ke hook phomolo’ and in English ‘I have nothing to protest, I need rest.” It is literally an internal view of how in the last year, through Covid and lockdown, I have come across so many protests and fights and having to try to be an ally for so many movements that you have to kind of involve yourself in. And there came a point where I didn’t have anymore fight in me because I needed things to stop moving because I’ve put myself in a rabbit hole of sorts. So this was what came out of it; the notion of rest, the notion of calming down. The notion of putting yourself first before others so that you can give from a cup that is full enough. And I think that this is where I intensely was inspired by that.
What do the eyes mean or round shapes on top of the head?
So, in the beginning of my practice I usually wanted to create a meaningful intuition. I think that the eyes play a very big role in how they can lead you to becoming more intuitive with yourself. It evolved over time as well, where you move from it being about intuition and then it started to become something completely different throughout the paintings and when paintings started evolving by themselves. So for now, you can literally remove intuition from this painting and it literally be about somberness and just trying to find yourself within yourself. That’s why I include it and every other painting will probably have it. But it will be a completely different thing over time.
Do you have any artists who inspire you?
I would say a lot of South African contemporary artists that are coming out of South Africa right now who are my peers that I really kind of look up to and are quite forthright in their practices. I really like them and I like how they put themselves into it. I like how they remove themselves from just being from the country and politicizing everything. I think that is creating a really big pool of artists coming out and emerging from here. I’d say most of them are right up there.
Our exhibition was about environmentalism and sustainability. In Johannesburg, where you’re based, what is that mentality like when it comes to environmentalism? What is it like for you? What does it mean to you?
In South Africa, environmentalism and sustainability is a privilege, right? It is a privilege because having to obtain that kind of lifestyle means that you have to give up certain things and you have to put and replace lifestyle habits in order to live a balanced life. But because we are a third-world country, things aren’t necessarily as balanced as they seem. We need to start implementing more suitable candidates to put it together. So from my perspective, I’d say that the principles of sustainability are rooted in Africa, right? And I’d say that a lot of the practices we need to involve and evolve need to go back to pre-colonial sustainable practices and basics.
So with that said, it starts with literally consuming less. It starts with consuming more local products. It starts with supporting more creative industries that are along the South African coast. It’s not necessarily about changing the globe because it’s too big of a goal for us to try and reach. We need to start quite small and try to build communities that can virtually aid one another from different places. And I think, from that perspective, that’s where we’re sitting. We’re definitely going into the mindset of what it could mean to be sustainable and live in a more environmental friendly life. It just isn’t as much of a privilege as we would like it to be.
That’s interesting and fascinating because environmentalism means so many different things to different sides of the world. Like we are privileged here, in the city. We have so much stuff like constant cars and fumes. There’s so much we can do to be a little more simpler. I think the key word here is ‘simplifying’ your life.
Right, instead of doing a clean sweep because that might not do anything to the environment. That might just change how the whole world has been trying to survive for so long. So I think if you’re trying to do a complete sweep, it’s like wait…we don’t even have money to literally breathe. How are we trying to be sustainable in this? So I think it’s very different for different people. But I think it’s worth a shot for everyone to try to meet each other at the basic level first and then start working from there.