"Pyrography is the art of using a hot material to create a drawing on leather or wood."
In this interview, BetterShared talks with multi-disciplinary artist Mel Madiba. Based in South Africa, Madiba specialises in pyrography, seeking to empower women through her art in which she explores beauty, balance, emotions, and the duality of the human experience.
"I think my life purpose is to just be there for women."
Pictured: Mel Madiba
What’s your background?
I’ve always had a creative background. In high school I did art and design, and after graduating high school I studied Interior design. From there, I also started my own lifestyle brand which centred around refurbishing furniture and making t-shirts, and then I got into skin and hair care. We handmade products out of Shea butter and essential oils. I also worked as a journalist and then I started again and went back to art. I found out about pyrography and decided to try it myself. I really fell in love with it, and I think part of the reason why I loved it so much was because of my interior design background. One of the styles that I really like in interior design IS working with wood, and I really enjoyed warm tones instead of concrete which was the preferred material at the time.
What do you specifically enjoy about pyrography?
For me, I really like it because I feel like I’m working with the elements, for example Earth and Fire as opposed to just painting or drawing with graphite. I find it’s a bit more grounded for me.
You talk about working with the elements, is there a spiritual aspect to the creative process for you?
For me it does feel like a spiritual connection because I think that’s where I feel that I am most myself because it’s easier to be more in tune. It does feel like I’m working with the divine masculine and divine feminine because a lot of the time, I like to believe that wood is more of the masculine energy in my work. I obviously draw portraits of women, or if I’m not I’m creating abstract, very detailed patterns that are mostly curvaceous themselves. It does feel spiritual because when I’m doing pyrography as time goes by I feel good. It’s easier for me to be in a focussed meditative space in that work.
"I think it’s necessary for black women to tell their own stories."
The chosen subject of many of your pieces is black women. Why have chosen to focus particularly on this demographic?
I think it would be a bit of no brainer for me because I am a black woman. A lot of the times we weren’t really represented in ways that were true or authentic to what specific black women wanted to be represented as, and so I felt that it was necessary for me to do that. I started a series called ‘Emotions’ where I did portraits of other women in various expressions of themselves. After that, I did my first solo exhibition and that was the ‘Thirteenth Letter, a Manifestation of Self’ and those were all self-portraits. I had never really done self-portraits before, so I felt like it was an evolution of seeing myself in other women and having other women see themselves in me. It was a process of working through myself and celebrating myself in that way.
What impact does your art have on your audience?
From the responses that I have received it’s quite empowering. When people see my work in real life as opposed to seeing pictures, they really see the detail that’s in there. I think it impacts as it celebrates women and the celebration of self as a black women. Others who aren’t black women like my work as well, and they appreciate the technique and thought and the topics that arise.
So, what themes would you say are most prominent in your work?
Essentially it has everything to do with women discovering themselves. I do have background in astrology and numerology, so a lot of the time those themes are present in my work. However, they are not necessarily obvious. For instance, in my exhibition ‘A Manifestation of Self’, the plan was to have thirteen works and thirteen is often representative of the divine feminine because there are thirteen Luna cycles in a year and most women menstruate thirteen times in the year. It can also be a negative number in other places as well, and that reflects how black women can be perceived. You know we are usually seen as queens, but a lot of time we are painted as ‘the angry black women’ and can sometimes be at the bottom of the pyramid. Those are some of themes that are there, but I don’t always want to put them out there.
For the most part, it’s self-discovery especially as a black woman and self-evolution that will always be what’s prevalent in my work.
What is the ‘hardest’ part of your creative process, and why?
I think at this stage the hardest part of my creative process is actualising some of the creative ideas that I have. Having access to resources or to people that could assist and finding the right way to package it so that I can make sure that it happens, that is it for me. I think where I am right now, I wouldn’t say that my creative process has become more structed, but I always feel my ideas, or I see visions of what I want to do and then I try it.
Have you had any real-life experiences that have influenced your work or how you navigate your artistic path?
I am very personal about my work, so there are a lot of real-life influences in every piece. This exhibition that I have planned it’s very intense. In south Africa where I am, it’s one of the countries with the highest rate of rape, gender-based violence and abuse against women queer individuals, and sex workers, so it will be more a form of activism for me. Although at the core, there’s always some personal story behind all my pieces.
You site artists Zanele Muholi and Lina Iris Viktor as sources of inspiration, what is it about their work that you find so moving?
With Zanele, it’s the way they have photographed South African history especially in the queer community and how they have taken a stand, and also how they have used themselves as a canvas in terms of self-portraits. It’s very powerful, and I think with Zanele Muholi in particular, even though they have a definitive style I think recently they have been experimenting which is important for all artists to do. I think with Lina Iris Viktor there is a quiet grace about her that I really appreciate. Her work is very detailed, and it kind of merges between a sculpture, a painting, and a drawing. She uses herself as her subject a lot of the time if it’s not abstract. It’s really inspiring to me because whether these two artists use themselves or other people, you can still see that it’s their work. Not a lot of artists have the ability to diverge, but still be authentic or have their essence still present in their work.
Where do you hope to be professionally in the future?
I would really love to have more international exhibitions, being a voice that younger and older black women can look to and be inspired by. I would also like to create more conversations with other female artists. I’m starting that on my YouTube channel.
I just want to be free; I think my life goal is freedom in every sense of the word. Financially free, spiritually free, emotionally free. I want to feel everything that I need to feel, and just move on and continue to grow.