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Exclusive Q&A with Visual Activist, Athenkosi Kwinana

Athenkosi Kwinana is a visual activist who uses art to break the stigma around Albinism. Her impactful approach continues to elevate the conversation and shift perspectives.

“As an individual with Albinism, vision impairment is a key feature. Due to this I struggled watching television with the rest of my family and domestic staff members. This hurt me greatly as the act of watching television was a household ritual especially after a long day’s work,” Athenkosi shares.

An unexpected incident changed her life’s trajectory. “One day, after much commotion because I was standing too close to the television and my sister couldn’t see, my mother handed me a piece of white printer paper and a pen, and she advised me to draw. And so, I did!” Athenkosi says that she started drawing the characters she watched every day on television. “I drew Pokémon characters, especially Ash and Pikachu, Bratz dolls and occasional portraits of my mother.”

Image: supplied by Berman Contemporary

Glamour: Please tell us more about your journey to becoming an impactful and celebrated artist.

Athenkosi Kinwana: When I started attending school, I was bullied greatly based on the fact that I have Albinism. Even though I had friends, they would go home early when each school day ended, and I would be left in aftercare for about two to three hours waiting for my mother to fetch me after work. That was when I felt discrimination the most, as a result I was isolated. No one wanted to play with me or even touch me. So, I turned to drawing as a method of coping. The school centre provided paper and crayons for children and I used that to my advantage. Years later in high school I started learning more about art and what techniques were available. I later matriculated high school and enrolled into university and studied fine art. Eight years later I have a master’s degree in fine art, and I practice art daily.

Glamour: How would you describe your style?

AK: I would say my artistic style is realism, with a hint of surrealism. I believe when talking about sensitive topics it's best to approach them with an element of easiness. By doing this I'm able to keep my audience eager and interested with my dialogues and messages. I adore colour, especially if mixed to complement each other. As a result the use of it contributes to my intention of capturing my audience's attention.

Image: Supplied by Berman Contemporary

Glamour: What’s your opinion on the role of art in modern society?

AK: It seems extraordinarily obvious and ridiculously outstanding the influence art has in modern society. It's very evident – societies need art to advance and to blossom economically, socially, and culturally. Art inspires our everyday perspective; it helps us to induce values and alter experiences over time and spaces. Art plays a magnitude of roles in today’s society such as its ability to rehabilitate marginalised structures, give identity to places that may not have one. Art acts as a form of documentation and is also as a form of therapy. What I appreciate about art the most, is its ability to be used as a catalyst for change, especially if we consider the ills of contemporary society.

Glamour: Please expand on your approach to social impact?

AK: My approach to social impact is done through two methods; positive impact and direct impact. By creating artworks that are showcased in public spaces and online has allowed for discourses on Albinism that I believe most people fear or are too shy to ask or address. Through my artworks I am able to create awareness about Albinism and educate people on Albinism related questions. I have also written and published academic texts that examine the representation of Persons Living with Albinism (PLWA) in South African contemporary visual culture.

Image: Supplied by Berman Contemporary

Glamour: What are your thoughts on activism through art?

AK: The representation of people, groups and communities influence how individuals are treated and perceived. As a result, I have always believed that images play an important role in our everyday lives. For a very long time, PLWA have always been portrayed as weird, supernatural beings, and a fetish for the onlooker. This is problematic when we consider the first line of my statement. Through the creation of my artworks, I aim to challenge the present irrational representation of PLWA. In so doing, I aim to further challenge the false myths and traditional, cultural beliefs associated with the albinotic body. Conjointly through the showcasing of my artworks in public spaces and online, I have been able to create inclusive spaces for PLWA and individuals living with disabilities.

Glamour: What are some of the conversations that have emanated from your work?

AK: They always come in two themes: on technique and on questions related to Albinism. If I can summarise them from the top of my head in regard to technique, is it always about the brand of colour pencils and type of paper I use, and what type of plate I use for my drypoints. About Albinism, the conversation always spins around if the condition only affects black bodies, how do I create my work even though my vision is poor and how I do deal with the negativity ascribed to my albinotic body – whether is it the weird comments and/or people’s body language when they are around me.

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