Anelisa Mangcu is a curator and interdisciplinary art practitioner with a resume that sets her apart as a future curatorial heavyweight. In an industry still disproportionately white and male-dominated, the 29-year-old is harnessing her seat at the table to "challenge established paradigms" and cultivate safe spaces to explore and celebrate intersectional African identities. In this conversation with fellow creative Zipho Ntloko, Anelisa talks of her generational ties the arts, her fondness for Pan-African contemporary art and Black portraiture and the legacy she hopes to leave behind.
IN HER BEGINNINGS
My parents supported me as much as they could. My mother was most supportive as my great-grandfather was artist. He painted scenes from his life in the townships and made commentary on apartheid and the state of Black people. My family are proud to have witnessed his exhibitions and that he received an honorary master's, so [my fixation with the arts] wasn't something of which they weren't aware. My grandfather didn't die wealthy because at the time his art was worth very little. He didn't live to see the value of his works and what they'd mean in a South African and global context.
So, there was this fear instilled in me [when I began] because my parents had never seen someone in the arts make money and take care of themselves through being an art practitioner. We didn't even know what a curator was, let alone women who worked in that profession. The Black community neither spoke about it nor recognised it as a viable career.
ON HER FASHION FOOTPRINT AND CURATORIAL DEBUT
When I was 19, I created a platform, called 131 Days, on Blogspot. I put together an exhibition called 'The Moments Amidst The Chaos', comprising photographs I'd taken of the city and the moments that best described how I perceived it, my role in it, my place, and how I occupied the space. I'd describe my curatorial process on 131 Days - I didn't know I was doing that at the time; I thought I was only sharing information with people. Reflecting on this not too long ago, I realised I enjoyed curating more than being an artist because it allows me to communicate ideas and see a production from beginning to end.
The fashion world contributed more to my life than it might seem. It made me a tastemaker, and allowed me to be brave, take risks, and build self-confidence. It also taught me how to talk to and read people. But the art aspect of my life wasn't a quick flip or transition; it was always there.
HER CAREER HIGHLIGHTS
My showcase 'Everything Was Beautiful And Nothing Hurt', co-curated with Jana Terblanche. That show wouldn't have happened without the challenging parts, doing multiple shows back-to-back, feeling drained.
[But then there were gains such as] auction houses I respect asking me to talk about topics that interest me. I entered rooms I'd fantasised about in high school and realised, oh, shit, I have a seat at the table! I've always been fierce about creating that for myself in a way that doesn't always fit the oddball paradigm. I always try to inject integrity into my work, not that the art industry is lacking but to add value to its existing system and leave behind something of substance that positively touches people's lives. And if four or five years from now, an artist is showing all over the world, I won't think it was because of me, but I'd like to think I'll have added value without detracting from the individual.
ON HER COMPANY UNDER THE AEGIS
Under The Aegis (@_______undertheaegis) is an art advisory service that produces exhibitions and facilitates the relationships between artists, collectors, and institutional and private collections from the continent and the diaspora. I'd liken my job to a cultural worker; I encourage artists to reach their full potential with their current work and [shift] how they see themselves and their limitations. Being part of artists' first solo shows and the team that puts those together, and then seeing how they've developed is rewarding. And then being followed on social media or emailed by industry heavyweights and having them engage with me as equals have also been heartwarming and affirming.
There's so much more I'd like to do but what I do know is that the 17-year-old in me, who still exists, is pretty chuffed with what I've achieved so far.
HER LOVE FOR PAN AFRICAN CONTEMPORARY ART AND BLACK PORTRAITURE
Growing up, many things were presented to us as the ideal, and in my work, I try to challenge established paradigms and hold space for a polyphony of ideas and positions. So my position is that I'm Black, my pronouns are she/her, I'm a woman, and I'm from the Eastern Cape. Although we dominate most of the country, we have been seen as marginalised people because that’s been done to us, but [it's] not something we are. We come from kings and queens, royalty and systems of dignity and integrity, and I never got to see that in paintings. Throughout high school, the works we learned about centered around white figures. We'd go to art museums and see abstract art and sculptures, and then there'd be a very small section of works by the modernists, such as (Gerard) Sekoto, (Irma) Stern, and (Vladimir) Tretchikoff, where Black figures were now at the centre of a discussion. But sometimes, it felt like it was from a white perspective, and the subjects never felt particularly strong or empowered. There was a fragility to them, and I felt like it was a monolithic way of being Black and being depicted. So it's exciting for me to be alive in the contemporary and be able to see artworks of Black people in leisure and just being.
HER THINKING BEHIND BODYLAND: ‘A SITE FOR CONTEMPLATION'
The exhibition explores conversations around the Eastern Cape and how important it is for us to assign ourselves to a particular geographic marker.
Ndigu Anelisa Mangcu, ndikhule eNew Brighton - I am Anelisa Mangcu, and I understand myself to be a person from New Brighton. I only spent eight years there with my grandparents, but I'm heavily tied to it. It's home, and it conjures a certain feeling within. But I also have deep ties to Cape Town and identify a certain part of my life and personality with Cape Town, and I almost feel like I owe Cape Town because I wouldn't be who I am if I'd stayed in Port Elizabeth. So `BODYLAND: A Site For Contemplation' taps into that association between body and land and contemplating how you see and want to engage with the world territorially and how that informs how you move in the world. So, I'm always doing shows that allow me to learn something about myself at the time. I believe that, if you're lucky, your nine-to-five or 12 to 12 can become your therapy.
HER HOPES FOR TIE PAN-AFRICAN ART SPACE
To know that we are enough and we can be self-sufficient. We can make a success of ourselves - we just have to create those systems for ourselves. As Black people, we have the compass in us already. Our bodies naturally guide us in the right direction, and, particularly in my industry, artists and curators are immensely talented. And, yes, it's easier to play the game than to create new systems, but we wouldn't have innovations like social media, televisions and computers if it weren't for a few rebellious individuals who wondered what's possible.
THE LEGACY SHE HOPES TO LEAVE BEHIND
Virgil Abloh was one of my most influential mentors. Although we met for like, five minutes, through his movements, I started learning about the integrity of art and of a product. And he took on so many people and changed so many lives, and, through doing that, could spread his message that your biggest, boldest, and somewhat unimaginable dream can happen. And that’s what I want to leave behind, - to make sure what I do will somehow impact many people’s lives. Because if we’re not living to improve not only your life but the lives of others, then we’ve lost the core and beautiful thing about being human.
This article originally appeared in our June 2022 Disruptors Issue, now available in-stores. Grab your digital copy, here.
Words by Zipho Ntloko