Mercy Thokozane Minah is a gender-expansive, queer visual artist from South Africa. Vibrantly depicting the intimate experiences of Black queer and trans people, Mercy explores the beauty of the mundane lives of those deemed other. Their work is guided by the connections between people and the quest for self-love.
As a way of a quick introduction, could you start by saying a little about yourself and your art process?
My name is Mercy Thokozane Minah. I am a gender-expansive, multidisciplinary artist. Throughout my life, I’ve created art across visual, audio, and literary mediums. My current focus is visual art which celebrates the intimacies of Black trans and queer people who look, live and love like me.
I believe that you have previously been a performing arts student and have written short stories. Having played with a variety of literary, theatrical, and visual art mediums, do you use these experiences in your current art practice?
This is true and it’s so cool that you’re aware of this. I initially started theatre and performance because I wanted to act, but during the course of getting my qualification I fell in love with directing and writing, basically how you think about, compose, and tell a story. There is definitely a through-line between what I studied in theatre school and how I create my visual art. I am always thinking about exciting ways to engage composition, colour, shapes and I am also always creating visual imagery that captures an active moment in a story, an action, if you will. My figures are often in motion, which is a principle I’m fascinated by within the realm of theatre; that actors should always be doing something on stage. There are also always fully fledged stories behind the paintings I create, there are lives that my figures are living and I task myself with conveying a moment in those lives, that is informed by everything they have been through prior to and everything they may do afterward.
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How do you think growing up and living in South Africa has shaped you and your art?
Growing up in a country that is as diverse in culture and collective identity as South Africa has made me an artist who is deeply curious about the lives of others. The intricacies of their lives, the things that make them just like me and the things that make them different from me. It has also made me curious about who I am as an individual, about the specific set of experiences and memories that inform who I am and the intricacies of my mind and heart. This curiosity and exposure to so many different – but similar – types of people is the foundation of how I approach my art. I try to create work that conveys the mundane as it is lived out by those deemed other, deviant, different. Almost as if to say, there are through-lines that connect us all. How we love, and connect, and share softness is the same everywhere, even if who we are is not entirely conventional.
There is another aspect of being South African and gender-expansive (my favoured term to describe my transgender identity) that informs my work, that is more sinister than the first. South Africa has one of the most accommodating constitutions for people who are queer and/or trans, and yet there also exists unending persecution and brutality meted out against us. My work models the possibility of us existing in a society in which it is not only safe for us to be Black, trans and queer, but also beautiful and reverent.
You use digital mediums, artificial intelligence and Microsoft Paint 3D, to create your artwork, why did you choose this medium? Do you think you will ever move to the more traditional canvas and paint?
I have always made art with whatever tools I had access to. But I have also realised how important it is to me for what I create to accurately reflect the vision I have in my head. The digital tools I have access to right now are the best way to execute my current vision. I have been thinking about how to return to traditional modes of creation, but I haven’t yet found physical materials that would convey my vision with the accuracy, accessibility and clarity that digital tools afford me. Finding those materials is definitely a process I am excited to explore.
You have created some amazing digital series, including some of my favourites Black Sofa and Press Play. Would you mind telling us more about a couple of your favourites?
I love that you enjoy those series specifically! I love creating work around a theme or concept and seeing what unfurls from that. I think my favourite work is always my latest work? The process of creating the work I create is often such an immersive experience that I can’t really think or focus on anything outside of what I’m making at a given time so each new work holds my most concentrated passion. There’s a landscape piece I created recently titled Close To You a title taken from a refrain and song by the same name by Rihanna. It’s one of my only landscape paintings and combines a lot of elements I’ve had a lot of fun developing in the last year or so of my practice; gradient skies with big bright suns, colour palettes that include gentle pastels and stark neons, more expansive details in the bodies and body art (tattoos particularly) of my figures. That painting also speaks to a growing curiosity I have about the portrayal of fat Black trans and queer people, unclothed. I think there is a notion of bodies of fat Black people as being somehow vulgar or only worthy of being depicted for comedic or degrading purposes, and I am interested in offsetting that with my personal reverence for Black people who are fat. Our bodies are beautiful, delicate, lovable, and worthy of being conveyed in a way that honours and celebrates that.
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Killa and Stage Fright are some of the fun and inventive titles of your digital paintings, and your descriptions add a new intimacy to your work. Could you tell us a bit more about your process of choosing the titles and writing the descriptions?
The most organic part of my practice is how I choose titles for my pieces. I usually start the work with an idea or refrain or phrase in mind and that winds up being the name of the work. The descriptions require a bit more brain work for me. It’s a careful negotiation of figuring out how to relay the story in my mind about the figures I’ve created and also share why I created the work. Sometimes, I keep the descriptions very concise and direct, because that is as much of the story as I am allowed to share, and other times I lean into my literary background and give the visual work accompanying text that is hopefully just as vibrant and exciting.
Your digital art series Press Play highlights the everyday intimacy of sport and its cultural connections and you often focus on soft and tender relationships. How did you come to focus on this topic of intimacy?
I think I have always been a really sensitive person who longs and loves to be deeply connected to others. Creatively, that manifests as a reverence for intimacy. I am fascinated by how we forge closeness with one another, how we discover it, how we sustain it, and how it impacts and changes us. I don’t think there are many areas of life that aren’t informed by some kind of intimacy, so my curiosity about it is vast and deep.
In the description of Tiny Little Steps I Take To You/Doesn’t Matter If I fall you write that your work focuses “always Black, queer-trans figures at the centre.” Can you tell us more about the process and significance of focusing on Black, queer and trans people for you?
I used to think I wanted to create art from a birds eye view of the world, not really centring on any kind of person and telling as many stories as possible about as wide an array of people as possible. And while I don’t think there is anything wrong with having felt that way, getting older has shifted what matters most to me. I create the work I need to experience. As a Black, trans-queer person I often need to feel that my existence can be encapsulated by softness, by safety, by freedom. I need to consolidate my memories of intimacy, to show reverence to myself and those I hold most dear to me. It has been cathartic and fortifying to make myself, and people like me the centre of my work. It has also expanded what I believed was possible for my creativity. Because I am creating from a place of love, I am able to engage my crafts more courageously, more openly, with a deepening vulnerability. These are some of the best states for me to make.
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Since starting this art practice over lockdown, how has your art come, if at all, to represent yourself and your current thoughts?
Lockdown shifted many things for me. For us all, right? I don’t think I had contended with the depth of my loneliness and isolation in the world, at least not to the extent I did during lockdown. It was a solitude that forced me to confront who I was and what I truly cared about and to explore and express that fearlessly. I think my work conveys the importance I place on connection and community, but also the significance I’ve discovered in truly knowing and understanding yourself and existing as that self, unencumbered. The figures in my art modify their bodies, dress, and move in ways that reflect that they navigate their lives with a deep knowing of self and an even deeper love of that self.
Lastly, where would you like to take your artistic journey in the future?
I want my work to exist everywhere and in every possible way, to be honest. I am currently in the process of exploring being an artist whose work is displayed in physical galleries, after mostly being in digital marketplaces. Right now, that process involves extensive conversations and experiments with really talented printers and print-making artists. In the future, I hope to be able to curate installations that combine all, or some of the other mediums I work in. Theatrical productions that involve live or digital painting for example, visual art exhibitions that combine imagery and text and maybe even music, when I find my voice again. It’s impossible for me to limit the vision I have for where my work can go and what my journey as an artist can look like. There is still so much for me to learn about what I can do and how it can be shared. I’m really just excited to continue being a maker to be honest.
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