"I inherited my bold approach from my ancestors, which is explored through the lens of a queer Xitsonga man living in a modern world."
IN OCTOBER, SOUTHERN Guild opened Rich Mnisi’s first solo exhibition of collectible furniture, titled ‘Nyoka’. Made in collaboration with several artisan groups including Monkeybiz, Coral & Hive and Bronze Age Studio, the collection – which includes plump seating, a console, chandelier, rug and other objects – is a bold exploration of shape and fluidity, brought to life through vivid contrasts of forms and materials, including bronze, wool, resin and glass.
‘Nyoka’ means snake in Xitsonga, and the show draws on the celebrated South African fashion designer’s family history, as well as African mythology, exploring the duality of fear and beauty which the snake embodies. More broadly, ‘Nyoka’ wrestles with the idea of beauty distilled from darkness.
As Mnisi comments on the gallery’s website: “To live is to embrace this duality. To accept that joy and tragedy, light and darkness, dreams and nightmares are connected, orbiting and defining each other.” The Design Edit probed further:
The Design Edit (TDE): What was the original inspiration for this show?
Rich Mnisi (RM): My mother dreamt of a snake on her back. When she turned to look at it, she saw an intense green creature, frightening and fluid, dangerous and beautiful. My journey started here, and led me to Congo’s Bushongo mythology and to Bumba, the god of vomit. He vomited up the sun, Earth, moon and stars, and then the rest of the natural world from that acidic pain and discomfort.
This is a story I always knew of and found fascinating. It also struck a chord with me because it was an origin story by an African tribe, which challenged everything we know regarding the creation of a place we now all call home. I’ll also add that tradition and folklore are integral to who we are – they give us roots and help mould our sense of self.
So much of African mythology, culture and tradition has been erased by time, or taken away from us by colonisers. Now, having the opportunity to revisit those stories, give them context and have them realised as alternative truths, feels very empowering and significant.
TDE: The Nwa-Mulamula fashion collection and furniture pieces, in 2018, were a homage to the memory of your late great-grandmother, whose teachings have lived on in your family through storytelling. Which other sources of inspiration did you draw on, if any, for this specific collection? There are so many different textures, forms, colours and materials at play.
RM: All the colours and textures come from my relationship with the Xitsonga tribe. They are a people who aren’t shy to create and play with different colour and texture combinations that aren’t usually deemed as harmonious. I inherited this bold approach from my ancestors which is explored through the lens of a queer Xitsonga man living in a modern world.
TDE: I understand that your most recent fashion collection Ku Huhama was created in parallel – how does the cross-over between the disciplines work? Are they both different aspects of the same act of story-telling?
RM: Yes, they’re different mediums that explore the same story. This gives the wearer an opportunity to completely immerse themselves in our world and have my story suddenly feel like theirs. My broad design vision is underpinned by an aesthetic and philosophical fluidity, and this is something that is reflected in my approach to both fashion and furniture design.
The two always interact because ultimately, they’re approached in the same way: it’s about dressing the body and addressing the human form as well, and how it interacts either with the clothing or the furniture. Fluidity is also closely linked to inclusivity – a tenet I hold very close to my heart. I aim to create for everyone, beyond gender, race, and geographical lines.
‘Nyoka’ is at Southern Guild until 4th February 2022.