Lebogang Motsagi’s work is akin to that sought after mineral his hometown Kimberley is famous for. In that it’s aesthetically impeccable but dug out of some of the darkest holes in his personal life.
The 22 year-old photographer and storyteller is inspired by a wide range of things which have a common thread.
“My past basically. I’m inspired by my emotions, loss, death, loneliness, old people and old things,” says Motsagi.
It’s one of those unwritten laws that the world’s best creatives must through agonising personal experiences that force them to delve deep into that pain which produces works that etch themselves in your memory for a lifetime.
Motsagi is no different after having lost nearly all his family at a young age. “My uncle was shot, my father murdered (as I was told by my parents-I never met my father), my mother passed away when I was in grade six, the following year my granny passed away, my aunt took her own life when I was in high school, my grandfather passed away while I was in my matric year and my uncle is sick at the moment and he’s the only one I have left back home,” says the now Cape Town based artist.
“We do get verbal and moral support but nobody really wants to work or buy your work…”- Lebo Motsagi
It’s because of those experiences that one is taken aback by Motsagi’s age when talking to him. He has a calm and sensibility that isn’t found in youth his age.
“I realised at a young age that I just couldn’t chill with my peers. I grew up in a spiritual family, spent a lot of time at church building a strong relationship with God and I chilled a lot with married men and priests. That’s where I gained a lot of my wisdom and got to discover this old version of myself because my friends refer to me as an old soul.”
Motsagi’s strong connection to things retro is palpable in his work. His photos would blend in without being ordinary in any edition of Vogue or Harper’s Bazaar of the 1960s-80s because of how he faultlessly celebrates fashion through artistic and idealistic photography. “It is personal photography…it’s like the moment I grab my camera and look through that lens, it’s like I’m painting a picture with my emotions and with my thoughts. I see it [the camera] as a third eye. It’s more to do with how it makes someone feel rather than how the image looks” says Mostagi describing his style of photography.
Mostagi was in London late last year for his first exhibition, Thoughts in a Suitcase: The Life of a Wandering Man at the Brick Lane Gallery after it was turned down in Cape Town. The images prompt a feeling of loneliness and sadness as the muse is a seemingly young man with his vintage brown suitcase and a teddy bear. The red and white barricade tape which covers the muse’s skin in the images emphasise despondent state that the man might have entangled himself in.
Because of the upbringing Motsagi had, his friends’ parents treated him like their own but this was limited to weekends, hence his suitcase in every image. It was always just him, his thoughts and his suitcase on the go, searching for affection and acceptance from one family to the next; chasing pavements with only one item on his wish list; getting adopted.
It’s become too commonplace for some of South Africa’s most endowed creatives not to receive the same appreciation and gusto for their work at home as they do overseas, as with the case with Motsagi’s work being rejected in Cape Town but accepted in London.
“Abroad, these countries take these things seriously. In South Africa we do take it seriously as creatives but our organizations and government don’t give us the attention and necessary support we need. We do get verbal and moral support but nobody really wants to work or buy your work.”
“I’ve come to understand and notice that you can’t be famous in your own country or where you’ve been or where you were born. Because you grew up around these people and they feel like they know you and understand you completely. African people don’t appreciate African art or African stories because they feel like they’ve seen too much of it; it’s cliché,” he says with tone of disappointness in his voice.
The Thoughts in a Suitcase was warmly received in icy London and Mostagi has been invited to come display his works again this year. “I went there to exhibit and I did some networking and build partnerships. Now I’m going back to have another exhibition that’s expected to happen in May at the South Africa House (High Commission of South Africa), but it’s yet to be confirmed. They invited me there after my work gained momentum through media in London.” Mostagi is also expected to show his work in New York at the Soho Photo Gallery later this year.
The photographer applied to study Fashion Photography ay the London Collage of Fashion and was accepted last month.
“I’ll leave the country around September and will be staying that side and working from there while schooling. I just need funding right now.”