Fhatuwani Mukheli is a Soweto-born multi-disciplined creative who found his passion for art at seven. The spark for art started when he saw his father paint a portrait of him and his twin brother when they were children.
He is also a co-founder of ‘I SEE A DIFFERENT YOU’ – a production company that has existed for the past 10 years. The company has produced and collaborated with major brands, including but not limited to Diesel, Scottish Leader Whisky, Scotch & Soda, Superdry, Standard Bank, and SA Tourism.
Fhatuwani is an influential figure in the social media public space. He has been recognised/sponsored by major brands in the clothing and liquor industries. He is currently an ambassador for a French cognac brand, Courvoisier. Fhatuwani has exhibited both locally and globally, most notably at one of the oldest art fairs in the world, - The Venice Biennale, through the ITSLIQUIDE group in Italy. In addition, he has done a solo show in Cape Town with Kindred Gallery at the Pink Room in The Gorgeous George Hotel.
He is inspired by his childhood environment and experiences. His work is an ode to how he was raised by his mother; hence the relationship between parent and child is one of his main focus points.
Fhatuwani is also passionate about healing people through the medium of visual arts and believes that art is therapeutic not only for him but for those who also experience his art. His primary medium is acrylic paint, charcoal, fine liner and spray paint.
[C] When you reflect on your childhood, where do you think the seeds for creative expression are planted and nurtured? Can you recall experiences that shaped the creative you'd later become?
[F] Looking back, most of my time as a kid was spent finding creative solutions to problems. I come from humble beginnings in Soweto. I didn't have access to some of the things kids from the suburbs did, but that didn't stop me from having fun. I just worked with what I had. That expressed itself in many ways … backflip competitions with friends that lasted for hours, catching grasshoppers and then frying and eating them [laughs], those types of experiences. I'm grateful that I developed that [problem-solving] mentality at a young age because it has shaped my approach to solving creative problems. In many ways, I'm still that kid. And I create some of my best work when operating from that place because that kid is free of the pressures of life. That kid isn't in his head; he doesn't have self-doubt. He just creates.
[C] Yeah, I think so many creatives wait for all the stars to align to start creating. But there's a pattern that shows the most successful ones use what's at their disposal and develop their craft as resources become available.
[F] Definitely, you lose so much time worrying about what you don't have rather than using what you do. It sounds strange, but I didn't know we were poor. I had no references to measure us against. All I knew was the life I was living and that life was beautiful. I loved drawing as a kid, but my parents couldn't afford sketchbooks and fancy pencils. So I used blank spaces in newspapers to draw on. Later, whenever I made money from selling CDs, I'd buy typewriter paper and some good pencils. I never had an eraser, so any mistakes I made had to become part of the art. Today that lives with me. I think it's one of my biggest strengths. And that all comes from doing your best with what you have.
[C] When we're kids, our parents or guardians often judge our creativity through a narrow lens. As a result, they can't see how formative creativity can turn into a successful career. And it's at that time that I think those who develop a single-mindedness separate themselves from those who surrender to that judgment. What has your experience been in this regard?
[F] I agree entirely. It helped me, not just then, but now. I've learned that not everyone can see what you do. And that's ok. You can't rely on others to get you to that place. You have to do what you think is best and be prepared to live with the consequences should it not work out.
[C] People with extraordinary creative gifts can usually do more than one thing with that gift. This is your life. You're a multi-disciplinary artist who explores every dimension of your creative gift. How did that happen, and why?
[F] Many people who aren't gifted creatively can't make sense of it. If these people are authority figures in your childhood, they may even force you to focus on one thing. I don't blame them. People only know what they know. But the creative need to keep exploring. This has happened to me. People I respected told me I'd be a jack of all trades and a master of none. That turned out to be wrong, but I see some value in focusing on one discipline for a period. For example, when I started my career as a photographer, I invested all my time in honing that craft. And as my career developed to include other creative expressions, they all began to inform and feed each other. For example, I'm a better painter because of the eye photography gave me. And I'm a better photographer because of the skills I'm learning through painting. Ultimately exploring different dimensions of your creative gift makes all of those dimensions better. Never stop doing that.
[C] I'd imagine you've encountered creatives who you believed were much more gifted in your life, but you have surpassed them in what you've achieved. Why do you think that is?
[F] I think I approached my career pragmatically from a financial perspective. I had an edge because I used my corporate job as a safety net before I went solo. You can't create great work under the pressure of being unable to pay your rent, buy food, or take your girlfriend on a date. So I worked hard from 9 to 5, coming home and working on my creative passions at night. Eventually, those creative passions allowed me to leave my day job. I think where many creatives get it wrong is diving into their passion while having little to no financial stability. The effects of the pressure they deal with daily are reflected in their work. And ultimately, the quality of your work is what pays you.
[C] How did you know it was the right time to leave your corporate job?
[F] I was scared and nervous, compounding this because I enjoy the peace that comes with financial stability. But my partner Vhuyo and I calculated that we needed to save R300 000 to meet our expenses for six months. We set the goal of booking one job that would allow us to keep going for another six months. When that job came, it bought us time until we were back at the salaries we were earning in corporate. That all started with a leap of faith. We knew that if things didn't work out, we had the skills and experience to find work in the corporate sector again. You must have a plan that guides your decision-making at every phase of that journey.
[C] The notion that we have to have a solid work/life balance between living an entire life has come to the fore recently. Where do you stand on this?
[F] I think balance is essential to an extent, but not at the expense of your livelihood. I put my energy where my money comes from. If I need to dedicate myself to a project with a deadline, I'll do that at the expense of rest. My passions energise me, so I rarely feel physically or mentally drained from them. When I have a gap in my schedule, I use that to recharge so I can go again. The balance for me is more a balance of knowing what to prioritise at any given time in my career.
[C] You've had to transform your approach to your social life because you've said it was affecting your mental health. What was causing this, and what has your experience been now that you've drawn that line?
[F] I found myself going out all the time, aimlessly, with no particular reason to be out or celebrate. I'm not going to tell people how to live. Still, I just found myself becoming blunter and blunter creatively due to regular big nights out. So I decided to end that, and what I've gained is a beautiful reconnection with my inner child. I'm more present for the things and people who need me. I missed walking with my brother, Justice like we used to do as children. I've got more energy to give my loved ones. Equally importantly, I've seen my work's quality improve drastically, which is linked to the energy I bring to the creative process. It was the best decision I've ever made.
[C] How do you stay motivated?
[F] I like nice things [laughs]! But, Bro, I just woke up and worked as hard as I possibly could. I challenge myself to be better at my craft, network purposefully, invest my time in areas of my life that feed me, and look for new opportunities to do what I love. For example, last year, I bought a house I wouldn't have been able to afford two years ago. I went to the bank and asked them what I needed to earn to qualify for the loan on the house I bought. They told me the number, and I set the goal of getting there in two years. That's the pattern of my life. I also don't spend much time thinking about the future in abstract ways. For me, the future is now. I have control of making things that don't exist come to life. I also stay motivated by measuring myself against my benchmarks in the world. South Africa has some talented artists, but I have a global vision. I want to be considered one of the best artists in the world. Jeff Koons is my inspiration, and I genuinely believe I can create at that level. He has been doing this for 30 years. I've been at it for less than half that time. What's more is that he doesn't have my background, my rich cultural heritage, my struggles, and my successes against all odds. That informs my art in significant ways and gives me a unique perspective. That gives me an edge I will exploit to my advantage.
Photos by Andrew Mkize
Words by Ryan Vrede