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Photo by Ahalia Persaud.
By Haley Costen
"In South Africa 20 is very young still," Tumelo Mokopakgosi says in one of the many vibrant galleries at Funda Community College in the historically black township of Soweto, outside Johannesburg. "You're very young until you're about 35. Then you just want to die or something," he jokes.
Mokopakgosi is 34, but he says he has no intention of dying anytime soon. He came to Funda as a student in 2001 and has stayed on as a tutor, creating a variety of his own pieces at the school.
Charles Nkosi, director of the Funda Fine Arts School, calls Mokopakgosi a role model.
"What you see here is a testimony of those who are committed to learning," he says, waving his arm at the colorful paintings and sculptures surrounding him in a gallery of work by current and former students. "What you see here is food for the eye."
Students use a variety of found and reusable materials to create a message through their art: colored sand, broken glass, animal bones, car tires, and even cow dung. Much of the art created at Funda cannot be restricted to a square frame or created with simple acrylic paints.
Mokopakgosi is no stranger to this approach.
For his series of pieces tackling xenophobia, Mokopakgosi used thick wire and cloth found in the junkyard to create massive animals that are scattered throughout the galleries.
In one gallery sits a creature with the front body and head of a sheep, but the stinger of a scorpion. Meanwhile, in a classroom, large wire and cloth roaches litter the floor and a massive spider with a mask attached to its body looms in the corner.
Mokopakgosi says he was inspired by the definition of xenophobia as a fear of strangers.
"Anyone can be a stranger," he says, "even your neighbor."
Rather than using fearsome creatures like lions or sharks to capture this fear, he instead dug deeper into the human psyche, using "creepy crawlies."
"When the government deports 300 people, 1,000 come back," he says. "I think the deportation process is like turning off your kitchen light and seeing hundreds of roaches."
Mokopakgosi says that xenophobia is common in Soweto and that foreigners from other African countries like Mozambique are mistreated every day.
"As an artist you want to say something about it," he says.
Mokopakgosi's other pieces are equally striking.
His office acts as a small museum for his work. While filled with scattered papers, a framed photo of his grandfather, shelves of books and discarded bottles and jars, it is also a menagerie of scattered oddities and artwork.
Small vases, hanging ornaments, animal heads, and a human skeleton made from strings and a glue gun are arranged around the room. The pieces are entirely hollow but are expensive to display because only expensive soft strings hold well, he says.
The leftover wall space is taken up by intricate ink drawings that feature components of the alphabet, and three dimensional designs. One piece, inspired by a small drawing in his sketch book, took six months to complete.
Perhaps Mokopakgosi's most beautiful work is the product of a method he created and taught himself: solar wood burning.
His bookshelf is filled with lenses from microscopes and projectors that he uses to burn designs into wood and watercolor paper. Mokopakgosi calls himself a scientist in the way he combines discarded tools from labs to create his own magnifying glasses and contraptions, and a Buddhist monk in the way he works without burning himself while using powerful tools under the unforgiving South African sun.
For some pieces he uses CD's and burns designs featuring the alphabet, but one of his bigger projects has been creating images of women with no determinable race.
"What race is she?" he asks, gesturing to one of his creations. The woman staring back through wide pensive eyes has full lips, a thin nose, and flowing hair. "You can't tell."
As Funda celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, he says he will continue to teach and produce thought-provoking pieces on race and xenophobia, breaking barriers with new methods and creative approaches to his art.
"Funda for me is home," he says. "I don't see it as work. I'm so emotionally attached to this place--maybe that's why I produce the work I do."