There’s no such thing as waste without value, not for Noluthando Lobese. The visual artist and set and costume designer sees “waste” materials as toys and as invitations to play and create.
Noluthando, also known as “Texture”, is an acclaimed creative who has worked locally and abroad in theatre, television productions and for commercials. She’s also taken up a number of international residencies. Her most recent residency was at Shade Gallery for the Johannesburg gallery’s “Waste Not Want Not” initiative.
The project came about in the past few years as a way to creatively re-imagine from what is the discarded, what society throws out and what’s deemed no longer useful. These recovered items come to the Brixton gallery through a buy-back initiative started by the gallery owner and founder of the project Tamzyn Botha (aka Limb).
Tamzyn works with urban waste reclaimers – the bagerezi (meaning hustlers, a term reclaimers use to refer to themselves) in the western suburbs of Joburg to build a materials library. This collaboration creates extra income for the collectors. It also reframes value, informal economies and questions the real cost of modern day hyper consumption. It’s critical, too, to make seen the invisible workforce of people increasingly essential for a city struggling to manage its waste, but these are also workers with little protection or regulatory support. They survive by picking through refuse looking for items that can have a second life through recycling or reselling.
The Waste Not Want Not project connects to a broader community event conceived and spearheaded by the galley. The annual Brixton Festival of Lights street parade and party takes place in the first weeks of spring and sets out to light up the night, to bring people onto the streets and for a neighbourhood to connect and claim back their no-go spaces. It’s a necessary push-back for a suburb like Brixton to resist urban neglect. Noluthando’s creations from her month-long residency formed part of this year’s festival activities.
“The community coming together in a place like Brixton was another big reason why I wanted to be part of this residency. It was also exactly what I needed this year to come back to my art, to reset. I wanted to be able to create with my hands again and start making something from what is given, what is found, even when you don’t know what will come out in the end,” she says, chatting in her Killarney flat.
Noluthando recalls the first time walking into the materials library at Shade Gallery that was a one-time corner café. “I was like wow, look at all of this; I am a child at heart and when I looked around, I could see that I could experiment. You know you get the feeling again that you can do what you want, and you can also leave out what you don’t want.”
In the time of her residency Noluthando created costumes that included an oversized hat fashioned from a lampshade and a skirt embellished with discarded hair combs and netting that she festooned with lights. She also chose to wear her own creations and to be part of the parade.“That was something different for me, because working in productions I’m always behind the scenes but I was happy to also be seen in this other way,” she says.
For her, this closeness of her creations to her skin was adding another intimate layer to the meaning of art, to the meaning of waste, and it was bringing the sensory, the personal and the material to an audience that became her temporary community too.
Noluthando’s flat is a reflection of this interplay of materiality, memory and personal archive as well as the everyday authentic versus the curated. There is an empty can of tonic water next to a bottle of Chanel and a tub of Vicks on her small coffee table that’s also crowded with books. There’s a pair of worn socks and a bra kicked to the side of a sunken couch. They’re just life, nothing in need of hiding. “I’m very happy you noticed them,” she says.
Her lounge is a garden and a gallery too. Dozens of potted plants and flowers grow towards the ceiling and the light. The walls are a gallery, telling the story of the work she’s created and her career path to date. It pays homage to her mentors, colleagues and co-creators too.
“Documenting and archiving are important for me. I want to be able to have a kind of living gallery that is a way to tell my own story in the way I want to tell it, just as it is,” she says.
The framed images include captures of costumes she’s made and the sets she designed. They make it clear that her work has always leaned on creating from her imagination, from her dreamtime inspirations and how she’s found materials to make these come to life. There’s her costume made of old washing machine hoses for a character in the production called Chance.
The hoses stand in for traditional bead work for a character who invokes Ndebele cultural identity but he has few worldly possessions and certainly no treasured beads. It’s the idea of making real what is absent but not lost. In another photograph her work from a residency in New York shows more found objects, recovered plastic sheeting and branches creating shelter but also the imagined home as she worked with the themes of migrancy, homelessness and the dire realities of those who fall through the cracks of society.
As an artist Noluthando uses “waste” as possibility and creation. But it’s also her reminder of what is real in life even when it’s not curated, tidy or perfectly filtered: Dystopias are not necessarily waste-lands and much of what we throw away never leaves us completely, not really.