South African painter Lwando Dlamini’s figurative paintings are penetrating, traveling between the realities of the physical realm and the possibilities of far off lands where colors radiate and textures burst. The reality is a convoluted notion for the thirty-year-old painter. He suffered two comas, both leaving him paralyzed and in need to regain his motor skills. The first stroke at age ten was caused by a spine infection; later at twenty, he was hospitalized due to police brutality. Therefore, painting is a survival skill, and his path towards healing.
Having woken up for our interview at 7:00 am, I look at his paintings of figures floating in explosive landscapes, hugging, meandering or simply being, as extensions of a dream. They are detached from the conditions of this universe as well as its bodily limitations. Dlamini, however, prepares for an actual journey. His luggage's—including one full to its brim with paint tubes and spatulas— are packed and he is ready to move from Cape Town to Johannesburg.
Read my interview about Dlamini about how painting saved his life, why he sees himself as Frankenstein, and the joy in departing the comfort zone.
What promoted you to move these days?
I grew up here and it’s time to leave my comfort zone. I don't feel challenged—maybe I got a little bit too comfortable, and that tricks me.
How is your relationship with dreams and the subconsciousness? I am seeing missing limbs and unconventional proportions which recall visions we have in dreams.
I’ve always been interested in memory, and loss of it, too. And I’ve also always been fascinated with the sensibility and the vulnerability of the human body. When I was recovering to regain my physical capability, I tried to remember how big the body was at some point. I had to relearn everything from scratch, and I often think about that now. Missing limbs in my earlier paintings came from this experience. They are mostly from 2020 and captured that heavy period of my of my life. It was something that I had to get out of my system. The current works do not have missing body parts, but instead they have exaggerated proportions, the lips or eyes, for example.
How did losing your motor skills influence your understanding of physicality? Painting is a physical endeavor and even demanding. Was the process of regaining your power also a process of muscle memory?
When I wound up at the hospital and regained consciousness after my second coma, I felt really, really, really angry. And I was rebellious. Back then, I was not thinking of art much—I was confused. I didn't even want to make art. I was at hospital for a long time while trying to finish up my metric that year and fell academically behind.
The absence of limbs told more than the physical then, the loss of a future and possibilities.
Perhaps the missing limbs trace back to those feelings, the anger. I felt that I had something to say. The only thing that made sense to me was to express how I felt, and I had to say it through art. I suddenly became certain that I was going to make art. I was in a drawing class in high school and was making hyperrealist monochrome drawings. The German artist Käthe Kollwitz was an important inspiration.
Art history has seen numerous artists whose confinement to bed was a creative stimulus, most symbolically Frida Kahlo.
Definitely—but my inspiration has been Francis Bacon for a very long time.
Let’s talk about colors. Your colors are bright, dense, and joyful, in a way contrasting the subject matter. Is this a matter of balancing the trauma with exuberant, sun-lit hues?
I actually have a very limited palette. If you look at my paintings, you see that I repeat similar color shades. In fact, I have a strange relationship with colors. I just repeat the same yellow, purple, or red. In that sense, I am still discovering my colors.
Are you open to new colors?
I love colors, especially those that you can’t take your eyes away from. I also love putting them next to each other, creating a dialogue. The stories I talk about are not always good news and they come from the experiences of violence. Perhaps this affects my decision to paint figures with color—it’s a celebration of surviving adversity and the triumphant. I’m also noticing that I love gestures, the hands and the figures with very relaxed postures
Maybe a sign of hope and resilience?
I watch myself working at the studio and take mental notes. My process is very intuitive.
You seem to have a performative relationship with the canvas and the figures mirror your gestures.
How about the textures which are very dense, almost piled? The paint looks mountainous at some parts of the paintings.
I have a lot of palette knives [laughs]. I use bigger or smaller ones to create different densities and textures. Let me show them to you.
Is choosing the right knife an intuitive journey?
Yes, it’s about what feels right in the moment whether I am painting clothes, skin or trees.
Let’s talk about your relationship with the thread? How do you bring elements other than the paint onto the canvas?
I actually started experimenting with a new process of cutting parts of the canvas. Imagine showing the painting’s skeleton, which is the stretcher. This came out of a search to avoid repeating myself. I also started treating the canvas as a body, and the acts of cutting and stitching remind me of operation.
Where there are cuts, there is also mending…
The painting is like a body that was broken but they piece it together and bring it back up to life. Like the Creature in Frankenstein. I don’t waste the canvas that I cut off, either. I use those cloth pieces in other paintings—they appear in other juxtapositions, so I trade them in a way.
That is very Frankenstein-esque, too.
I am interested in recreation, becoming again, or rebuilding the self and the body.
The inclination to create and compose resonates with our understating of technology today, a search to render reality anew. In contrast, your work is passionately manual, so tell me about your relationship with technology.
I am not good with technology or with machines. I tell my friends that painting is a physical sport and I love that bodily element and being physical. That’s also why I don’t play video games, either.
At what point does the concept come into play? Ideation, juxtaposition, hitting the first brush, what stage is the concept for you?
I used to be in trouble in college because we were told to first sketch what we wanted to paint. I could not do that. Why must I sketch first? I did not know what I was going to paint until meeting the canvas or deciding what colors I was going to use. That is not to say I have no plan or do not know what I want to paint. I just know that the work always goes to different directions. I work with intuition and I don’t question my decisions.