Restless R!OT raises voices of unheard

Sindiso R!OT Nyoni gets people talking with his work.
Sindiso R!OT Nyoni gets people talking with his work.
Image: Nhlakanipho Nhlapo

An upside-down white African continent with the jagged tip awash in red on a black backdrop is the first piece of art by Sindiso R!OT Nyoni I come across.

It's an old piece he informs me but it lingers on the mind, stark, harsh in its beauty and overwhelmingly sad once you figure it out. The piece is a comment on the xenophobic violence that has gripped this country in recent years.

Nyoni's work is social commentary. We are speaking via the phone and he's battling a sore throat. He sounds exactly like my idea of a young, cool artist would sound: articulate, self-assured and super grounded.

Why R!OT I ask?

"My background is in activist poster art in the line of social commentary. I've always felt like art has this responsibility to reflect the times that we're living in and hence the name R!OT because it's the nature of the posters that I was putting out.

"It also comes from a quote by Martin Luther King, where he says 'a riot is the voice of the unheard'."

Sindiso R!OT Nyoni's call to action.
Sindiso R!OT Nyoni's call to action.

His alias is a play on the "social commentary and responsibilities of an artist" and the nature of his art.

R!OT believes art "needs to serve a purpose". He started out as an illustrator and has a graphic design qualification from the university of Johannesburg. He's worked in advertising, which is contradictory as he's a self-proclaimed social activist. His employer allowed him to still be socially conscious while earning a much-needed pay cheque.

"I didn't last long there because, I mean in any case you know, it wasn't tying in with what I ultimately wanted to pursue as a visual artist."

We get to talking about heritage as September is Heritage Month.

"My art is informed a lot by heritage in the sense that I look a lot to history and cultures. I travel a lot, which has helped me. I travel the continent quite a lot, which has helped me understand cultures."

The Bulawayo-born artist says he's a product of "an ongoing search to refine or understand my identity".

Nyoni's depiction of MK soldier Solomon 'Kalushi' Mahlangu.
Nyoni's depiction of MK soldier Solomon 'Kalushi' Mahlangu.

"I am of this African soil, of this continent but I am a result of this 19th century Zulu migration."

Nyoni is referring to the migration of Mzilikazi to what is now known as Zimbabwe. He is of the Ndebele people of Zimbabwe.

"For me, heritage is digging deep into culture and that identity . identity is something that is so important to us as Africans because we have such a rich and diverse and vast cultural heritage. So, I think for me the importance is being aware of or understanding the history and how culture ties into that."

His focus in his pieces is on the ongoing issues the continent faces such as tribalism, gender issues, race, and inequality, among others. He has also tackled global issues but home is something he constantly returns to. He stresses that his work will always feature a black narrative.

"I want my work to say something, to reflect something. I want it to hold an identity so that when you look at the work, I want you to know where it is coming from."

One of Sindiso R!OT Nyoni's contemporary piece, Ubizo.
One of Sindiso R!OT Nyoni's contemporary piece, Ubizo.

Nyoni's services are in demand. He's been on the Loeries judging panel as well as on the South African Mint advisory panel. He also did commissioned artwork for the Hollywood movie Get Out by director Jordan Peele. It's no wonder he landed on the radar of alcohol brand Hennessy's newest campaign Never Stop, Never Settle.

He was drawn to the campaign because it echoed his narrative, he says.

He's been drawing since he was four years old. He moved to South Africa at age 20 to study and was a bartender and freelanced to fund his studies. He's always had to keep going.

His hard work has paid off and he's had his business for eight years now and is now looking to create opportunities for other artists like him.

"At the end of the day, I think with entrepreneurship you are in the business of creating opportunities."

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