Michael Mhlanga is a creative artist from Mpumalanga, South Africa, in a village called Mzinti. He is better known for his viral artwork: “The African Puddle“. He describes himself as a ball of creativity, not just an artist, and all he wants to tell is the stories, the beauty, Social Issues, and more African and human pride. Born in 1994 in Johannesburg, he grew up with a single mother after losing his dad back in 2001. “The African puddle, which is one of his most popular pieces of art, traveled digitally across the world leaving him at home.
Capturing the Beauty of Africa through Art
Michael paints about the beauty of Africa but also strives to tell specific stories for each artwork and address social issues using his concepts. One of his recent works was about depression and suicide, instead of drawing a person who looks depressed he created the image of a burning rope tied up in a noose. He called it “Burn It”. Personal experiences are one of his motivations and his art speaks mostly about life through our eyes which becomes easy for people to relate and feel connected to it.
For a young village man who is not familiar with worldwide attention, the viral painting came as a big surprise. People he had never met from different countries started sharing and asking about his work. This not only encouraged him to create more but also think of how to monetize his work. Before art, Michael describes himself as a loner trying to make ends meet.
Growing up in poverty, being handed clothes and pity woke up the hungry hustler in Michael and made him work even harder in school where he got good grades. He then took a gap year and tried out a course in Accounting but had to drop out after owing the institution approximately R40 000. After dropping out of school, Michael realized his creative side through graphic designing. He remembers:
“I’m sitting in my room playing with the phone, I design something then I posted it then people started to react positively that’s when I used the hustling spirit to feed my siblings and mother, I remember I designed a price list where I would design a poster charging people with airtime when they pay with the airtime I would take it, sell it to my neighbors to get the money then go buy food.”
Inspiration and Mentorship
If it wasn’t for art, Michael would either be a social worker or psychologist, because of his love for the community. Michael Mhlanga is originally from deep in the village where life is not easy. After losing his dad, their mother, Elizabeth, was forced to work extra time on the farms but that wasn’t enough to take care of them. His mother later became a domestic worker and Michael remembers her coming back home with chicken skin which was a rare delicacy for them at the time. Although the will to learn was there, his late best friend Desmond Marakalala mentored and guided him when things got hard and didn’t make sense. Desmond inspired in him a sense of self-competition and the will to always try to be better than himself.
At some point he was struggling to get food and a place to stay, the pressure from home and demands of society made him fight emotional battles but he had a few friends like Desmond and Tumelo Take who always supported him when he was down. Other people, he looks up to include Penelope Motaung, Itumeleng Mnguni, Vanessa Selahla, and Ausiki Podi, who all play a big part in making Michael Mhlanga and were all classmates. They believed in him when there was almost nothing and used their own resources and money to get Michael the tools he needed to develop his art.
He started attending art classes back in 2017 and got a chance to be around different creatives and was able to learn the basics of art like how to hold a pencil. When he realized that he can create value through art, he started working with concepts of storytelling through his art. The rest of his talent just needed practice until he realized what comes easy for him as well as what sells the most. Art has given him the chance to talk about all he went through and most of his artwork is about women working in the village, about kids playing, and the accompanying feelings of freedom, depression, anxiety, freedom, etc.
Love Your Art
One of the key lessons from Michael’s story is that patience is key. He also sees his talent as a communal responsibility that has to be shared. His goal is to inspire more young and old people into pursuing what they love and working hard and smart to achieve greatness in them. He loves to speak solutions through art than just stating the problem. He is exploring ideas of how to paint out solutions to depression instead of just painting a depressed person.
In spite of the popularity and reach of his work, he is still working on a way to sell his work in Africa and around the world. Unlike other products, Artwork can be extremely fragile which makes it expensive to ship. He is still looking for partners who can help him set up an art-friendly shipping process so that he can reach out to the thousands of people who would want a painting by Michael Mhlanga in their living room. One of his main goals at the moment is to work on more exhibitions that will help him raise enough money to build a community arts center where other artists in his village can exhibit and sell their work too.
He was recognized to be featured in a magazine from England, 4 radio stations in his country South Africa, 2 newspapers from South Africa too.
Michael has created some thought-provoking pieces namely Nomthandazo which is about an unemployed graduate, The book of Ntsiki which is about speaking out, Nomfundo which is about giving and more, He has since been getting buyers and collectors interested in his craft and has been supportive in helping him grow to work towards his goals.
Love your art, It will love you back.– Ausiki Podi