Mandla Mabila is an artist. A painter by training Mandla previously made a living selling his art. For the past three years, however, he has been working for Create SA, a skills development project.
Mandla is working towards an exhibition of his work. “The last show I did was still my early work and full of anger. The art I want to show now depicts strength, hope and colour. It is a reflection of my life now.”
Not that everything is a bed of roses for Mandla, as he says, “I have my problems.” But he has grown up and has more perspective. “I now paint to show my successes. I count my blessings. I think I have been very lucky. I received a motorised wheelchair, an education, and a lot of support from some great people, and often from places I didn’t expect it. My new work says thank you.”
Mandla contracted polio when he was three. He attended Letaba Primary School in Limpopo, where he became interested in art, especially painting.
After school he went to study art at Wits, where he is now working on his masters degree.
“I had applied to Wits and the Wits Technikon. I went to the Tech for an interview but the place was inaccessible. Stairs everywhere. Wits’s sheer size meant it was hard to get from one place to another but it was the lesser of two evils.”
At Wits access was the biggest limitation he faced. "This is an important issue that still needs to be addressed today. Making a building accessible is pointless when there is no accessible, cost-effective transport to get there.”
At Wits Mandla’s two art history teachers would pick him up to go to class, taking it in turns. Unbeknown to him they were raising money to buy him a motorised wheelchair. It was to be a turning point in his life. “The wheelchair changed my life dramatically. I experienced the exhilaration of freedom of movement. I could visit the library, I could carry books, I was all over campus! It made life amazing and my self-confidence picked up. I began to participate more in class and my work improved. That was when I started to get a glimpse of what life could be.”
While at university, Mandla’s subject matter was always himself. “My painting was angry. I was angry. My paintings reflected how I saw myself and my life. They showed loss. They showed frustration that stemmed from the isolation I felt.
Mandla researched how the disabled represent themselves and are represented in art. He found that there was very little available and, more importantly, what was available was negative.
“Negative perceptions may not necessarily disappear but what is essential is the replacing of them with new positive perceptions. And that is both in how others see us, and how we represent ourselves.
Having travelled to the US and the UK Mandla has experienced what it can be like to have unlimited access.
Despite this Mandela would not live anywhere else right now. “We are part of this country and we can take a leaf from the oppression it has overcome to over come our own oppression. How we define and present disability will determine how the younger generation get to live their lives. I don’t believe enough is done to change the way we perceive ourselves.
Today, on a personal level, his life is very positive. Many of the pressing questions of his early years have been answered. “I am in a relationship, I have a meaningful job and I have a child. I can look at disability issues in the broader context.”
“Sitting in a wheelchair is a minor detail for me. Most disabled people have internalised this. We all want to move – both physically and mentally.”