Herringbone lead
KZN artist Kylie Wentzel

KZN artist Kylie Wentzel paints the (exaggerated) truth

Like the best of storytellers, the Durban-born artist’s work documents life through intuition and observation  –  with a dash of exaggeration.

From her Grad Show at Michaelis in 2015 to showing at this year’s (online) Turbine Art Fair with Kalashnikovv, we’ve been watching young Durban artist Kylie Wentzel’s progression of style from the sidelines –  and we’re liking what we see. From linocut and printmaking to her more recent large-scale acrylic paintings, at 27 her signature is a bold and graphic form of visual storytelling increasingly untethered from her formal training. Inspired by the wild and rich environment of her home province KwaZulu-Natal, her work speaks of life in a subtropical coastal urban jungle and tells tales of its human and creature inhabitants.

Watch this space as she plans a group show in November with fellow KZN artists who include multimedia master Cameron Platter. For now, grab a cuppa as we get to know Kylie over a sit-down chat and whirlwind tour of Durban in a day.

What types of stories do you want to tell with your art? 

I like to paint the way my grandpa Don would tell stories about his past – based on the truth but equally exaggerated. There’s always a documentary element to my work, inspired by people that exist, moments that have happened, animals I’ve met, sights I’ve seen and so on.

How would you describe your style and how do you execute this through your chosen medium?

Distinctly intuitive. I didn’t have formal training in painting, so while my mind has developed, my hands work quite similarly to how they did as a child.

What are you trying to say about your identity through your work?

Nothing intentionally. I spend a lot of my time getting lost in existential thoughts – so painting has become more of an outward and observational escape for me.

PHOTOGRAPH: Samora Chapman

How did having a mother as an artist influence your career?

Once you’ve seen a wild woman still in last night’s pajamas at 10pm, splashing red wine and paint on a canvas, belting out to Tom Jones’ Greatest Hits, why would you aspire to be anything else?

We saw your Michaelis Grad Show in 2015  –  tell us about that exhibition, and generally, what was your experience of Michaelis like?

Thank you for going to see it. The White Picked Fence featured a large series of digitally manipulated linoprint panels that fit together as a giant altarpiece. It also included linoleum tile sculptures and video animated linoprints. The exhibition was a dissection of whiteness and the colonial customs that are still alive in contemporary South Africa.

Those four years at Michaelis were incredibly tough and I stopped making work for a little while after I graduated. I think my physical practice became stifled by the need to overanalyze every thought, every idea and every possibility.

Regardless, it was a privilege to be able to attend art school and to be challenged and taught by incredible peers and some of the greats.

And your work now  –  how has that built on what you were doing then, and how has it deviated?

I still draw on my lino influences here and there, but other than that I think I’ve gone completely off the track that I was on in my New Media practice. I reached a point where I wanted to scrap all my rigid ways of thinking and doing, pick up a paintbrush and just see where that takes me.

Tell us about life in KZN?

Durban is warm and friendly and slow and wild and boring and exciting and supportive and kind and rough and soothing and sticky and colour and concrete and palm trees and dolphins and gold teeth and spices and sacrifices and hooting and shooting and stalls and malls and sugar cane and mielies and hotels and cashiers and slops and creme soda and lovers and haters and lightning and sunshine…

It’s where my heart is happy and I think you can flourish in any field when you’ve found that environment.

You’re taking us on a cultural tour of Durban in a day: where do we go?

Stop me if you want to get off anywhere, but let’s see…

I’m not much of a brekkie person, however I’d go on and make you a savoury French toast topped with last night’s leftover Korma. We’d pack our cozzies and grab our bikes to cycle the length of the Durban promenade and back. To cool off we’d drink the lemon water I packed that is miraculously still ice cold and then we’d jump into a glassy warm sea. Dolphins will swim us back to shore and we’d all laugh together as we thank them and wave goodbye. We’d then head off to the KZNSA Gallery to see what’s on exhibit. After that, we could walk the CBD and admire all of the old architecture, stop to listen to buskers, buy some freshly spritzed fruit, pick out a fun pair of cheap sunglasses and decode street scribbles. While we’re in the heart of town, we’d get Ethiopian for lunch and end our meal off with a creamy avo smoothie topped with sweet red syrup and a squeeze of fresh lime. Afterwards, without much persuasion, we would all go home and have a nap. Once awake, we’d rack our brains for something to do next until about 6pm and then I’ll remember that I haven’t been to Mooki Noodle Bar in years, so we’ll go there for an early dinner and a Thai beer. To end the day off right, we’d head across to The Jazzy Rainbow where the weight of smooth jazz would sink us deeper into our worn leather chairs after a long and fulfilling day in Durbs.

What’s your favourite thing to do on a Sunday? And Friday night?

Sundays are for Car Boot Market and finding the best rock pool at the beach. Friday nights are for after-work promenade walks and going home to share stories and a bottle of wine outside with my lover.

Who are your tattoo artists? Any favourite pieces?

David Chaston from Palmblack Tattoo in Cape Town did my whole back and pretty much most of my tattoo work. Shaun Dean in Cape Town did the flowers on my left arm. Guy Le Tatooer in London at the time did my hand and an intricate symbol on the side of my face, which has aged into more of a four-leaf clover – you live and you learn. I have a soft spot for all of them.

What’s your take on African art at the moment?

There’s always power work coming out of the continent. I’ve recently connected with a group of artists in a Pan-African painting prize, called the Emerging Painting Invitational, and it’s been particularly inspiring to see what’s emerging at the moment. 17 painters from around Africa (including myself) have been chosen as finalists, and the winners will be announced sometime this month. So in the interim we’ve been connecting and sharing our work with each other.

Artistically, whose work have you got your eye on?

So many artists, but two of my all-time biggest inspirations for life are Cameron Platter and the late John Muafangejo. I’ve looked up to Cameron for a really long time and we’ve recently become pals working on a group show with another pal, Callan Grecia. It’s great how the universe worked to hook that up.

What’s next for you? Where do you want to go from here?

I’m currently working on said group show that opens at KZNSA Gallery on 3 November. C’mon down. I’m simultaneously working on a cover for a novel by a South African author who is living abroad, which is something new and interesting. Soon I’d really like to do a residency somewhere, maybe Angola or Senegal.

Kylie Wentzel Upcoming Shows:

Snakes & Ladders Shad Madhirs Glayering Machine Thousand Island – 3 November 2020, KZNSA Gallery, Durban. A group show with Cameron Platter, Callan Grecia, Kylie Wentzel.

kyliewentzel.com | @k.vventzel

WORDS: Sarah Jayne Fell
ARTWORK: Kylie Wentzel
PHOTOGRAPHY: Kylie Wentzel & Samora Chapman
PRODUCTION: Sarah Jayne Fell