Modise A. Sepeng is widely known for his Melanin infused illustrations that resonate with his love for black culture and heritage. I met Modise at the Olive Tree Theatre on the second floor above Shoprite ko Pan, and its ambiance provided the backdrop for our conversation.
The conversation highlighted some of the challenges and opportunities that lie within the creative industry, and how to align yourself with companies and individuals that you wish to work with by catering to their needs. Read more about his thoughts on how to monetize your curiosity and turn it into a profession or business like he did through Negritude Republic.
Shots011: Who is Modise?
MS: I am a creative born and raised in Alex. I started designing five years ago and yeah, I am a graphic designer, art director, photographer, but I specialize in illustrations. I could say I am just a curious kid from Alex.
My work is largely influenced by my surroundings like where I grew up and what I have seen growing up. It is also heavily culturally centred. In the beginning, I never saw myself in the creative industry because I studied subjects like mathematics, science, biology and geography in high school and I thought I was going to be a bio-chemist of sorts. It wasn’t after matric when I, fortunately, met these guys who were in grade eleven and were graphic designers that I was exposed to the creative industry and this sparked something within me, a calling if you want to call it that. I gravitated towards that and I started drawing, sketches and stencil work but I wasn’t really something I paid attention to.
After my matric, I got a bursary from Vega for the Initiative Imagination Lab and went through the one-year programme and then got a job. Through that job I had to study through Vega again and from that job my curiosity became my profession.
Shots011: Your work intersects many art forms, how do you turn that into value and monetize that?
MS: Let me put it to you this way. First, you must find your purpose or skill-set and study that through yourself. By studying that, you learn what it is that you lack and what your strengths are. Then it’s really up to you to balance that. However, everyone lacks the understanding of turning your skill-sets into a business or how to get it to generate income.
I guess with my five years in the creative industry, I spent the first two crafting my skill, doing free work and I got paid every now and then. I started collaborating with a lot of people from filmmakers to stage designers, musicians, producers, and landscapers. Every opportunity I got to use my craft or my skill-set, I used it. Every encounter I had whether business or personal I wanted to see where I could add value through my craft and that took two years. In the third year, I saw that my focus was on illustration and that allowed me to make it my profession and create a company I could produce work through.
From there I developed my own stylistic DNA and I saw that I could apply it to anything! It was like learning alchemy and everything you touch turning into gold. However, before that, nothing you touched turned into gold. It is through learning and applying your curiosity and yourself, doing shit for free. It is different from someone approaching you and asking you to do something for them, you must approach them and say let me do this for you guys. You begin to see gaps of where you can add value and once you do that you realize your own worth as a creative. You begin to understand that my work is worth X amount of money and that has to be referenced with the amount of work you have put in through the years of doing free stuff.
I think this is where a lot of people lose it; they lack the understanding of that transaction, how to turn that into a business. I feel it applies across any field whether it is graphic design, photography, illustrations, and any form visual art. That transaction is the transition from being a creative to a business creative.
Shots011: What are the challenges that come with that transition?
MS: I feel creatives are solution driven. The challenge is when someone approaches you with a problem and you have to provide a solution in a set budget or for free. Problems arise when we fail to educate the client. It is like building any business; you categorise the companies you would like to work with and through your business strategy you position yourself in alignment with their needs. It is being able to understand the difference between your neighbour asking you to create a logo and visual identity for his start up with X amount of money versus a huge company like Coca Cola asking you to create something with X amount. You need to understand and see it as a business. Sometimes we are selective of the clients we want, whether for religious reasons or otherwise. However, in business if it makes rands it makes sense. That’s business. If my company had been running for fifteen years with a significant staff and a few zeros after the first digit then maybe we would have the luxury of choosing clients.
At this point, whichever business opportunity I get I make sure that the client understands my side of business. Problems arise when we fail to educate the client and the people you are engaging in business with. Their mentality of what we do is different. It is the misconceptions such as “this guy is a graphic designer he should charge me this much” or “ke darkie wa ko hae”. We need to educate and show them why we charge X amount for what we do.
A lot of people do not have a grasp on digital marketing, branding, and social media. I find it strange that a client will ask me to create a website for them when they do not have any social media presence. How will you be generating traffic to your website if you do not have any engagement on the internet? Who will be going to your site? You find big brands such as Momentum with a traffic drive of fifty or less a day, yet, you are unknown but want a website. These are some of the challenges that we face.
The hardest part for a creative is handling your own business instead of bringing in someone who might not understand the nature of your business, and your vision as a creative.
Shots011: How do you maintain the standard of our work with the different budgets that your clients come with?
MS: I may specialize in illustrations but I do a lot of stuff. I do more corporate work as compared to my personal work; however I craft my skill each night before I sleep. I give myself two briefs that I have to complete each week. I strategize on Sunday nights for my week ahead and what I have to create besides the work I do for my business.
I may have a good online presence but I do no generate a lot of money from social networks such as twitter, tumblr or Facebook. However it is through my presence that I can generate a lot of clients, through word of mouth or your work being shared, it easy for any brand to see my work through social media platforms.
As a person, you need to have a 9-5 and a 6-12. Your 9-5 – your job or personal business – is the time you are being business-minded – and that’s what put foods on the table. That’s where you can kill Jack to feed Tom and client is king. If the client says this font or this colour is wrong, even if you don’t like it, client is king! At the end of the day, as much as we can teach people and they learn from what we do, they have an idea and they just want you to execute it. A lot of creative struggle with that.
Your 6-12 is where you create enough room for you to be creatively free with no limits. But a lot of people spend their 6-12 socialising and that has killed a lot of dreams. People will spend more time with friends rather than spending more time executing whatever ideas they may have.
Shots011: How important has collaboration been in the building of your career?
MS: When it comes to teamwork you never stop learning. Being a creative is like climbing a lot of mountains and they don’t stop. So you can climb this mountain on your own and reach the top but it is hard maintaining top position. It’s like knowing two programs but in the workspace you need to know five programs, how are you going to learn the other programs without you understanding what it takes to learn them from other people?
Collaborations are key to boosting your curiosity. You learn more from being in a team than dwelling on your own advice and your own criticism. If I am a filmmaker and I didn’t study photography, through collaboration I could learn what it has taken a photographer ten years to learn in just a two-week summary. Collaborations help you to get a different view of whatever that person is representing and the working insight of who they are.
You can see this when a person from Joburg is collaborating with someone from Cape Town. Cultures are intertwined; you learn what people from Cape Town view as Joburg and vice versa. I will never stop collaborating with other creatives and it’s very unfortunate that people collaborate with people they can connect with or understand. I also enjoy working with aspiring creatives -in and out of my field – who have an idea but don’t know how to execute it.
Shots011: How big of a role has the internet and social media played in building your career?
MS: As I have mentioned I have been a designing and executing work for five years but I only learned how to position myself via social media three years ago. It took time for me to understand how to communicate something and let that thing be an extension of myself. I also had to make peace with the idea that people are going to study it and use it.
It took me months to understand the social media platforms and how to use them to market myself and reach people in China for example. I had to understand that I am a visual creative and whatever visuals I might create and post could generate curiosity for people who would like me to do that for their business. I see social media as a business tool and that is one of the reasons I am not as personal because I understand it and see it that way, as a business tool.
It can’t harm me if I see my work used in Cape Town or elsewhere, social media does that. It has both negatives and positives but there are more positives than negatives to it. How I use social media does not take away from my craftsmanship or skill, instead, people only see the final product.
Shots011: Who has been your greatest influence?
MS: I am Zulu and I grew up speaking Sesotho and Setswana at home and my neighbours are Venda and Tsonga, so I grew up speaking all those languages. My greatest influence is culture.
Once you learn how to speak isiZulu you also begin to understand the culture and that is why I think it’s hard to translate isiZulu, isiXhosa or any language into another, you just can’t, you speak that language and generate your thoughts around it. So my work is heavily influenced by our culture and its heritage and the depth of being African because I study a lot of African cultures and tribes.
I make it my purpose that I study and understand what it means to be African. Beyond the geography and being here. It’s more than that, hence, I call myself THE MELANIN EXPRESSIONIST. My colour pallet is based on different skin tones of black people.
Through my five years of designing I wanted my work to represent me and my black people, because before anything, I am black. Before my thoughts, before my work, I am black and my opinions stem from that consciousness.
These 10 questions originally came from a French series, “Bouillon des Culture” hosted by Bernard Pivot. They’re better known as the questions that James Lipton asks every guest at the end of “Inside the Actor’s Studio”. Their addition to this questionnaire is to get to know a bit more about Mario the person, instead of the artist, a bit more about Mario outside photography
What is your favourite word?
What is your least favourite word?
What turns you on creatively?
Colour and Patterns. Those two! You can have just a block of colour and that can represent a lot of things but patterns represent how, for me, black people understand nature and spirituality, and how natural patterns formulate from one thing to create everything we see.
What turns you off?
Lazy work! People who could spend more time doing something but don’t.
What is your favourite curse word?
(Laughs really hard for a while) KE VOESTEK!
What sound or noise do you love?
The melody of birds. But growing in the township, it has been that ambiance of the township, taxi hooters, someone screaming here and there. I have been to a lot of the suburban areas but I always miss that noise and if I am around it, it sounds like music to the ears.
What sound or noise do you hate?
Chappies, eish you see that sound of someone chewing on gum.
What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
Definitely filmmaking! I am a poet and everything that I do started from poetry. Trying to define stuff via poetry and if I didn’t understand certain words I would break them down in poetry and hopefully I will get to share my stories. So it’s definitely filmmaking!
What profession would you not like to do?
Working at a bank.
If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?
I’ve used every skill-set that he gave me!