This piece was originally published in the “Utopias” issue of Eye on Design magazine.
In the first months of 2019, a curious series of posters began popping up on social media and in the streets of Johannesburg. It was just ahead of the South African national elections, and campaign posters depicting smiling politicians silhouetted against boldly colored backgrounds and sans serif slogans hung from street poles across the country. But this series was different—more album promo than campaign design—and it featured a Black woman in a beret and gauzy pink veil. In one of the images, she stands with her back against a wall with her eyes closed. In another, she looks directly at the camera with the veil covering her face and neck. She looks more magisterial than presidential, but unmistakably, there it was: bold type announcing the political debut of PR$DNT HONEY.
According to the posters, the PR$DNT’s major campaign platform was “to restore the national wealth of our country, and the heritage of all women.” She was there “for plentiful supply of cheques, peace, and rounds.” The campaign was devised by the Johannesburg-based art director and illustrator Rendani Nemakhavhani, as an ambitious extension of her art alter ego, The Honey. She lost to Cyril Ramaphosa, but winning was never the point, anyways. Since 2014, Nemakhavhani has been remaking herself into a series of fictional characters for the camera, and self-styling worlds that are familiar to herself and to other South African women. Or, in the case of PR$DNT HONEY, a world they’d like to see.
Nemakhavhani works full-time as an art director at a Johannesburg advertising agency, but it’s with her personal projects that she aims to create an ongoing conversation about the representation of Black women in South Africa. For the past five years, she’s continued to re-fashion herself as part of an ongoing photography series called The Honey, in which she tries on different personas in order to imagine different possibilities for women like her. This collaboration with street photographer Kgomotso Neto Tleane lives as an eight part series on Tumblr, where PR$DNT HONEY is the latest installment of the project. It’s Nemakhavhani’s alter-ego brought to life.
The Honey allows Nemakhavhani to imagine different versions of herself, but it also works to portray the type of South African women not usually celebrated in the media. It’s a project that’s part of a long, feminist tradition of self-portraiture employed by artists like Claude Cahun, Cindy Sherman, Tony Gum, Yasumasa Morimura, Zanele Muholi, and others. In Nemakhavhani’s case, she’s reinventing herself as different versions of a young woman in Johannesburg to show a complexity that she feels is usually flattened. The Honey consists of chapters that each reveal a different side of the character played by Nemakhavhani.
In the series, The Honey navigates the city; she deals with her love interest Gavini and being young in Johannesburg. In a chapter entitled “Ungazikhohlwa bbz, never forget to love yourself,” she wears a black and white wig with a white fur coat covering a green dress that hangs off one shoulder. Something about the way her purple lips are parted shows the audacious confidence of someone who absolutely knows who they are.
In another image for “Honey, Leader my Leader” in chapter eight, we see a side profile of The Honey in a leopard print fez and brown fur coat. Her cheeks are covered in sweat. The image is reminiscent of pictures of African dictators like Idi Amin and how they’re portrayed in movies.
“My initial thoughts when I was brainstorming the series was to create a body of work that would try to speak to the diversity of women, and show that we are a layered and dynamic species,” she says. All of the women that Nemakhavhani portrays are bold and defiant—certainly not afraid to occupy a public space, whether it is the highest office in the land or just being more visible within the creative space.
All of the women that Nemakhavhani portrays are bold and defiant—certainly not afraid to occupy a public space.
Nemakhavhani calls The Honey series a “live moodboard” that she and Tleane had to create from scratch because they couldn’t see themselves and their friends reflected in public imagery meant to illustrate South African youth. The last time Nemakhavhani and Tleane remember seeing themselves in something on screen was in Yizo Yizo, a South African television series that became popular due to its raw depiction of what it’s like to be a young person growing up in South African townships. It depicted the lives of young people as they navigated their way through school, violence, fun, and heartache. And for a lot of young South Africans, the series made them feel seen in all their complexity, and not just through the binary of being “good” or “bad.”
Nemakhavhani and Tleane pay tribute to Yizo Yizo in Chapter 3 of The Honey, and when they later included it in an exhibition of the work, the creators of the TV series were in attendance. For Nemakhavhani, it was validating. “It felt like the universe and God were saying, ‘You are doing good, you’re stepping in the right direction, don’t stop.’”
Nemakhavhani dreamt up PR$DNT HONEY about two years ago, while watching a documentary on the South African struggle activist Winnie Mandela. She saw a similarity in Mandela and her grandmother, who had recently passed, and wondered what a woman like her might look like as a presidential candidate for South Africa. Just like that, the PR$DNT HONEY campaign was born.
Unlike her Tumblr series, PR$DNT HONEY doesn’t only exist in the form of a photography series. Nemakhavhani extended her fiction into the organization of an event for Johannesburg’s creative community, where speakers could share their experiences in the industry and speak honestly together. For it, she gathered together her ideal creative “ministry,” one composed of Johannesburg-based creatives whose work she respects, including event entrepreneur Nandi Dlepu; the founder of the creative network Creative Nestlings, Dillion Phiri; and YouTuber and co-founder of Pap Culture, Nwabisa Mda. For Nemakhavhani, just because youth unemployment in the country stands only just over 50%, and just because it’s often hard to get into the creative arena, doesn’t mean one should not create space—whether imaginary or on the ground.
While The Honey is a fiction, the ministry event that came out of it was very much in the real world. In imagining and performing a better, or more complex, world—and in creating images that are more representative of the varied experiences of Black people in South Africa—fragments of her fictionalized universe have begun to trickle into Nemakhavhani’s everyday reality. When Nemakhavhani first studied graphic design at the University of Johannesburg, she says it didn’t feel like it was for her. She almost quit in her second year because her grades were low and she wasn’t able to identify with the mostly European examples given to her by lecturers on what constituted great graphic design.
“I really struggled with my thesis, because I was writing about South African graphic designers, and I wanted to write about Black South African graphic designers in particular,” she says. “I couldn’t find anything that was written in books that I could use as references.” Through making work like The Honey and PR$DNT HONEY, Nemakhavhani strives to ensure that other young graphic designers don’t have to go through the same struggle she did.