In Conversation with Macdonald Mfolo, an Orange Farm based Costume and Puppetmaker

NOT x Chris Saunders | A Fashion & Photography collaboration from New York to South Africa featuring Macdonald Mfolo

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Macdonald Mfolo, aka Macdee a costume and puppetmaker. Photo | Chris Saunders.

 

Think 1983, it’s the Motown 25th anniversary special. A star’s performance will go down in the annals of pop culture as epic – Michael Jackson stuns audiences with the moonwalk. Along with the dance move, a single sequined glove with matching white socks also make their debut. The trio make grand effect, the dance move heightened by the magnetic shimmer of costume.

The items become signature MJ looks. Functional during performances and totally eye-catching. They punctuate his dance moves and become the merchandisers’ fantasy; it is the perfect costume. The MJ team must have been laughing all the way to the bank. Almost three decades later its significance was once again validated. The original ca 1983 ‘fantasy glove’ (as it came to be called) fetches $350,000 USD at auction.

I was reminded of the fantasy glove and socks in my interview with Macdonald Mfolo, a costume and puppet designer based in the township of Orange Farm. His thing is making costumes for Pantsula. The way he describes his costumes being the ‘face’ of the performer, you really understand why MJ’s outfit was so successful.

Breaking it down into parts, it’s all about how a costume helps to tell the story, maybe even disarms audiences, and draws them in. It’s that performative quality that it brings, and that designers try  to create. And Macdee, as he goes by, describes his take on this which is in fact how he ended up collaborating with NY-based fashion designer Jenny Lai.

 

Jenny and Macdee talking shop at his home, Orange Farm. Photo | Chris Saunders.

Jenny and Macdee talking shop at his home, Orange Farm.

 

Aside from her experimental womenswear line, she’s been designing garments for dancers. These commonalities and her keen interest in Pantsula aesthetic, a South African taken on colour-blocking and nostalgic American workwear led to them making a hybrid costume/puppet.

It was part of a bigger initiative that her and Johannesburg photographer Chris Saunder’s conceived. A fashion and photography project where South African creators from different disciplines would work on an intensive collaboration with Lai. Together they’d re-interpret one of her classic silhouettes, using local techniques and each designer’s aesthetic language.

 

 

Yes, everything that I create I make sure that it’s rooted in our local context, so in a South African form, or even in an Orange Farm township form. – Macdonald Mfolo

 

 

Macdee & Lai’s idea was to playfully explore notions of locality, scale and theatricality. The final garment/costume/puppet was worn by Manthe Ribane, a performance artist. During the shoot, Mante equally matches the staccato whistles of the crowd with swift and versatile dance movements, and brings it all into perspective – the puppet comes to life.

 

 

We step back now to to get to know Macdee a bit better. Aside from his costume design work, he’s a social innovator but even that aspect is grounded in creative practice. He is the 4th and final design collaborator that we are currently featuring in the NOT x Chris Saunders interview series.

 

Manthe tries out the costume for the first time. Photo | Chris Saunders.

Manthe tries out the costume for the first time.

 

Missla Libsekal | Can you let us in on what it is precisely that excites you about designing costumes?

Macdonald Mofolo | The best part is not only knowing that people will see the clothing, but that it’s going to be presented in a very “fused” performance. The clothes are the face of a project. So when I make clothing, I know I am ‘The Face’ and the theme of that person. For example Pantsula before they even dance, you (audiences) need to immediately understand, that as they come out of the dressing room that they are Pantsula. So the clothes are designed down to the small details to do this.

 

The performative quality that outfits brings comes through in your Pantsula costumes. You are also making larger than life puppets which Manthe animates so fantastically during the shoot with Chris Saunders.

The larger than life puppets have a huge impact. They range from human height to 4 – 5 meters tall. You can’t say “I didn’t see it” unless you’re blind. I started with the carnival in 2010, and once we walked through the streets of Johannesburg, people would go out and say “What is this?” They are also teaching tools, about our culture and other issues that we want to address. For now, they’re only used for performance. I’m sorry to say this but for the moment, we want to be rich – all of us!  There’s no one who wants to leave a certain legacy. We all want to leave a certain bank. It would be much easier for us, if we could collaborate and think of ways to change our way of thinking. Our way of living. Our way of addressing our own issues. Especially with the puppets, it’s easier for kids to link whatever you’re saying through puppets rather than if you’re just saying 1, 2, 3… But once you bring these to their eyes, they’re like wowwwww!.

 

The garment meets sculpture, a work in progress. Photo | Chris Saunders.

The garment meets sculpture, a work in progress.

 

So, where do you look for inspiration?

I think I’ve been living like way back, in the 17th century or something. Some of the things that I do, I’ve dreamt them first. In those dreams it feels like it’s my second time being in those situations. So when I wake up, it’s like the third time when I actually create the thing. Most of things I do, I don’t like to compare them with things I’ve seen before. I like coming up with my own stuff. Maybe after a couple of years, weeks, months, then I’ll google and find out that the same thing I did someone else has done it before somewhere.

 

In terms of translating your ‘dreamscapes’ into actual designs, what is your work process?

Sometimes I sketch, but other times, I could have a design for three months or even two years just stuck in my mind. I might buy the material now, but use it in 2016. Usually I buy the material, I leave it there, and after a long period of time, I start doing things with it.

 

Jenny's sketchbook. Photo | Chris Saunders.

Jenny’s sketchbook.

 

The culture of ‘Do It Yourself’, seems to resonate with your working style and ethos. 

During boarding school, I learnt that if there’s something you want done in the rightful manner, do it yourself. It’s supposed to be a spiritual thing for all humankind.

 

Do you think a style is tied to or belongs to a distinct location, or can it be understood globally?

Yes, everything that I create I make sure that it’s rooted in our local context, so in a South African form, or even in an Orange Farm township form. When I started making schoolbags, I saw a need as most kids carried plastic bags to go to school. After five years, everyone was bringing school bags.

 

As you suggest, on the ground improvisation certainly can bring a local aesthetic. You’ve designed a pretty unique 2-in-1 costume. Can you tell us where that idea came from?

For that Pantsula piece, I had to make two costumes because they were doing a one hour show. So after they perform one piece, they have to take the clothing and put it somewhere. So I came up with the concept that you take off your clothing and put it in your bag, and you’re still wearing your costume. This way, when you take off your clothes, your clothes are already packed.

 

Building the puppet out of plastic bottles and paper mache. Photo | Chris Saunders.

Building the puppet out of plastic bottles and paper mache.

 

Is there a relationship between the Pantsula costume styles and current trends?

Some will follow a certain trend. Some will make their own trend. Others will go beyond whatever is being presented at that time. As a costume designer for the Real Action Pantsula,  I go beyond the trend. For the costume that I made in 2009, I fused three elements: Dickies, Delela (dungaree), and overalls (jumpsuit), and fused them with a backpack. So we are going beyond how Pantsula usually look, which is either the dungaree, the suit, or the two piece trouser, shirt and cap.

 

There is a socially driven aspect to your creativity. What are your ambitions for the future?

I want to create a skills college. I think skills development needs to be more emphasized in South Africa. We export a lot of things instead of creating them here.

 

 

It would be much easier for us, if we could collaborate and think of ways to change our way of thinking. Our way of living. Our way of addressing our own issues. – Macdonald Mfolo

 

 

You are also quite involved in your community already. How are you using design and creative practice currently?

In 2005, I was sponsored by a school that gave me space and sewing machines. That’s when I started helping disadvantaged women around the community. Some of them spend the whole day doing nothing, playing gambling games. At the end of the day when I come back from work, they’ll tell me “Hey my kid tore these trousers, I don’t know what he’ll wear tomorrow, can you help me?” So I started this project, inviting them to come every day for four hours to learn sewing skills without getting paying anything. So that next time they will be able to create clothes for their kids, and for the community in general. I trained them to make uniforms. I went around to schools to look for uniform making jobs and would give that work to the women. I also teach a fashion course to students. I teach them how to draw, design, and construct basic styles. Right now I’m trying to turn this into a daily after school program.

 

 

NOT x Chris Saunders | Macdonald Mfolo  Collaboration

 

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NOT x Macdonald Mfolo reinterpretation of the NOT Banner Top as a Pantsula costume and  modeled by Manthe Ribane. Photo | Chris Saunders.

 

EXHIBITION


Wallplay presents NOT x Chris Saunders
* Sep. 10 – 17, 2014

The NOT x Chris Saunders exhibition showcases a cross-cultural fashion and photography collaboration spearheaded by Jenny Lai, a New York based fashion designer, along with Johannesburg based photographer and film maker Chris Saunders.

The exhibition will feature a selection of NOT garments as re-interpreted through Lai’s collaboration with four South African based creators : Dr Pachanga, Dennis Chuene, Floyd Avenue, Macdee. Images shot by Saunders documenting the collaboration with final cuts featuring performance artist and model Manthe Ribane will also be exhibited. It opens on September 10th and will also include a talk with Lai and Saunders on Monday, September 15th at 19:30.

Wallplay | 118 Orchard Street, New York

 

About

Macdonald Mofolo is a costume designer for Pantsula dancers and a maker of larger-than-life puppets. He is an active member within his community of Orange Farm, a township located about 45km from Johannesburg.

Jenny Lai is a designer of experimental womenswear brand NOT, based in New York city. She also designs custom performance-wear for musicians and dancers pushing the boundaries of interdisciplinary performance. notaligne.com

Chris Saunders is a South African born photographer and filmmaker based in Johannesburg. His work includes documentary projects mainly focused on original subcultures of South Africa such as Pantsula, Izikhotani, and Shangaan Electro as well as commercial endeavours. whatwasparadise.com

 

Orange Farm, South Africa | Doing our part to combat immappancy

 

Interview by Missla Libsekal in collaboration with Jenny Lai.

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