Natalie Paneng’s Worlds for Black Girls

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For our monthly collaboration with FLOURISH, an artist-run seasonal gathering that promotes community and collaboration across contemporary creative disciplines, Tiger Maremela chats to Natalie Paneng about black girl magic in digital art.

At the very core of her practice, Natalie Paneng is invested in world-building. A result of that is a body of work spanning stills and moving images that intentionally create utopias in which Natalie’s fictional characters – extensions and exaggerations of herself – can fully live their lives.

“The world exists, so the girl exists and what she wears exists,” Natalie mentions as an easy way of understanding her three-step creative practice. Having studied Costume and Set Design at the University of Witwatersrand, Natalie is acutely aware of theatre’s possibilities and limitations. These limitations are what informed her progression towards creating work for digital spaces. This work started off as a way to visually validate and affirm her experiences, and are now a way for her to claim her own stake in the canon – by taking ownership of her representation. Through self-portraiture, collage, and non-linear narratives, Paneng is able to simultaneously reflect and alter the worlds she navigates. Layering, whether through costumes or digital manipulation, is a way of adding and extending narratives to her work; a political tool that disrupts our notion of personal histories and the gaze. Audiences are invited into Natalie’s worlds, but ultimately she is still in control.

The world-building that Natalie is so interested in has strong roots in her daily experiences. She strives to produce work that presents black girl magic as multiplicitous, something she struggled with early on in her practice. Natalie’s insistence of being her own representation of black girl magic, a fully rendered version of this magic, is the reason she has found community and solidarity online. “It makes sense now to call it a safe space, but I didn’t realise when I started that the work I was making could be a safe space online,” Natalie adds. The relatability of her awkward and quirky characters reveals how the perfection that we might chase after is futile; glitch is in. Her work continues in the same lineage of womanist image-making that includes artists like Carrie Mae Waems, Zanele Muholi, and Ayana V Jackson. “I created a space for myself to engage, and to feel present and show that I too exist.” Natalie mentions.

From Juice Box Judy, Silly Milly, or Hello Nice – a selection of characters that Natalie has devised and embodied with their own politics – Natalie’s use of costume design is both a functionall and aesthetic decision. Each character is adorned in items that assist to develop individual character arcs, a lesson from theatre-making that allows Natalie to extend how far she can use her own body and representation in her work. The exaggeration of elements, including colourful hair, conceptual make-up, and a DIY approach to set-building allows Natalie to present and discuss life’s most ordinary moments.

“A character becomes tangible through what you dress her in, her mannerisms… It’s about making them distinguishable from themselves and from myself,” Natalie continues. Through Hello Nice for instance, audiences are able to appreciate Natalie’s ability to conjure up surrealist dreamscapes that are reminiscent of the early 2000s and its resulting cultural products including hit reality show Pimp My Ride and the vaporwave art movement. Natalie’s exploration of vaporwave is increasingly evident in her 2 Weeks residency through Floating Reverie from 2018, titled ‘Hey MTV! Welcome To My Crib’ in which she splices images of herself with early noughties internet iconography. The result of this residency is an episodic undertaking in which Natalie visually explores the context of vaporwave and carves out a very intentional aesthetic for herself. After all, as per Hello Nice’s words, it’s all about the aesthetic.

Natalie is currently on residency at Fak’ugezi, an annual digital innovation festival hosted in Joburg. Through this residency, Natalie hopes to create a research tool about vaporwave as an artform by tracing its history in popular culture and spotlighting artists in the Global South who have been influenced by post-internet art movements, referencing artists like Tabita Rezaire and Bogosi Sekhukhuni. This research tool is a continuation of her efforts to not only explore new structures by tearing old ones apart, but also finding oneself through the remaining digital rubble. “I’m not as scared anymore, I’ve realised that it be like that sometimes.” Natalie adds.

Catch Natalie Paneng’s video installation alongside DJ sets by Lerato Bereng, Stiff Pap, Wanda Lephoto, and DJ Airtime Advance at FLOURISH on the 5th of September at Kitcheners. Doors open 9pm with a R50 door charge. FLOURISH is a seasonal gathering that celebrates community and collaboration across contemporary creative disciplines. Founded in 2017, FLOURISH is an audio-visual experiment to reflect a diverse appreciation of music across Johannesburg’s creative community. Held every first Thursday in the Spring/ Summer, the clubnight uses music to encourage artists and designers to expand on their practice, and draw on the dance floor as an exploratory space. Each line-up reflects a selection of artists and producers with a range of musical tastes, traversing across genres, generations and technical grasp. Support FLOURISH here.