Graphic artist Modise Sepeng: “Work twice as hard”The graphic artist from Alexandra is an aesthetic activist, using historical African influences to de-colonise the design landscape
Artists and designers are our dreamers and visionaries. They’re the ones who see the world not for what it is, but for what it could be. African creatives face an additional challenge: historically, African definitions of beauty have at best been colonised, and at worst been erased in favour of Western values.
Modise Sepeng, aka Black Dice, is one of those at the forefront of an exhilarating African design counterculture, where the brief is nothing less than redefining the continent’s aesthetic identity.
THE RED BULLETIN: Describe your creative journey so far…
MODISE SEPENG: I’m a designer, illustrator and creative director from Alexandra, Johannesburg. But growing up in the township, I never fathomed the world I am in now. I now live for an industry that, for most of my life, I never even knew existed.
How tough was it to break into the creative world?
Being raised in a township household by a single mother who was a domestic worker, you learn to expect very little from the world. I knew that my chances of studying design were limited. As the first person in my family – and one of just a handful in my community – to attend college and be a creative professional, I’m an ambassador for them, which is a lot of pressure.
What have been the major turning points in your life and career?
I dropped out in the first year of a design degree, because I felt my passion gravitated more towards fundamental design than the broader marketing and PR that the course was centred on. The marketing agency I was working for was paying for my studies, and I almost lost my job after dropping out.
But they decided not to fire me, and after three years I became their art director. But, after a while, I felt stagnant and disconnected from the industry and the creative scene booming at the time in Johannesburg. I lost all hope of making it in the creative world. Even the thought of building my own brand felt impossible.
What inspired you to break the mould and start doing things differently?
I decided to take the leap and pursue my dreams, regardless of the risks, and I’ve been persevering ever since. I began to see the artistic side of my township and also understand the artistic inspirations rooted in my culture. I found that I could infuse historical knowledge and traditional values into my work.
And your own brand is also breaking new ground, right?
Yes, Negritude Republic is an ideological lifestyle brand that I started. We do design, illustration, creative workshops and events that are centred on futuristic notions of black consciousness. Negritude Republic developed as a reaction to my frustration with the lack of African iconography in design.
How do you feel African design has been held back?
Although it has been studied and referenced for ages, the designers themselves have been overlooked. We have to unchain our minds as a people. We need to study more African designers. We need to study more African artists, African writers.
That’s the only way we’ll change anything. African creatives need to study social issues and translate them into interesting concepts. We have a special capacity to frame issues and draw attention to them in the same way we do for brands.
Design is a capital-intensive industry. What advice do you have for kids out there who don’t have the funds?
My advice to those kids is: hope is not lost. You would be surprised how many scholarship programmes there are for aspiring designers. You have to put yourself out there. You have to work twice as hard as the kid from an affluent background.
I never had a home computer until matric. I knew I was at a gross disadvantage to my peers, so I worked harder. I asked more questions. I never listened to the voices telling me that my dreams were unrealistic. You shouldn’t either.