A creative purpose

These four women share their Little Black Book of advice and inspiration that has helped them get to where they are today.

By Norma Young
Violeta Sofia © Sahara Ashanti/ Maroon Photography

Through the looking glass

Portrait photographer Violeta Sofia captures images that immortalise not only the physical appearance of her subjects, but their emotions, stories and inner beauty, too

Born in Cameroon and now living in London, Violeta once gave serious consideration to a career as a pilot. She’d always loved the arts but worried that it was more a personal passion than a realistic option. Courage and unwavering interest led her towards creative pursuits and, today, Violeta is a renowned artist. She is currently participating in a three-year project sponsored by Chanel, called Reframing Narratives: Women in Portraiture, at the National Portrait Gallery in London. She’s also busy preparing for a September exhibition is in collaboration with the English National Opera.

Photography became a passion after my father, an avid photography enthusiast, introduced me to it. But then I faced conflicting advice regarding my career aspirations. While my passion lay in artistic pursuits, the prevailing sentiment in school was for a more conventional path. This contradictory guidance left me utterly perplexed when it came to my future career trajectory.

It took a considerable amount of time to fully identify and embrace my calling, but I finally did. Occasionally, I can’t help but wonder how my career might have unfolded if I had received the right support and guidance from an early age. Would my path have been more straightforward and fulfilling? Would my mind have been less confused and more resolute? Fortunately, I had the unwavering support of my parents, which proved to be an invaluable source of encouragement throughout my journey.

What captivates me about portraits is their timeless nature. They transcend  fleeting fashion trends and societal norms. It’s truly fascinating to witness my pictures resurfacing and being reused in publications even after several years  have passed. Portraits have a way of enduring, carrying the essence of the sitter with them through time.

A pivotal career moment is when I photographed George Clooney in 2021. I was becoming busier with portraits and in that instant, I made the decision to let go of all other job commitments. I resigned from all other positions, including teaching, in order to concentrate solely on being an artist and photographer. This decision opened more doors and being signed to multiple prestigious photography agencies. 

In recent times, I have found myself drawn to the works of the old masters. During my upbringing, I never appreciated the art of the old masters; it felt distant, with no connection to my own identity. It’s ironic how my previous disdain has now transformed into a deep appreciation as I now embark on creating my own unique interpretations of these timeless masterpieces.

Resilience and determination play a pivotal role in my work, driving me to excel.  It is my unwavering passion and the inability to imagine my life without creativity,  storytelling, and artistic expression that fuel my success.

One of the most important aspects for me to prioritise is mental health. As a freelance photographer, it’s easy to get caught up in the demands of projects and forget to take care of myself and live a fulfilling life beyond work. I try to find a balance and remember that taking care of my mental well-being is just as important as achieving professional success.

I approach life in an organic manner and avoid setting rigid goals that revolve around specific timelines. Instead, I believe in the power of visualisation and the influence that our thoughts can have on shaping our lives.”

Quick-fire favourites

Drink of choice: A green smoothie.
Background music: Shazam playlist.
Most used gadget: Fuji x100Vcamera.
Way to destress: Kickboxing and yoga.
Dream destination: Zanzibar.

Trevyn Mc Gowan © Katinka Bester/ Southern Guild

The eye of the beholder

From bronze totems and ink paintings to debris turned into artefacts, Trevyn McGowan aims to make it easier for buyers to access and purchase artworks they love 

In her previous career running an interior and architectural practice, Trevyn took on renovations and redevelopments for big name clients such as Sir Ian McKellan, Gerald Butler and Rachel Wiesz. In some ways, personal spaces still dominate in her current job as CEO of Southern Guild. Except now she’s helping artists get their works into homes, offices and hotels. Trevyn founded the gallery in 2008 after moving back to South Africa following just over two decades in London. Passionate about creating platforms for diverse African narratives, this September she’ll be leading the galleries first exhibit at The Armory Show in New York City. It’s yet another notable achievement alongside starting GUILD, Africa’s first international design fair, which was launched in Cape Town in 2014 and numerous acknowledgements such as being listed in USA Art + Auction magazine’s ‘POWER 100’.

I initially wanted to be a film director or producer. Running the gallery and producing exhibitions, eventsand fairs has a lot of the same qualities and requires similar expertise, so I feel that this ambition has been fulfilled in certain aspects.

Energy, intensity and collaborative force help me thrive. I love a busy, people-packed environment – we have five kids and two dogs, and the house is always full of friends of all ages. I love brainstorming sessions and team presentations with their electric atmosphere and the dynamism of differing viewpoints. I love exhibition set-ups with the pressure of an opening deadline and everyone called to bring their best game.

Resources that are integral to my success have been my COO Sarah Dawson, the ability to combat fear and my overriding sense of optimism. I hope the fact that I really care about how people feel has also been a contributor.

Andile Dyalvane’s solo exhibition, iThongo, has been a huge source of inspiration to me. We premiered the collection in his home village of Ngobozana before it showed in the Cape Town gallery, followed by New York. Andile’s intrinsic connection to his ancestors and his desire for healing the wounds that were afflicted on them, and on all of us, have been a guiding inspiration for me on the role art can play at a deep soul level.

A goal we are working towards right now is opening a US gallery in February 2024. I had a very clear epiphany at the end of 2022, for space abroad. So we went to Los Angeles and signed the lease on a 500sqm gallery in East Hollywood. We will become the first South African gallery to have a full-time US gallery in the most exciting new art hub on the West Coast. As one of the drivers for the evolution of Southern Guild, it propels so many of the goals and dreams we have for the self-defined category in which we work. We can’t wait to see how our artists and programme will be received.”

Quick-fire Favourites

Brunch spot: My bed on a Saturday morning with my kids, unpacking their Friday night.
Weekend getaway destination: Dar el Qamar in Tulbagh.
Most helpful app: WhatsApp to stay in constant comms.
Media consumption: For a podcast, Nancy Kline’s Time to Think and a current read is On Connection by Kae Tempest.
Daily ritual: Early morning walk with my dogs on the Constantia greenbelt while listening to podcasts to get me ready for the day.

Thabisa Mjo

A magical mash-up

Blending contemporary design with craft-driven techniques, Thabisa Mjo has built a business that tells uniquely South African stories through furniture and homeware products

An art gallery in Franschhoek, a safari lodge in Pilanesberg, an art foundation in Madagascar, the offices of Google in Kenya and restaurants in Johannesburg, Australia, Zambia and Belfast. These are just some of the establishments that house pieces from MashT Design Studio. Founder, Thabisa, is the only South African designer with two works, the Tutu Light and Mjojo Cabinet, that are part of the permanent collection in the Louvre, Paris. Since she started MashT in 2013, Thabisa has won multiple accolades including “South African Designer of the Year, 2019”. Passionate about bringing together technology and traditional crafts such as weaving and beading, Thabisa wants her company to achieve more than selling pretty products. Her goal is to change people’s lives in a meaningful way.

Advice that I’ve been given and try to always follow is the importance of learning to listen to another person, and then in that listening, to understand what they’re saying rather than rushing to respond.

I find my work meaningful because our products aim to add spark and joy to the spaces they’re in. They’re designed to be delightful and hopefully make people feel something, and perhaps invoke a sense of connection.

Winning the Nandos design competition in the early days of MashT boosted my confidence and self-belief. I was just making lights that I loved and hadn’t really been aware that I had the gift of designing and creating products. Through the experience of winning, it then became clear to me that the business wasn’t so much about designing and selling products, but about telling stories that matter that people can respond to. I wasn’t aware of this ability, so the validation made me realise that I can actually do this and I’m good at it.

A play that recently inspired me is Cion, an adaptation of Zakes Mda’s book that was directed and choreographed by Gregory Maqoma. It was an incredible production that incorporated dance, sound and music to tell the story. I liked that it wasn’t limited to a genre but was all encompassing. The actors not only used words but their entire bodies to express a message. This, alongside the lighting and sound design,created an experience in which the audience was completely involved and drawn into the world on stage.

Cinga Samson is an artist I really admire. He does these beautiful portraits where the subjects are captured so convincingly it feels like they are alive and staring directly into your soul.

My intention with MashT is to build a scalable and sustainable design business that will outlive me. I want it to be a business that will help preserve indigenous artisan skills and be a vehicle for artisans to generate income. I also hope it becomes a business that will  establish South African design as a category brand.

Quick-Fire Favourites

Airplane essentials: Water, a good book and a hydrating mask.
Most valuable gadget: My iPhone.
Little luxuries: A pretty purse, skincare and me time when I need it.
Regular podcast: The Diary of a CEO with Steven Bartlett.
Book recommendation: The PH Miracle: Balance Your Diet, Reclaim Your Health by Robert Young and Shelley Redford Young.

Kirsten Goss

A global gem

Jewellery designer Kirsten Goss creates pieces that read both African and international, and are suitable for occasions spanning from special events to everyday glam      

Having started her business from a small studio in London, Kirsten Goss has built it into an internationally renowned brand. Her client list spans from Hollywood actresses such as Sarah Jessica Parker and American singer Nicole Scherzinger to British actress Rosamund Pike. The eponymous jewellery design company specialises in pieces that are designed by Kirsten and then manufactured by an in-house team of goldsmiths, using a variety of unusual gemstones and fine metals. She’s developed the Signature Collection of timeless classics that are exclusively made to order, and then over the years offered themed ranges such as OXO, which celebrated the decadence of the 80s, and Tokyo, which was an ode to minimalist architecture and aesthetics. In 2019, Kirsten expanded the company’s offering to include the ABODE collection of brass and sterling silver homeware such as spoons, pickle forks and salad servers; as well as scented candles, soaps and stationery. Her creative eye and business acumen have helped the brand grow and garner recognition ,such as Most Beautiful Object In South Africa at Design Indaba in 2012, Entrepreneur of the Year at the SA Business Awards in London in 2014, and Kirsten being named one of 100 World Class South Africans by City Press in 2017.

“I have an amazingly interesting family from an art and business perspective. My mum and her mum inspired my thirst for quality, quirk and aesthetic, while my dad and his mum ensured the drive, discipline and business aspect remained alive and well. I don’t mention my grandfathers as they sadly passed away before I could learn from them directly. But they left impressive, pioneering legacies which are equally inspirational.

A geeky element to an artistic endeavour made studying jewellery design my idea of heaven. A friend told me they had a degree in jewellery design at the University of Stellenbosch. I was already pretty keen on the university in the first place, so the fact they had an academic course in something so unusual was fascinating to me. I had studied chemistry at school so the gemmology aspect made it a perfect fit.

Never take a ‘no’ from someone who isn’t authorised to say yes in the first place. This is a piece of advice that I try to follow.

Design and gem sourcing are the favourite parts of my work, but I do also love the marketing and the business side – even though it takes up an extraordinary amount of time.

In my ideal creative environment, everything needs to be super neat, clean and aesthetically appealing. I cannot work unless these things are in place, so I first need to create spaces that feel deeply appealing ahead of working at my desk.

Great pieces of art have taken me on so many mental journeys. But it’s a Rothko that I saw in the MoMA in New York that shook me the youngest and earliest in memory.

Big goals we’re chasing right now include new production studios and a really exciting new couture fine collection.

Quick-fire Favourites

Brunch spot: Clarke’s in Cape Town.
Weekend getaway: Coot Club in Stanford, Western Cape.
Inspiring quote: “Everything in moderation, including moderation” -Oscar Wilde.
Recent read: Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver.
Music: Agar Agar radio on Spotify.

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