Pola Maneli is a South African freelance illustrator and art director who centers his work around blackness and the multi-dimensional experiences of people of color. Blending bold colors and contemporary iconography with floral and faunal motifs, Maneli uses his art to speak out against the notion of a monolithic black culture.
A quick look at Maneli’s portfolio shows the work of an an artist who revels in vibrant color palettes and bold statements on the rampant disregard for black lives in the US and across Africa. Maneli says:
“The work is mostly of quite a political nature and looks at everything from pop culture to government politics through a lens of what it means to be black in South Africa. It all sounds very serious, but aesthetically the work is far from morose.”
Born and raised in Port Elizabeth, Maneli has been drawn to illustration since his early childhood. “I’ve been drawing ever since I can remember,” the artist says.
Later on, while studying visual communication at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, Maneli began to use his craft as a conduit for social commentary. He adds:
“Even though I was being taught how everything we see alludes to some deeper meaning, it wasn’t until I started dabbling in identity politics and the role representation plays in forming those identities that I saw all art as an inherently political tool.”
“Like most POC I didn’t grow up with a lot of choices when it came to characters/people in the media or arts that I could relate to. I think we’re still suffering from that now which is how we’ve ended up with everyone seemingly only being able to name 2 people of color within the visual arts; Frida Kahlo and Basquiat. I would have loved to have been exposed to more African creatives in the arts as a teenager. I’m starting to unearth those people for myself now, but at the same time I wish I didn’t have to dig to find the names of African artists.”
The signature triangular features of Maneli’s characters are based on simplified abstractions of Ndebele patterns, an aesthetic choice which hints at a foundational blackness he hopes doesn’t seem too forced. His main preoccupation, however, lies in what those who encounter his work take away from the experience. hg