Mahaneela and Lunga Ntila photographically illustrate three facets of modern love


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London-based visual artist Mahaneela has possibly the longest list of descriptions in her job title. From photography to directing, consulting and even managing musicians, there’s very little she can’t creatively explore, even just on her own. Despite this, collaboration is a constant part of her practice with Mahaneela considering regular collaborators as “the better half of my brain.”

Her work, in turn, shows the benefits of a conversation or an extra eye on a creative’s practice, providing those final “aha” moments which push a project to the next level. For Mahaneela, this particularly develops when she works “with people that offer a different perspective or approach.” As a result, when we asked her to collaborate with a distant stranger using Dropbox Paper, she jumped at the opportunity with enthusiasm.

Opening with the brief to explore the theme of “Modern Love” alongside a mixed-media creative, Mahaneela spotted the work of Lunga Ntila, a Joburg-based creative who uses collage techniques to evolve her photography. However, it turned out that Mahaneela and Lunga already knew each other by coincidence after Mahaneela photographed the artist for South African magazine, Between 10 and 5 back in 2018. Impressed at the time by her work ethic, her exploration of colour and “most importantly how she captures a diverse range of people who come from different backgrounds,” Lunga has been a fan of Mahaneela’s ever since. “Representation of black people is important and I love how she prioritises that in her work.”

For Mahaneela, viewing Lunga’s work again via Instagram on the other side of the world, the immediate eye-catching element was the boldness of her pieces. Lunga’s use of self-portraiture in her photo illustrations was particularly interesting to Mahaneela as someone who usually stands behind the camera and “that’s what drew me in,” she tells It’s Nice That. “She understood her face very well and as a portrait photographer, I am obsessed with faces. I love how she manipulates them!”

With a mutual fascination with one another’s work, the pair began to discuss the topic of modern love by sharing their own experiences. This beginning stage was actually Mahaneela’s favourite part of the process as the pair had the opportunity to talk “openly about our experiences with love,” as if they were old friends. “It was essential for us to have this moment before we could be on the same page about what we wanted to say about modern love with our work. It was just a great conversation to have with another young black woman from the other side of the world – it’s reassuring to know you go through similar things.”

Similarly, when catching up with Lunga about the process, it was this personal level of communication that “dominated our conversations,” she tells us. “Sharing the multiple times we got screwed over by boys, and the different ways we experienced the joy of love as well. We also got into a couple of conversations around the creative industry and how to navigate around and in it.”

Following this, the two visually focused creatives started pouring references of these feelings and themes into their Dropbox Paper document. Beginning by looking at the works which communicate “the loss of love, the feeling of love and the power of love,” Lunga began to share works by Francis Bacon, particularly citing his portraiture as an influence. Making reference to a quote of Bacon’s “The job of the artist is always to deepen the mystery,” Lunga then looked at how this artist’s approach could apply to photography, particularly through playing with exposure.

From here, the duo decided on three elements of love to interpret: feeling, power and loss. The first would represent “the state of confusion in love,” the second would illustrate the “power over another’s emotions” that love can provide, and the third would visualise “a breaking apart of love”. To signify that these images are part of a series representing modern love, the pair then decided to use only three primary colours. Yellow would represent “feeling”, red would visualise “power”, and “loss” would be shown using the colour blue.

For Mahaneela, making this connection between the three representations of love “and how these aligned with our interpretation of colour theory, that was an aha moment,” she tells It’s Nice That. Whereas for Lunga, the route to this starting point felt very natural, noting how “the process was pretty much linear from the beginning to the end,” she says. “We were on the same frequency when it came to a lot of the planning and process. This made conceptualising to execution very clear to us.”

With their theme solidified, the next step was for Mahaneela to shoot material for Lunga to work with. Sourcing references by looking at her own portfolio of photographs, the shoot features the same model wearing and positioned in front of their chosen primary-coloured backdrops. Selecting these together over their Dropbox Paper thread, the pair used comments to pick out favourites as well as shots that maybe weren’t quite hitting the mark.

Always referring back to their outlined concept when viewing each photograph, once the final three were chosen, Lunga began her collage work. Sharing variations with Mahaneela over Dropbox Paper, the pair discussed edits, swapping out elements where pieces weren’t “as subtle as we intended it to be,” and if over collaged elements altered their initial message.

Dropbox Paper also helped facilitate this conversation while the pair were communicating from different parts of the world. “Once you get the hang of it, it’s super intuitive and it really felt like we were on the same page (pardon the pun),” says Mahaneela. “My favourite part is the comments where you can just go back and forth.” With Lunga adding: “It made the tracking and planning of work so much easier. Collaborating with someone who is in a different time zone, it was really useful to be able to share references and progressions during our collaboration.”

The final images chosen as a result represent both their initial ideas and concepts, as well as both creatives’ differing – but equally bold – approach. For Lunga, she hopes that audiences can view these images as an opportunity to “really interrogate love in the three perspectives we have highlighted in our design,” she tells us. “How they view love and how they interact with love – hopefully, they become more honest with themselves in regards to their expectations and any pains that they might not have gotten over,” she continues.

Mahaneela, on the other hand, sums up their final design and Lunga’s interpretation of her photography simply as “bold”, adding that people should keep a close eye on Lunga’s work, hoping that audiences gain a new perspective from her. “She is an incredibly intelligent and talented person and I love the way her brain works,” she tells It’s Nice That. “Getting to know her in this process has been the best of all! I’ll be visiting South Africa later this year and I’ll definitely meet up with her then!”

For those of you attending Nicer Tuesdays later this evening (30 July) Mahaneela and Lunga’s final design, the result of this exciting collaboration, will be printed on tote bags.

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About the Author

Lucy Bourton

Lucy joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in July 2016 after graduating from Chelsea College of Art. In October 2016 she became a staff writer on the editorial team and in January 2019 was made It’s Nice That’s deputy editor. Feel free to get in contact with Lucy about new and upcoming creative projects or editorial ideas for the site.

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