INTERVIEW: THANDO MLAMBO
July 14th, 2020
Interview by Victoria Campa · Artwork by Hayley Palmer
Thando Mlambo is a Zimbabwean-born musician and visual artist currently quarantined in Harare. Having lived in Zimbabwe, Côte d'Ivoire, Tunisia, the US, and the UK, Thando's entire world has been shaped by the noises, echoes and reverberations of each place, culminating in a lifelong passion for creating sound. All of her visual work stems from a deep-rooted appreciation of sound. We photographed Thando at home in Harare via FaceTime, surrounded by her paintings. Below, she tells us about using the internet to stay inspired, create new work, and connect with friends worldwide.
How are you staying creative?
I’ve been quarantining in Harare, Zimbabwe, and I’ve been more creatively productive during this time than I have in a while. In many ways, this unexpected isolation forced me to face myself, to take stock of how I had been neglecting my creative expression due to the business of life. I’m reminded of an Albert Einstein quote I love: “A table, a chair, a bowl of fruit and a violin; what else does a man need to be happy?” These are simple but profound pleasures I am privileged to have: a space to work and create, food to eat, and tools for creation.
What revelations or realizations have you had about yourself or your life during this time?
This time has definitely encouraged a ton of self-reflection for me. I’ve also had some intense shifts in my personal relationships over the past few months, so actually having to be alone, and getting to absorb music, art and film in excess has given me the time and peace of mind to actually process my thoughts and feelings. If there’s one major lesson I’ve learned that applies to every aspect of my life, it’s that everything that manifests externally is a reflection of what’s going on within. In order to be my highest and most authentic self, I’ve got to be doing continuous internal work. Tapping into this energy has made everything from setting boundaries with those around me to experimenting with new art forms not only easier, but more fulfilling. It hasn’t necessarily been a pretty process, but it has been incredibly liberating.
Tell us about art (books, movies, music, etc.) that you have discovered or revisited during this time.
Even as I’ve been painting, writing and recording quite a bit, I have also been absorbing so much incredible literature, music and film! I love the compilations that The Caine Prize for African Writing puts out each year and just finished the one published in 2018. The stories are a testament to the plurality and richness of the experiences of people on this big beautiful continent. The last film I watched was "Duck Butter", directed by Miguel Arteta and written by Arteta and Alia Shawkat. I’d seen it when it first came out, but have been rewatching a lot of films to see how time and new experiences change the way I see, feel and relate to them. It’s a really beautiful film about the terrifying but ultimately liberating process of letting go and being vulnerable with yourself first, and then with another human being. It’s really hard to allow yourself to feel, especially as an Aquarius with my rising and moon in Capricorn. My creative outlets have always been a way to process and express emotions. However, I’ve been learning that my best work can only stem from a place of truth and a deep sense of self-awareness, so I appreciate all of the art and music that has been putting me in my feels!
Is there a particular favorite piece of work you like to reference during difficult moments, such as this one?
This cover of “Atoll” by the incredible musician Nai Palm, encapsulates this quarantine experience for me quite wonderfully. The song illuminates something to me each time I hear it, and recently it has come to be an expression of love, support and “home.” I’ve had the time to reflect on and feel an infinite gratitude for the homes I have found in places and people, be they biological or chosen family. I probably listen to 6-8 hours of music a day and during tough times there are a few artists whose work is healing for me, albeit at very different wavelengths. Lonnie Liston Smith and The Cosmic Echoes are on repeat when I need to zen out—check out "Summer Nights", "Astral Traveling" or "Meditations" for a proper chill session. Everything Raveena has ever released is the definition of sunbathing on a warm summer day and I am here for it—"Still Dreaming", "Temptation" and "If Only" are so lovely and calming. I listen to Laura Mvula whenever I’m craving orchestral magic and raw emotion: "Is There Anybody Out There", "Sing To The Moon", and "Bread" are the songs that really move me. With everything erupting around the world in response to centuries of systemic violence against black bodies, I have taken comfort in Bob Marley’s music. It’s funny because I’ve been listening to Marley, as many have, since I was a child, but it is only as an adult that I fully recognize and appreciate the profoundly revolutionary nature of his work. And to be honest it feels damn good to light a few candles and easy skank to the corny love songs we all know, the lesser known ones like "Time Will Tell", "Bad Card", "Bend Down Low", and even the more militant tracks like "War" or "So Much Trouble", or "Burnin’ And Lootin’".
What are some silver linings that you've encountered during this time?
The only certain thing in this life is uncertainty. I’ve always understood this on an intellectual level, but damn, I feel it now. That’s the whole silver lining. There’s beauty and joy, worry and stress in the unknowns of life, but there is also so much potential in the ambiguities. That potential gives us the incredible power to create the life we want as best as we can, while knowing that nothing is certain and nothing is forever! I have had to rethink and reimagine what my next steps will be professionally and personally and know I wouldn’t be in the same level of clarity had we not had this devastating global epidemic.
What routines have kept you grounded?
I fell in love with yoga in Cambodia three years ago after a well-intentioned but still corny “find yourself” post-university trip to Southeast Asia. I have since practiced on and off and when it dawned on me that I would be stuck in the same place for an uncertain amount of time, I decided I needed to have some sort of control in my life. I restarted my yoga practice in earnest and have since added a few other rituals that keep me grounded. My first hour of the day includes yoga, meditation and reading for fun with a big cup of black coffee. Other routines that have been a blessing are blasting music while dancing at sunset—the ones in Harare are truly breathtaking. I also try to paint or do something creative every night after dinner, but if I don’t, I try to watch something from my very long list of movies to watch!
What changes do you hope are in store for the post-quarantine world?
My hope for the post-quarantine world is that we individually and collectively recognize the need to protect, as Jenny Odell eloquently puts it in her book "How to Do Nothing", "our spaces and our time for non-instrumental, noncommercial activity and thought, for maintenance, for care, for conviviality.” Yes, life will return to “normal” and we will have work and deadlines to meet, drinks after the gym, grocery shopping and so much else to do, however I hope to remember to guard what makes me and us human. I don’t think that the global solidarity and organizing related to Black Lives Matter happening at this time is a coincidence. The combination of people unfortunately being out of work, but therefore unburdened by the distraction and distress of capitalism, with humans being connected like never before, allowed a movement to gain rightfully deserved traction. Part and parcel of this fight for justice is the maintenance, care, and conviviality Odell speaks of. I hope that we will come out of quarantine more alert and ready to claim our humanity, speak out against the injustices that surround and subjugate us. I hope quarantine has been a time for us to see what is possible when we as individuals and as a society tap into our truest and most authentic selves.
What has been inspiring you lately?
To be very honest, I have been inspired by the power of the internet, without which I could never have written and recorded music with my main collaborator and brother, Kosi. For our EP, OPAQUE we were never in the same room. Everything was done via the internet; I recorded some of the vocals in London, Cambridge, Phnom Penh, Ho Chi Minh City, while he produced in Toronto and Harare. We are now collaborating with creatives from the US, Canada, Zimbabwe and Nigeria, thanks to the internet! During this quarantine, I have been able to reconnect with old friends, as well as meet and forge genuine connections with people across the world, simply because of the internet. I’ve streamed movies and TV shows, practiced Spanish and stalked Reese Witherspoon, all thanks to the internet! Pinterest has been such a blessing for my mental health these past few months, and so has going through old photos and videos stored in the cloud. I could go on.
This interview is part of a series of conversations with artists discussing their experiences during quarantine.
Victoria Campa grew up in Madrid, Spain, and has traveled around the world with her camera. She mostly lenses women in quiet moments within their environments, and she is interested in exploring the passage of time, strength in vulnerability, and inner lives through stories. She writes a bi-weekly newsletter about art, film, and writing called things to look at. You can explore her work at www.victoriacampa.com
Hayley Palmer is a young artist from Vancouver. She enjoys exploring new styles and messing around with different types of art. You can find more of her work on Instagram @twohalftruths.