Introducing Dada Khanyisa

The multi-faceted artist talks sneakers, art and workwear

Words: Dylan Muhlenberg | Photography + video: Nick Gordon

Mujava’s ‘Township Funk’ is playing from a pair of speakers laying on the floor as images of Pantsula dancers flash across a screen embedded in Dada Khanyisa’s final year art project Father Figure. It's an autobiographical installation that refers to her own life, how in a space where there is no father the TV takes on the role of guiding young minds.

The figure lying down on the couch in front of the distorted Tim Burtonesque installation is not part of the exhibition, but the artist’s aesthetic works so well with everything else that it’s not difficult to imagine her being a part of her work. Like any good artist, she’s the embodiment of her message.

“I reference the Kasi thing a lot,” says Dada, whose style is more than a fashion trend and needs to stand up to the physicality of her art. “I’m for workwear and grew up looking up to people who wore quality items like All Stars, Samson, Dickies, Levi’s…”

Born into a household with six brothers, lots of uncles and no youthful female figures that she could look up to, Dada received hand-me-downs of the above-mentioned brands and to this day doesn’t feel comfortable in a skirt.

“My upbringing didn’t just influence how I dress, but also made me start working with my hands, where we’d build wire cars or make weapons. Everything I do today is from watching the people around me when I was younger.”

Not that Dada has stopped absorbing everything around her now that she’s left her Johannesburg home. Today the artist is even more influenced by “that internet life” than her childhood spent drawing in front of the computer. If TV raised her then surely the family PC can be credited for co-parenting? Dada agrees that it led to her becoming involved in the sneaker game, which resulted in her going to Street Cred, introducing her to new influences outside of her immediate family.

“All Stars, Grasshoppers and Supergas – those brands go back to my brothers, uncles and cousins. Then this guy Sidney from Street Cred, he schooled me properly, and had a room full of sneakers from all over. The people at Nike and Boyznbucks taught me a lot, too. So I’ve been taking influence from everyone and everything.”

With forays into footwear that started out with her collection of Jordans, Dada then started making miniature sculptures of the sneakers she coveted. Being a messy process, with paint always dripping onto her sneakers, she realized her penchant for premium kicks didn’t make practical sense and switched to canvas sneakers that could take a beating.

“There were always going to be paint stains and I couldn’t escape that. With premium kicks you have to watch where you’re walking, and need this imaginary square around you so that people don’t interact with your kicks. But with All Stars and Vans you don’t worry when someone steps on them.”

After studying animation in Joburg, Dada finally managed to convince her mom to let her move to Cape Town where she recently completed a four-year degree at University of Cape Town’s Michaelis School of Art. It’s this move that’s made the most impact on the young artist’s life.

“The feeling I get when I’m making is like euphoria. Something bursts in my head. I think most kids enjoy being creative but we’re taught that there’s no money in creativity and so we follow a path where we think we might get that, accounting or something that will bring financial stability. That’s why I did the animation course first.”

Dada’s discovered that with enough hustle it’s highly possible to earn a living off of her passion, and to date she’s been included as a finalist in the SA Taxi Foundation Art Awards, which saw her artwork adorn ten taxis nationwide; she was commissioned to do the artwork for u_Sanele’s Ganja Beatz produced song with Mashayabhuqe KaMamba ‘Amabhodlela’; she’s designed small sneaker sculptures for Zaid Osman; and she has created a 3D look book for Sol-Sol.

Helping other people to realize their vision means that you must sometimes sacrifice your own work, and so Dada has learned to turn down jobs that she doesn’t believe in, even if there’s potential to make bank.

“I was asked to make 200 awards for this government thing that wanted something similar to Matt Kieser’s project. They were just giving awards to everyone. I wasn’t going to be pushing 200 medals. It was tacky.”

What she did manage to find the time for was doing the animation work on the new DJ Lag music video, and then Dada is also coming up with a exclusive piece of sneaker art for Superbalist, which she can be seen working on here, cutting up the all white Superstars. There’s also a growing list of clients wanting her to tattoo them.

“I told my mom that instead of giving me an allowance she should rather buy me the machine and I’ll use that to pay my own way. She did, and tattoos have been good to me. The machine fits in my bag easily and I can just hop on my bicycle and go work on someone at their house. The tattoo gun is like any other tool.”

After being confronted by haters claiming how she’s stealing “real” tattoo artist’s jobs, Dada says that she tried to go the apprentice route, but that she didn’t have time to be making people tea for two years before getting to clean a needle.

“I’d rather watch YouTube videos and practice on myself. I need to make money from my art. I don’t want to work at an animation studio yet. Sure I’ll be comfortable, financially, but I don’t know if I want that just yet.”