As a creative myself, I low-key harbour my own biases when it comes to other people’s career options. Which I admit is quite ironic because I have also had to defend my chosen career field. I had subconsciously put ranks on different professions in the creative industry – according to viability and success rate. I can now confidently say, my biases were unfounded.

Over the past few years, we have seen the rise of Visual Artists in South Africa who collaborated with big brands, and international corporations. Amongst those, is Visual Artist and businesswoman, Neo Mahlangu.
I had a lovely interview with her – no, it was actually a beautiful conversation, it felt like we were old friends catching up on the events we had missed out on. Neo Mahlangu is the first young woman we’re featuring for our Art of Superwoman, Youth Month series and here’s how our conversation went…

Q. When you decided to leave your career in the health sciences field, how did the people closest to you react?

They were shocked, and I think terrified because my family had the mentality that the only way to make money in life was to be in a traditional career. So, it was a shock to them, but they couldn’t stop me because I was already an adult. Overtime, I was patient with them, and educated them that it actually is possible.

Q. Growing up, you didn’t have any role models who were visual artists. What needs to be done in order for young African girls to have people to look up to in the arts?

It helps when people who have the knowledge pass it down and share it until it reaches someone who actually needs it. It is a collective thing.

Q. You have your own business, Neo Mahlangu Studio. Take us through the thinking process behind it.

I saw the freedom that owning a business gives people when I was growing up. From a young age I always knew at the back of my mind that I was going to be somebody who would be doing things for herself. I was also not comfortable in a 9 – 5 setting, it made me sad. I was fascinated by business – from what makes it fail, how to get the marketing right, and all those things. I love the idea of empowerment and using your time to do whatever you want to do.

Q. From a financial perspective, how important is money when trying to build a career as a creative?

Oh! Money is very important. There’s a belief that in order for an artist to make pure work, they must struggle. But what good is it if you can’t buy a canvas? Or paint? What is the purpose of the struggle? So, I think, money is a tool that can empower an artist to stretch their creativity as far as possible, and artists must be comfortable to have those conversations.

Q. The right to education bill is endorsed in the coins you designed. What are your thoughts about education in South Africa right now?

For me, getting a degree showed me what my discipline can do for me. I didn’t let it define anything for me because I knew where I needed to go. However, I also know the struggle of not affording higher education because I didn’t go to Art school because I didn’t have the money. But that didn’t stop me from pursuing what I wanted.

Q. Why is it important for corporations to collaborate with creatives?

So many reasons. It is important for corporations to expose themselves to the arts because, well, the arts have audiences, collectors and collaborating with us is a beautiful way to attract more people to the arts. They can become patrons. The other thing is that it is an avenue to play around with your creativity especially if a corporate is open minded.

Q. With everything that’s happening right now, COVID 19 pandemic, GBV, SA women doing great things in Hollywood… Do all these things impact your art expression?

Mmmhh… yeah most definitely. When you see South African black women break into the states, it reminds you that it is possible. With regards to the COVID 19 pandemic, for me, it did better than bad. I went on a self-discovery journey that I wouldn’t have had if it wasn’t for covid.

Q. Was your business affected by the COVID 19 pandemic?

Yes, it was. But because I knew that there were no exhibitions, I just found more time for my design work. And people were mostly on their phones and needed design work, so, I had clients in that regard. I looked for an opportunity in what was going on.

Q. Do you have a team that helps you carry your vision forward?

I actually don’t. I think in the next few months I’ll start having some people.

Q. What is your biggest achievement so far?

Yoh! So, on the 02nd of June, I’ll be showing in Spain, so I’m quite excited about that. Currently that’s what I’m most proud of.

Q. You’re turning 29 this month. What does this new age mean to you?

I really don’t time my life according to my age, right now I’m just doing the most that I can.

Q. It is Youth month, top of mind, what’s your message to today’s generation?

Yoh, wena (You)! What a heavy question! I’ll answer this as if I’m speaking to my 15-year-old self; Listen to your parents because they are right! And I’m saying this in hindsight. Staying in school is important. My education is the reason why I am capable of sitting in boardrooms and reason. I was able to open opportunities for myself because of my education. The self-education part is also important.

What I took away from this conversation is that your passion will pull you towards it no matter the obstacles. Neo worked in health sciences and trying to connect the two is a far reach. However, even after not affording to go to Art school, she managed to turn her passion into a full-time career.

Neo’s work is available at Neo Mahlangu Studio.

South Africa’s 25 young years as a constitutional democracy is the subject of the South African Mint Company’s (SA Mint) ‘SA25 – Celebrating South Africa’ coin series, which commemorate the rights and freedoms espoused by South Africa’s Constitution. The SA Mint is a wholly owned subsidiary of the South African Reserve Bank (SARB). To commemorate this milestone, the SA Mint invited artists to design limited edition coins. Neo Mahlangu designed two South African ZAR2 coins. The youngest person to have ever done so.

[info courtesy of]