Tribute to Phumlani Pikoli from Arts Collective, Wom{b}_anifesto

We come into this earth with the single certainty of death yet unsure of the exact date and cause. When the day finally arrives, despite the certainty, those left behind are overcome with sadness, grief and a myriad of complicated feelings. The passing of Phumlani Pikoli has cast a dark shadow over the artistic community.

We are perturbed that most mainstream outlets have carelessly reported the matter thus rehashing trauma. Isintu does not allow us to refer to one that has passed as ‘DEAD’, we do not refer to the passing and transition of a soul for the sake of sucking in clicks onto stories. On Monday, we were in shock over the news all over social media. Perhaps, in a haste to publish these breaking news, writers turned off their creativity and lost all euphemisms for death and proceeded to write headlines of the state in which Pikoli was found [by his parents]. We are noting this trend, particularly when it comes to reporting the death of Black people. If you’re a journalist reading this, do better and encourage your colleagues to show respect to Black bodies. Ayenziwa lento niyenzayo.

As writers, our hard work, mostly done in isolation, can go unrecognized. Pikoli’s writing was certainly recognised for its sincerity, clarity, and simplicity in communicating complex ideas. He served as a journalist for various publications and after a while of struggling with his mental health – he decided to admit himself into a mental institution. During this hour of surrender, he wrote A Fatuous State of Severity (2018). A book that was self-published but was highly successful due to the subject matter he tackled and how he approached the fictional series. He cited that this was an important moment in his writing career, for once he was writing without any expectations thus his creativity flowed and created a masterpiece.

Pikoli, as a journalist and author, was unafraid to delve deep into generational and systemic issues brought on by apartheid but he always had a way of peaking into the future with a hint of clairvoyance. By infusing multimedia elements and his background as a skater, he also flexed his skills as a multidisciplinary artist by making films and art.

Pikoli most recently received the Sello Duiker Memorial Literary Award, he was also one of MGs Top 200 young South Africans, and further his work has been featured in a wide number of publications. The release of Born Freeloaders (2019) was extremely successful and the launches in Pretoria, Joburg and Cape Town were often brimming with people who were excited at the release of his debut novel. A true testament to the fact he received his flowers while breathing and walking among us.

As a collective of creatives, Wom{b}_anifesto feels this loss immensely with many of us in one way or another having had a relationship or association with Phumlani Pikoli. As we formed this collective, we had the privilege of a conversation over Instagram Live with Phumlani and in the course of those few minutes, he left with a legacy that informs how we move forward as a collective. He shared gems of what true collaboration means, the value of artists in society and his desire to see unity in the creative industry.

Pikoli was a breath of fresh air in the literary scene, energetic, innovative and he could easily expand on his ideas, provide insights and prompt you to ask serious questions. The dark hour of lockdown was lifted by his online readings, short stories and articles. He will be missed and may his kind soul rest in peace.

A message from Megan Ross

Phumlani wrote as if his hands were on fire. He made, crafted, drew and created with speed and energy, tackling everything from racism in rugby to mental health with his signature disregard for sacred cows and that almost-childlike delight in colour and experimentation that we all loved about him. There was nothing I loved more than spending hours with Phums, sending memes, sharing music or getting into a DMC about all that we loved, detested and thought about. When I was assaulted by a doctor in Johannesburg, he was the first person I told, despite having only met him a day earlier. He took this in and supported me emotionally for the duration of my stay in the city. His empathy was considerable, and from that moment I felt an absolutely unbreakable bond with him. A year or so later, when I was having panic attacks about this event, I WhatsApp called him from Zanzibar, where I was attending a writing workshop. He picked up, even though he was in the club, and ran outside to talk. The Wi-Fi on my side was terrible, so he kept calling, over and over again, so that we could have snatches of conversation in the moments that the connection allowed. It didn’t matter that he was busy, or with other people, or that he was having fun.

He picked up.

When Sven Christian (known as Pooch to everyone who know-knows him) sought out writers to write about their impressions on Dumile Feni’s artwork, You wouldn’t know God if he spat in your eye, he asked both myself and Phumlani to contribute a piece.

At the time, I was super broke and couldn’t pay for the flight to Joburg to see the artwork. Phumlani offered to give me his honorarium so that I could fly up. When I didn’t eventually go, he called me to tell me about Feni’s scroll, and what it was like being there. I felt the scroll through Phumlani’s impression of it. And I think that in this way, so much of the art and media and literature I’ve consumed in recent years has been filtered through Phumlani’s gaze. Phumlani offered to be my eyes in the city, at events, with people I desperately wanted to be around but couldn’t because I live in East London. He saw and translated and gave. He made magic out of the world around him.

In the spaces between the medium, event or word, and the moment when it reached me in animated WhatsApps or multiple phone calls, Phumlani broken-telephoned any gaps in his memory with his imagination. This was a function of his massive generosity of spirit, and also his desire to connect everyone he knew to everything he was discovering, including other people. In the wake of his passing, I’ve felt held by the community of Phumlani’s friend, and this is one of the ways he keeps giving to us. Keeps bringing people together and keeps creating community.

I don’t know if I will ever truly articulate what Phumlani Pikoli means to me, as an artist, a writer and as his friend. His impact on my life has been profound. I only hope he knows how adored and loved he is. When asking a close friend how to cope with Phumlani’s passing, she told me this:

“You let him continue to live… through your projects. Be his hands. Be his light.”

I think Phums will continue to bring a supernova-amount of light to the world, so there’s no need. But I’m happy to join you all in being his hands for a little while.

Megan Ross, 2021 (East London)

Tonight, his memorial will be held at 6pm – you can watch live on this link: