Poised, graceful, knowledgeable and enlightened; these are the words that come to mind when describing Phendu Kuta. To the creative industry, she’s known as a writer, entrepreneur and creative director, and to those that have since followed her journey, she’s the name behind the grand online magazine, Unlabelled. I was honoured with an opportunity to converse with her at her home and have her recite her story - her way. So who exactly is Phendu Kuta? I asked her. “A being on a journey of aligning my spirit with the gifts I want to share with the world. I am the source, the creator of my own experience; I am awareness, trying on a daily not to confine myself to labels”. Although intrigued by this statement, I wasn’t quite primed for what I was yet to learn.
This creative was born eMthatha in the Eastern Cape and later moved to Queenstown where she stayed with her great-grandmother for a year before she and some of her family made their way to Johannesburg. She describes the village where her great-grandmother used to stay at as having grounded her and inspired limitless dreams in her. She grew up in Johannesburg and moved around a lot in her childhood and teenage years – this experience taught her to appreciate and love people who come from different backgrounds. I noticed how highly she spoke of her mother while we were conversing. This got me curious as to how present her father was in her life. She expresses that her last recollection of him was when she was young. She isn’t bitter about it, she says “it’s actually made me a better person in a lot of ways” she goes on to praising her mother for having been a great influence in her life and the most supportive. She describes her mother as being strong, kind and stern, and at this moment, I can see how Phendu became the extraordinary woman that she is. She was raised by a single mother who has a very strong sense of self-belief and strength; this has also influenced this artistic being to be so resilient.
Not many people are lucky enough to learn their gifts so early in their lives. The entrepreneur explains that she has been exploring her creativity since she was 6 years old. Although she knew creativity was her calling, after matriculating at age 16, she succumbed to the pressure of having a corporate career and went to study Marketing for two years. Like most of us, she wasn’t passionate about her choice; she left and went to enroll for a BA degree that would allow her to major in Commercial Fashion at Lisof. Phendu states that she discovered more of who she was during her second year of studying. She recites that though she enjoyed what she was doing, she found herself asking why their curriculum was so Western-focused and was curious as to what was happening in Africa. She then came up with a business plan for a fashion magazine. During a trip to France and London, Kuta realized that Europe’s history and art was so well documented and on the contrary Africa was not documented enough. At that time, she had already started her jewelry line ‘Edged designs’. In 2012, she completed her degree and worked for two and half years before venturing into Unlabelled. So how did Unlabelled Magazine come about? She was inspired by the street fashion in Joburg, observing and studying the culture; her childhood also played a role since she had encountered places and people that were diverse socio-economically and racially. In September 2014, the magazine launched its first issue. She had numerous freelance jobs on the side doing research and writing. In 2015, the magazine started getting press coverage from various credible media platforms and this brought some attention to her. She then adds, “although I am immensely grateful for all the recognition I’ve received, I’ve also learnt that sometimes hype can get in your head and lead you astray, exposure doesn’t pay the bills and I wish that in this country press coverage would lead to more opportunities for creatives.”
From 2016 to 2017 the magazine was on an upward trajectory, she continued to get recognition as well as client shoots and there was consistency in the content she was putting out, though in late 2017 challenges started to surface, handling the magazine without a stable team and not having enough capital to pay the contributors. Things started slowing down near the end of the year and she was now forced to do a lot of introspection and find out if this dream was still worth pursuing.
It was in early 2018 that she had to face the reality of how things had been and as a result started to seek other avenues such as as full-time employment and even considered letting the publication go as a whole, she was also offered a few jobs, but none of that materialised, "there has been a force greater that has been pulling Unlabelled forward even when I stopped trying... creatives would send in submissions, I'd get emails from highly respectable entities acknowledging the platform, speaking opportunities and press coverage."
2018 was a year of finding herself in a deeper sense and her season for learning and acknowledging who she is beyond Unlabelled, she states that she has found new strength since having met her current mentor. "My journey has been quite sacrificial in a sense and I’ve poured my heart into what I do, though my journey hasnt been perfect, I hope my passion for creativity and love for creatives has resonated most. I am evolving and as I evolve my intention is to bring in new voices, so that I may be able to explore my other talents. Going forward my intention is that Unlabelled will continue to positively impact creative communities more than ever through various projects.”
Whilst there have been plenty of challenges along the way, Phendu has come out of them wiser than ever, “What I’ve learnt in the time frame since starting this platform and what I would like to share with fellow creatives and creative entrepreneurs is: firstly you can’t do it alone, create win-win relationships and collaborations and have a good support system. You have to be able to understand the value you bring to the market and what your creativity is worth, people will try to undersell you because of lack of knowledge; your creativity is a valuable currency, know that. Work smart and learn as much as you can as often as you can, when I got into this I had no idea what I was doing but here I am and my platform is growing.”
I’ve come across a lot of creatives and a lot of young people who struggle with keeping things together. A lot of us have huge expectations that we sometimes can’t live up to. Society and social media have also put unnecessary pressure on us, and we find ourselves depressed and unable to talk about issues or reinvent ourselves. I certainly think that conversations like these are important. We need to know that we aren’t alone and there’s no one method to living a purposeful life and one that is aligned with your dreams. We’re all just learning as we go and essentially doing our best. I’m honoured to have been the one chosen to share this story and I hope it inspires many people like it has inspired me. I dream that a lot of us will learn to challenge our fears and like Phendu, learn to use our struggles for the greater good. We don’t understand the gravity of our choices, and if we allow ourselves to see them, our mistakes can guide to our true purpose.
Writing: Kgomotso 'Motso' Taukobong
Photography: Lesego Seoketsa / Azania Forest
Creative Direction and Styling: Phendu Kuta
Special Thanks to: LG South Africa