As far as Lebohang Motaung is concerned, hair is the single most versatile part of the human body as it can be changed, coloured and styled to communicate your personality – or how you feel – to the rest of the world.

And now she’s turned it into a visual wonderwork too. Lebohang recently shot into the spotlight when one of her art pieces went viral on social media. The talented 27-year-old used real hair on three canvases that were linked via braids in a striking piece titled Formation.

The work shows the relationship between a hairdresser and the women whose hair she plaits, Lebohang tells DRUM. A hair salon is a safe space for women where they can often be found creating bonds with strangers that sometimes lead to lifelong friendships.

“Women are most comfortable while having their hair done – you can tell by the gossip and the confessions that flow during the process. “I wanted to communicate that message because when you see women at a salon they are always talking and connecting. So, to best show that I decided to use three canvases.

“They all had to connect to each other and when you think about it the connection is done from one head to the other. It symbolises the connection of thoughts and shared conversations and the hair is what links everything together. Because at the end of the day they came to do their hair.”

To her, hair is more than just an extension of one’s head. And South Africans agree – her piece received about 40 000 shares on Facebook alone after she posted a picture of it on the platform.

“There’s also a connection between women and their hairstylist. I’m a stylist and I wanted to also show myself in the artwork. Even though I’m not there I do have that bond with the people I plait.”

She showcased the piece at this year’s Investec Cape Town Art Fair where it was snapped up for R30 000 in February.

We meet the Vaal University of Technology (VUT) fine arts graduate at her studio in Victoria Yards, Joburg.

Her hair is pinned up “because it’s easier to work this way” but it’s still decorated with silver beads because “one’s head is a canvas”, she says.

Lebohang has always been interested in art and it helped distract her from the tough times growing up.

Her mother, Dimakatso Motaung, became pregnant with her at the age of 16 so after she was born Lebohang was cared for by her unemployed grand mother – who is also named Lebohang – in Sebokeng so her mom could focus on school.

Growing up alongside her two aunts, Madillo (27) and Mantwa Motaung (40), she realised she had to do something to help her grandmother, who was taking care of them all on her pension.

“This is when I started plaiting hair.”

She’d been playing with her grandmother’s hair from the time she was 10 and taught herself how to perfect styles.

“I was good at it and by the time I was 13 I was doing my friends’ and family’s hair.”

Inspired by her by her gogo, who used to sell food to pensioners at the post office when they went collect their government grants, Lebohang decided to turn her talent into a business.

“The money I was making from plaiting wasn’t enough for all of us, but it was enough for me to start being independent and doing things for myself. And that was good because I didn’t stress my grandmother anymore.”

It was around this time Lebohang realized she could draw too. “My school books were always decorated in a way that was different to everybody else’s. But in my school, art wasn’t something that was celebrated.

“I remember this one teacher who was like, ‘We teach you guys to be engineers and then you get your matric and decide to go study fine arts’. So there was a lack of respect for, and knowledge about, art in my school [Moshate Secondary School], and community too.”

But Lebohang was determined: this was what she wanted to do.

She studied fine arts after school at VUT then found a nine-to-five job as a papermaker, but it didn’t leave much room for her to explore her creativity.

“I worked at a company where we made printmaking paper – a unique kind of paper that artists use for drawing and painting. I enjoyed it for a while but I stopped. The best thing that came out of that internship was the opportunity I had to go to New York to further my knowledge about printmaking. That’s where I was exposed to different arts. “My eyes opened and I said to myself ‘I think it’s time I also do it’.”

When she returned home in 2015 she quit her job and decided to pursue art full time.

“It wasn’t easy at all. I struggled because my work wasn’t selling and it got to a point where I started applying for retail jobs even though I knew I wasn’t destined for that,” she says.

It all changed last year when she applied and was accepted into The Project Space’s artist residency programme where aspiring artists are taught the tricks of the trade by the best in the business. The Project Space – a non-profit cultural institution founded by Ugandan- born visual artist Benon Lutaaya in 2016 – is centred on developing creative spaces and offering opportunities to emerging female contemporary African artists, and young entrepreneurs.

Through its annual Young Female Artist Residency Award the initiative offers sponsored residencies to local or international artists lasting nine to 12 months. This builds their level of exposure and helps grow their international professional networks.

The work they create during these lengthy residencies is exhibited at all the major local – and some selected international – art fairs. This approach exposes their work directly to potential collectors, media, curators and established galleries.

“It changed my life. I was mentored by Benon Lutaaya who pushed me to unleash my full potential,” Lebohang says.

The programme takes on new female artists every year to mentor and groom for the arts industry and made it possible for her to showcase her work to an international audience. Now she’s making a name for herself, thanks to the success of Formation.

But, Lebohang says, she won’t rest until she can make her biggest dream come true: building a home for her family.

They were the early inspiration for her hair art and deserve to be pampered.