While making sense of the world with words, Phumlani Pikoli dies at 33

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Novelist and multidisciplinary artist Phumlani Pikoli died at the age of 33 in Johannesburg. (Pan MacMillan)
Novelist and multidisciplinary artist Phumlani Pikoli died at the age of 33 in Johannesburg. (Pan MacMillan)
  • Aged 33, the novelist and multidisciplinary artist was found dead on Sunday. 
  • The Pikoli family spokesperson confirmed the news in a statement this morning. 
  • Although planning a memorial service, the family has asked that the public respect their privacy as they grieve. 


Novelist and multidisciplinary artist Phumlani Pikoli died on Sunday 11 April 2021. He was 33. 

“The gruesome discovery of Phumlani's lifeless body lying in bed is something that no parent needs to go through” his grieving father and former National Prosecuting Authority head Vusi Pikoli said. 

Best known for his work in literature, Pikoli self-published his first book, The Fatuos State of Severity in 2016. “I was told to journal instead I played out some of the most ridiculous fictions I could think of to be honest,” he once told Pan MacMillan. Written while in psychiatric care, the collection of short stories and illustrations explores the messy, laborious, layered and clumsy act of coping. 

Shortly thereafter the book was republished and distributed by Pan Macmillan. Three years later, Pikoli made his novel debut with Born Freeloaders. Based in Pretoria, the book centres around neocolonialism from the perspective of South Africa’s young black middle class who so easily assimilate. For this, Pikoli was awarded the K. Sello Duiker Memorial prize at the 2020 South African Literary Awards. 

In 2020 The Fatuous State of Severity’s development saw the book being translated into an immersive installation at TMRW Gallery in Johannesburg. Titled Occupying The Fatuous State of Severity, the exhibition took on the yoke of being mentally ill while black. The sonic and visual installation. With artists Bale Legoabe, Skumbuzo Salman and Felix Laband working alongside Pikoli the exhibition used both sonic and visual cues to assimilate being in an unwell mind. 

On the film front Pikoli released a handful of titles with the latest being Colourless Green Ideas Sleep Furiously. Featuring the work of still and moving picture artists like Neo Baepi, Anthony Bila, Tseliso Monaheng and Andiswa Mkosi, the film contemplates autodidacticism. 

At the time of his death, the artist was developing Born Freeloaders into a film with Kagiso Lediga’s production company DiPrente Films. 

Forever making, questioning and documenting the worlds he occupied, Pikoli remained curiously steadfast to storytelling, a gift he described by saying: “I guess I’m just trying to make sense of my own existence by playing around.

In a statement issued on behalf of the Pikoli family, Twiggs Xiphu wrote how Pikoli’s parents learned of his death after deciding to go to Johannesburg to visit him over the weekend. The family says they last spoke to the author on Friday. Xiphu said the cause of death is unknown and is still under investigation. 

Although the family will have a memorial service on 14 April 2021 before the funeral, the family has asked the public for some privacy while they grieve the loss of their son. 

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