Art is a mystical force that naturally courses through every fabric of Yolanda Mogatusi’s being. As the Managing Director of South African-based Alkemaiz Games, she recalls how people were amazed by her artistic talents as a child. What was easy for her wasn’t easy for everyone else. Alkemaiz comes from alchemize, a word that means to magically change the nature of something. It is a tribute to the magic art brought into her life as well as a surrender to the wonder of creativity.
Mogatusi sees creativity as a means of problem-solving. In September 2023, she received a Rising Star Award at the Fak’ugesi Festival for her game ‘Rapz,’ which she created to foster a sense of self-love in young girls. She employs art forms such as dance, filmmaking, fashion, and now game development to find creative solutions to things that are near and dear to her.
As a child, Mogatusi’s parents enrolled her in creative centres such as music schools, where she took ballet and art classes. “The moment I realized my creative gift was through my dance teacher. She said, “Watch what I do and follow.” After I followed, she seemed very surprised and recommended I try ballet. I did ballet with a Russian teacher, and her feedback highlighted the importance of others calling out your greatness.” Sadly, ballet classes got too expensive and her dream of becoming a prima ballerina came to a halt.
Snow in Joburg
Despite the heartbreak, she found joy in entertaining family with her sisters and friends after creating outfits with her grandmother. “I remember Gran knitting us little skirts and tops. We’d go to our Christmas lunch and put up a show before everyone had their lunch. They would all stop and watch us dance in our outfits. I remember that clearly and at times when I look back I cannot believe we did that. I cannot believe I made other people do that. ”
“In high school, we had this project called Art Response. We needed to find a job in the arts and do a one-day internship. I had seen a bunch of film shoots happening in my neighbourhood, so I made some calls and landed an internship. They were shooting ads for a new Telecom company. I spent the whole day asking everyone a truckload of questions. I was surprised to learn that they spent thousands of Rand to make a 30-second ad. But the real magic happened when we went to shoot in Soweto, right near my home. The scene was this little shack made of corrugated iron and painted red. A girl wakes up to snow outside her window (they made it with foam). I was like, Wow! I’ve never seen snow in Joburg. That scene stuck with me. Three days later, I signed up for film school.”
Magically transforming things
Before the day that totally changed Mogatusi’s career path, her mom had an eye-opening moment. Mogatusi excelled at school, but her surroundings made her feel like art was a waste. Due to her parents’ busy schedules, they never saw her dance in ballet recitals. However, one evening, her mom attended a debate where Mogatusi was a speaker. The adjudicator praised her endlessly, and her mom, finally seeing her talent, had a penny-drop moment. It stuck with her. So, when Mogatusi later said, “I think I’m going to film school,” her mom was okay with it.
The establishment of Alkemaiz Games coincided with the development of Rapz. A game with a heartwarming story. Rapulani, the main character, is grieving her mother. She runs away and embarks on a unique adventure with her brush dog, Brussels. As a part-time teacher, Mogatusi observed how grieving children withdrew inwardly, finding it challenging to re-engage. Having experienced her own loss, she empathized with the difficulty and imagined the added challenge for children. Motivated by this, she wanted to write something addressing loss, conveying that it’s not the end of the world and that life goes on. Through their children’s games, Alkemaiz aims to welcome more young female gamers worldwide. Their slogan, “creating games, stories and adventures that shift perspectives,” echoes back to the meaning of the studio’s name, where magically transforming things aligns with altering people’s views.
Love for Africa
Before Alkemaiz Games, Mogatusi spent over a decade running 1000 hugs films, creating film and TV content. Taking after her grandmother she explains, “I design outfits now. It is one of the ways I tell stories through clothes.” There’s a story embedded in everything Mogatusi creates. She loves her female body but she has observed other women who don’t look at themselves with the same love. As a fashion designer, she wants to create clothes from fabrics that express her love for Africa but that also flatter the female body. “One day I would love for one of my game characters to be dressed in one of my designs in a way that makes sense rather than just a marketing tool. ”
Running two companies isn’t easy, but Mogatusi found a rhythm. She says, “Somehow the timelines complement each other. With Alkemaiz, I’m the creative director. When I focus on film, I know the team on the other side is running.” Her journey from live-action to animation and now video games is fueled by curiosity. She shares, “I’m always looking for interesting, easier ways of doing something. I’m not a huge believer in hard work. I’m curious about doing things better.”
Mogatusi has faced many closed doors over the years but she has learned to pivot and keep going. In tough times she allows herself to grieve the loss. She opens up by saying, “There was a season in my life when I met a lot of rejection. It reached a point where I said I would allow myself to cry for five minutes because I was rejected one more time. I needed to acknowledge that it was painful but then I had to get up and find the next thing.”
Through it all, she’s had the firm support of her family. “I remember my mom giving me a laptop once as a birthday present. That laptop meant the world because I felt like, oh, she gets it, she sees, that this girl is a writer. I need the laptop to write.” After a long period of closed doors, some people eventually invited her in. Mogatusi acknowledges these people saying, “I just kept pitching Rapz to groups of gentlemen, and most times I was the only female in the room with pink all over her presentation. I don’t take it lightly that they agreed to get behind me. I appreciate those people and my friends as well. ”
In the games industry, the first people who came on board to support Mogatusi were ITTHYNK Gaming, “They gave us the first bit of seed funding to make a prototype. Showing people what the game could look like was a game-changer.” While pitching to be a part of SpielFabrique’s co-production program, they also entered the AAL Cup supported by the Egyptian Government. “We were the only team led by a woman in the top 6. Surprisingly, we got third place and won some money.
During that hectic pitching season that lasted two months, I teamed up with Thabo from Space Salad Studios. Individually, we were both pitching to SpielFabrique and together we entered the AAL Cup. Amazingly, we won both competitions, and both came with funding. This was a game-changer for Alkemaiz Games, significantly boosting what we could do with our game.” At this point, Mogatusi was just a few months old in the video games industry highlighting the incredible possibilities when we put ourselves out there.
Here are some lessons Yolanda Mogatusi has picked up on her journey as a creative entrepreneur. “Don’t hire someone just because they need a job. They must show they’re good at it (or at least competent). Never compromise your processes, they’re there for a reason. Find people you can trust, even if it takes some trial and error. It’s worth it when you find the right ones.” If Yolanda could talk to herself three years ago before starting Alkemaiz, she’d say, “The world needs what you’ve got. Don’t give up. Keep going, keep trying, and you’ll find your bliss.”