Ndzube’s seas chartered with tracks

Simphiwe Ndzube ”The Orator”. Circa 2019. Courtesy of Stevenson Gallery.

The Stevenson Gallery hosted exciting young South African artist Simphiwe Ndube, an artist who at heart is interested in the development of aesthetic combinations between collage, painting and instillation. The exhibition titled ‘Unchartered Lands and Trackless Seas’ resounded with the same fantastical and existential impact of magic realism texts and writers that influence Ndzube’s aesthetic. The Stevenson having developed the tradition of hosting artists that inundate the exhibition space with art that spans across mediums and art forms like Mawande Ka Zenzile, Serge Nitegeka, Kemang Wa Lehulere and Moshekwa Langa. In Ndzube they have found an artist that not only continues this tradition, but the amalgamation of aesthetic forms is what anchors the fantastical impact of his work and concretises the narrative implications of this particular exhibition.

With a strong painting base, Ndzube developed his macabre instillation aesthetic at the Michealis School of Fine Art at the University of Cape Town, where he recently graduated. Unchartered is a collection of works that sees his first professional exhibition with the Stevenson Gallery after graduation. It tells the story of a fictitious realm conceived by Ndzube, called ‘The Mine Moon’, it is a place inhabited by characters that themselves are fantastical, caricature representations of political and social figures in the South African landscape. The escapism which underpins his literary influences meets a departure in the scattered and diffused narrative of each individual canvas or piece. The sense of a contained capsule that the composite form of a canvas affords enables Ndzube to create characters and a mythological world, where farce is political, where the influence of Surrealism meets the pragmatism of collage.
The piece titled ‘The Orator’ is an achievement of this aesthetic amalgamation that anchors the exhibition. A life size figure emanating from the canvas holding an old fashion loud-speaker, his mouth also forming part of the loud-speaker’ large and open part, creating an effect of an exaggerated mouth piece, the background of the piece and its fantastical landscape consistent with the narrative of overt escapism and altered realism that anchor his painting aesthetic.
Ndzube’s instillation aesthetic is strongly influenced by the human body and its fallibility. In a conversation about its impact once, he reiterated how it is a choice that is influenced by how previously colonised peoples form a relationship with the tools they work with. The reason why some body parts in his work would have a tool instead of a limb, is partly this reason. He emphasised on the significance of the choice of clothes he adorns the characters in his instillations with, even if is a found object, resemble or remind him of the clothes older people going to work wore while he was growing up.
One of the instillation pieces in ‘The Mine Moon’ realm is influenced by the same strategy, a masculine figure riding a creature that resembles a headless armadillo in the centre of the exhibition space is consistent with the nostalgia the choice of garb the artist chooses to dress his characters in. He is wearing gumboots, or the boots that miners wear. The narrative of the exhibition characterised by the motif of digging, with the character mysteriously called ‘’Gorogo: The Dictator Returns from the Dead’’ subsumes the historical narrative in the post colonial post apartheid context of a community rendered static by history. Ndzube recognises the cruel irony of participating in a historical narrative that renders the community peripheral by either rendering his figures faceless, like Gorogo who is represented with a wig over his face. Or he replaces their limbs with tools or materials that themselves are imbued with a historical narrative in the popular imagination and the place they hold in colonial history.
The piece titled ‘Untitled Gravedigger’ is one such manifestation of the ironic relationship between the person and the tools that connect him to a collective historical narrative. A sedentary androgynous figure, who instead of having arms and hands, they are replaced by a sjambok. The sjambok is a tool utilised for flogging, its narrative in the South African landscape has more than just formative implications in the domestic sphere. Police in the apartheid era used them to flog protesters. There are countless infamous video or news footages of police chasing black students, liberation struggle protesters and protesting workers during apartheid. What is ironic about Ndzube’s figure is that he or she is rendered helpless, but this helplessness seems self imposed. In that the artist recognises the place and space where participating in the historical narrative is about agency. The fact the figure is a designated gravedigger, demonstrates the extent to which what is static about the community is historically and symbolically imbedded in the individual. The artist is making the statement that even if the figure had the means to dig, he would still be perpetuating the same static narrative.
The motif of digging in the exhibition perpetuates the measure of exhausted resources that ‘The Mine Moon’ has experienced while being colonised by the Mungu People. It becomes significant for the artist to express how this exhaustion permeates the landscape of ‘The Mine Moon’. The characters or caricatures themselves are portrayed resounding with exhaustion. The artist stuffs the figures with more clothes and newspapers, this way their drooping effect can be detected is more than just the pieces finished impact. It also affects how the Spirit People have been impacted by the exhausted resources. The narrative demonstrates that this sense of exhaustion is what the Spirit People have inherited, they remain in the moon, because it is their historic home.
This exhaustion is reflected in the two portraiture piece titled ‘The Spirit People’. The artist repeats the same demure and drooping expression. Differentiated by hairstyles, one short, the other dreadlocked. The overt exhaustion on the characters’ faces is an indication of want, and recognised loss. Ndzube’s portraits are not only imbued with their characters existential narratives, he is expressing how historic loss is reflected in one another, that it is the thread that holds the community together.


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