For artist Simphiwe Ndzube, art is more than just a reflection of his surrounding environment. It’s about invoking feelings.
Last week, Ndzube visited BC, where he spoke to a group of eager students about his art. In his discussion “Endless Experimentation as a Form of Healing,” Ndzube showcases art as not just a visual representation, but as a platform for storytelling. Throughout the hour and a half that he spoke, Ndzube seamlessly stepped into his role as a storyteller, sharing various anecdotes from his childhood and life as an artist. Students were captivated for the entirety of the presentation, and it was difficult to be distracted during such a fascinating talk.
Born in 1990 in South Africa, Nzube grew up in the aftermath of apartheid, a time of great healing and reconciliation in the country, after black South Africans had suffered under centuries of oppressive policies. Ndzube spent his adolescence in the neighborhood of Masiphumelele, Cape Town, South Africa, a predominantly black neighborhood. Ndzube showed an aerial image of his neighborhood and the white neighborhood located right beside it. Just by examining the following aerial image, the white neighborhood was visibly much wealthier, revealing the deep-seated traces of apartheid still present within South African society. Ndzube thus acknowledges art’s political role in shining light on oppression and injustice, such as that to which he was witness. In his fantastical and larger-than-life sculptures, featured in galleries all across the world, he alludes to the ways in which black bodies have been violated by the apartheid government.
With a reputation for crime and murder, Masiphumelele was quite a difficult place to grow up. Despite his tough childhood, Ndzube found beauty in seemingly ordinary things. Even with the constant threat of violence, one thing that stuck out to him was how people would still dance on the weekends–celebration amidst tragedy. Many of the everyday cultural elements and practices that he observed while growing up would eventually come to play a big role in his art.
Ndzube discovered his love of art in high school, first with simple drawings. Soon enough, drawing became an escape from the hardships of life. At the suggestion of his cousin, Ndzube began to sell his art. By illegally setting up stands at festivals and major events, he would draw portraits of people until he was kicked out. In 2010, while outside the World Cup stadium, Ndzube was drawing the portrait of an older man. An administrator told him he needed to leave because his stand was there illegally, but the older man stepped in and covered the costs for a license for the stand. Much to Ndzube’s surprise, he had been unknowingly drawing a portrait of Peter Clarke, a world-renowned South African artist who later became his mentor. Indeed, Ndzube’s humble background gives his art a new perspective, reminding us that the greatest of art is often found in the most unlikely places.
It is worth noting Ndzube’s art isn’t just reflective of life amidst the backdrop of the corrupt political landscape of South Africa. As he puts it, his art is about “channeling experiences I had, places I grew up, things I witnessed...loss, pain, death, talent, poetry, magic, superstition.” It’s not so much “fuck the system” as it is celebrating his heritage, which is often overlooked in the conventional art scene. For example, Ndzube’s art incorporates mystic elements that are misconstrued to have a more negative connotation in Western society. In a way, his art speaks to the spirit of protest found amongst young black South Africans today, who are reclaiming their identity after years of dismissal at the hands of the white-dominated government. Therefore, Ndzube uses a wide variety of bright colors and pleasing patterns to bring his art to life, representing the hues and tones that are a huge part of his culture.
Most importantly, though, Ndzube identifies the purpose of his art as a means of developing his own self-described “visual language.” Mixing painting with sculpture, Ndzube creates his own art form that elegantly transcends the conservative idea of what art is supposed to be. Certainly, if art serves as a means of expression, then Ndzube perfectly encapsulates what it means to be an artist and an innovator in his field.