Since he was a child Simphiwe Ndzube has felt a vigorous pull towards art, and rightly so. For his recent graduate exhibition at UCT’s Michalis, he presented a body of work that’s both highly accomplished and humbly profound.
Simphiwe’s mixed media “collages” utilise found materials like bandages, synthetic afro hair and clothing to tell poignant stories inspired by the struggles faced by township residents, specifically in Masiphumelele where he grew up. The focal point of his final year show was an energetic sculptural installation titled ‘Uhambo’ (Xhosa for ‘journey’), which depicts heavy-laden figures making their way through a beautiful and troubled landscape. Underneath the vibrant colours and playful forms, Simphiwe’s work touches on themes of black subjugation, human migration, beauty ideals, consumption and history, and is not to be taken lightly.
Here, he speaks to us about the troubling lack of representation in the art world, the importance of making work that’s relevant and accessible, and the role of the artist in society today.
What led you to pursue a career in art?
I have always loved art and knew I wanted to be an artist since I was a little kid. Art has always been this thing that I had crazy energy for, and I am so glad that my mom Khanyelwa Nomha Ndzube took me to Isilimela High School where I did art until grade 12. In 2008 when my mom passed away, I dealt with the loss through making images and from that moment on I knew I was on the right path.
As someone who has recently entered the South African art scene, what are your impressions? Are there any barriers that make entry difficult for a young artist?
I am finding it daunting and exciting at the same time, but I have some kind of advantage through the hard work and networks I have forged while studying at Michaelis. I think there certainly are some barriers for ‘Fresh Meat’, sometimes through reputation and standards set by those ahead, depending of course on which spaces one wants to engage with.
Last year you placed in the top 10 finalists’ of the Barclays L’Atelier Awards. Tell us a bit about the experience.
It was my first time entering the competition, I was really lucky to make it that far with a single work. Certainly a valuable experience. As good as those platforms can be for young artists like me, there are some biases. In the 32 years the competition has been running, Isaac Khanyile is the only black artist to win the main prize. I do not think this reflects a lack of merit from black artists. Hopefully things will be different now that the competition is opening to more African countries.
What are some of the themes or ideas you’ve been exploring in your work so far?
Some of the themes I have explored in my work include violence, black subjugation, disability, migrations, exploitation, beauty, consumption and history. Some of these concepts have also filtered through the materials I’m drawn to such as bandages, sjambok, found waste bins, duct tape, latex gloves, synthetic afro hair, found clothes and so forth.
How did all of this feed into the body of work you created for your final year exhibition at Michaelis? What was the overarching concept and how did you execute it?
The body of work was mostly inspired by the personal and collective struggles faced by township residents, especially Masiphumelele where I grew up. It was important to me that my work was relevant and accessible to the people from communities like my own.
What was your experience as a student like? What valuable lessons did you learn along the way?
I had a lot of support in the school and my adaptable personality helped me survive and adjust to the space well. In all honesty, my experience was psychologically challenging, engaging with most academic materials that exclude you, not only in terms of language, but also your experience, the African experience. I often felt disconnected from the dominant discourse we had to engage with, and it wasn’t until I started reading black scholars that I realised the systemic and structural exclusion of African knowledge systems is rooted in the history of the school, or rather the model the school is following. One of the valuable lessons I learnt was to take criticism with a pinch of salt. Also importantly, I learnt to make objects with some kind mystique and magic to them. In the end the image speaks for itself.
Your use of found clothing as an artistic medium speaks to an interest in the human figure and the manner in which it is covered or disguised. Can you tell us more about this?
This conversation started in my third year when I was making work looking at issues around mobility, access, labour, beauty ideals and the marginalisation of certain bodies within society. I noticed that clothing became an immediate thing which most of the bodies I was interested in have used as armour. To hide the imperfections of the body, to hide skin and obscure gender, but most importantly to use as a tool for resistance against oppressive representations.
Please talk us through your installation piece, ‘Uhambo’.
The installation gives much more to the viewer than most of the works in the exhibition, it sets a whole scene. But that is exactly what I wanted from it. ‘Uhambo’ is a Xhosa word meaning ‘journey’. The piece is inspired by processions, evictions and migration. Human movements, either forced or in search of a better future elsewhere. The figures are carrying baggage, the historical burden, and they walk through this beautiful but troubled landscape with barriers around them. I associate ties with corporate spaces, but here they could be plants or even cobra snakes attacking. The installation speaks about promise and uncertainty. That promise is represented through the light placed on top of the border made from bodies and bags. I was also very interested in how this light can be used to signify danger or demarcate territories.
How do you inject humour into otherwise serious artworks to maintain the sense of playfulness that’s prevalent in your work?
One of the things I am learning the more I make art is that even though I speak about really hectic issues at times, it’s important to keep a certain level of uncertainty and play. I have also very often enjoyed the contradictions between hardships and jubilations that emerge as a result of happy mistakes. Double meanings if you wish.
In your opinion, what is the role of art or the artist in society today?
Personally, my work has helped me stay out of trouble. I missed out on a number of other good things but it has also provided me with a space to create my own reality as I make sense of the world. I think art has the ability to make its audience sympathise, and momentarily forget or, alternatively, to be reminded of certain things happening in the world. One of the best responses to one my works was from a lady who said my work had managed to get her to an imaginary space in her mind. Her imagination was almost non-existent, even when reading a book.
Where do you see yourself in 1, 5 and 10 years from now?
I will keep that one to myself as it is bound to change depending on where my art takes me. My plan is to continue making beautiful objects, doing residencies and other related programs, teaching assistance, travel, have solo shows and eventually do my Masters.
View more of Simphiwe’s work on his tumblr.