23 Jul Layered with Meaning: Blessing Ngobeni’s Mixed Media Collages
Created using a range of found objects, waste materials and paint on canvas; there’s nothing demure about Blessing Ngobeni’s artworks, nor the meanings they come loaded with. In the artist statement for his solo show at Gallery MOMO titled As If You Care, he remarks, “I have found that most people act as if they care for the greater good, particularly those in power, but in reality they don’t,” later commenting that “The business of self-enrichment does not accommodate mercy.”
Blessing’s work is best understood in the context of his past. At the age of ten he moved from his home of Tzaneen, Limpopo to the city of Johannesburg where, predictably, he fell in with a bad crowd and became involved in crime. Five years later he was arrested for armed robbery and spent close to six years in prison, during which time he began painting – and with some fervour – for in 2012 he was the recipient of the Reinhold Cassirer Award and with it, a residency at the Bag Factory. In bestowing the award upon Blessing, they commented, “The most profound part of his application is the work itself. His paintings are filled with the irony of the cabaret, sporting the influences of Norman Catherine and Miró, while never forgetting his township roots.”
We spoke to Blessing to learn more about his art-making practice and his use of art as a form of protest.
What lasting impact does your background have on the type of work you’re creating today?
The past reflects the present and the future and it is a constant presence in my work.
Were you creative as a child? When did you realise that you wanted to pursue art as a career?
Yes, I was a creative child, making cows out of mud and using stones as imaginary cars. I also think that survival is a form of creativity so in that way, I was also creative. I realized that I wanted to be an artist while I was awaiting trial for a case which eventually landed me in jail. Art became my best friend because there is a lot of free time in jail, it also gave me respect amongst inmates and I kept pushing myself to experiment more.
Can you identify any major developments (a stylistic evolution, a shift in perspective) since you originally began making art? What do you think accounts for these changes?
Progress or change is natural. Perspective wise, my ideologies are still the same. Stylistically, I have continued with my evolution, I think it’s the reading of the art that has changed. A lot of students or curators approach my work from an institutional point of view and this is sometimes a limiting thing.
Middle finger nose
What mediums do you work in/with, and why?
I use mixed media because it is a part of recycling certain materials, a medium like collage allows me to have a conversation with already existing media. I am led to the work so the different elements play their parts. The canvas leads you, it invites you to come and play with it. If you win, the work becomes a masterpiece. If you don’t, then you have to revisit or play a different game.
What inspired you to create your body of work, As If You Care?
As If You Care is inspired by the sadness I feel when I witness how my people are still a huge labour reserve as colonialism intended it to be. Seeing how the slave ship is being justified through the co-option of academics.
In your artist statement you point out a tension that exists between the current state of the nation and what you refer to as the imminent, unavoidable disaster. How do you picture this type of disaster unfolding?
The slave ship is full of submissive people who are lulled with religion or alcohol, this suspension of belief will snap one day and one can’t curate a burst. Things will reach a boiling point.
You’ve also said that the masses have to take it upon themselves to abolish the existing, destructive system. If this were to happen, what type of system would you hope to see emerge?
I would like to see a system that is based on equality, a society that shares the space with respect. During Apartheid there were Group Areas Acts and now those Group Areas divisions are social ones. No one is grouped according to their material status and accessibility to resources and education is disguised as a way to climb out of the crab bucket.
Do you view art as a form of protest?
Yes, of course. Surrealism was considered a form of protest art, if you look at the works of artists like Andre Britton; there was an urgency to break the norm. South Africa in particular has a rich history of art as a form of protest. Even in the general protests the art of music and dance is used to convey a message. The works of post democratic artists such as Ayanda Mabulu, Brett Murray and Mary Sibande come to mind. I think such works are important because they will contribute to contextualising these times in the future.
Is your show As If You Care intended to incite people who encounter the works to take action or contribute towards making a change? How so?
Yes. People need to feel welcome in certain spaces, to explore dimensions of them outside of servitude. That social Group Areas Act must be abolished and again one can’t curate the spark of revolution.
Grey Area III
Visually speaking, how do your artworks relate to the themes of self-enrichment and abuse of power?
It has always been there in my work. In the latest collection, it appears in pieces like ‘Hybrid’, ‘Don’t Shoot’ and ‘Political in Conflict’, which is about politicians fighting for tenders.
How has the act of making art changed the way you think about and experience things in the world around you?
Of course the art changes you as you make it, which is the pleasure of it. However, I can’t really enjoy that pleasure for long because when I step away from the canvas and out of the studio the world is still the same. The society mirrors the same pain so, yes, the art changes me but the world stays the same, and that bothers me.
What else are you currently working on or working towards?
I don’t plan my work in a linear fashion, I follow visions and omens. I will engage more with sculpture and performances in the future and I am now preparing for the Joburg and London Art Fairs.
Mistress of Hipless Afrika
Politician in Conflict
Grey Area II
Innocent souls (don’t shoot)
Bellies of Freedom II
Images courtesy of Gallery MOMO.