The Surreal Art of Simphiwe Ndzube
South African artist Simphiwe Ndzube’s exciting portraits often depict figures in motion against a backdrop of theatrical landscapes. While Ndzube’s characters may analyse the new worlds in which they find themselves, identifying conventions and discerning what is acceptable, they also openly disregard the usual rules of power, class, and arrival.
As a child, Ndzube, his siblings, and his friends would build small chairs and furnishing out of wood and mud; they made cars from wire and elaborate worlds from the materials in their immediate surroundings. This was the beginning of his life as a creative artist. Later, he and his friends found old, discarded mattresses and piled them together to jump on and do flips. They also placed them under trees, from which they would jump, doing somersaults. From this, they developed skills that led them into dance. From the ages of 16 to 18, Ndzube was street dancing and thought that he would become a professional dancer.
Throughout this time, he would draw, creating images based on Japanese anime and other sources that he saw on television. When he was 13, he drew an elaborate anime character above his mother’s bed. When she came home, she was upset at first, but later realised that he was driven to create and bought him his first paints. He would later attend the Michaelis School of Fine Art, one of the most prestigious schools on the continent.
While in school, there was pressure on Ndzube, as well as other Black South African students, to focus on the political realities, to make work that addressed the history of apartheid and the racial tensions in their society. While the artist thought it a critical conversation, he did not want to be limited. Rather, he wanted his work to speak in universal terms and to inspire people from all over the world. Hence, his work, in part, represents his journey of rebellion and renewal. He strives not to leave behind his origins, but to create and explore his potential, refusing to be trapped by the arbitrary conditions of history and fate.
Ndzube’s work is characterised by his use of diverse elements, techniques, and stylistic choices—including paint, collage, and assemblage—which also reflects the diverse and controversial socio-political landscape of South Africa. The performative stages and figures he assembles are created out of construction site material, castoff clothing, and other discarded objects.
His wide imagination and practicality mirror the techniques common to bricolage. For instance, the figures in his work are welded together from home-grown and borrowed materials. Through these bodies, Ndzube comments on South Africa’s struggle to face and heal the effects of colonisation and apartheid on its fragmented families and communities. In employing a range of objects or ideas, Ndzube shows us that necessity forces him to re-appropriate objects, subverting their intended and original social roles by giving them new meaning and uses.
In a similar vein, Ndzube repurposes orange plastic cones from construction sites, creating unease and prompting deeper thought for the future. In his landscapes, the cones are not simply signals of possible danger, but instead serve a new function as megaphones or vuvuzelas, broadcasting a different message. With this, Ndzube informs South Africans that the freedom they crave will come with elements they may resent and even fear.
The bodies that Ndzube creates are covered by clothing from a past that South Africa would sooner forget. Despite careful attempts at costuming—suits and ties, gentlemanly hats, and polished slip-on shoes—the figures’ clothes mirror the precarity of their present situations. Often, the figures have beer bellies and limbs positioned haphazardly. In some variations of the artist’s work, the figures carry unwieldy cloth laundry bags stuffed to the brim on their shoulders. At other times, these lumpy bags take the place of the figures’ heads. Ndzube often accessorises his men with vintage ties (skinny ones from the 60s and broad ones from the 70s). Sometimes, he stuffs these ties and twists them into cobra-like shapes.
Simphiwe Ndzube grew up in a community called Masiphumelele located among Kommetjie, Capri, and Noorhoek villages, which were reserved exclusively for whites—and still remain that way, owing to economic conditions and social exclusion. Initially known as Site 5, the township was renamed Masiphumelele, which means “we will succeed.” During the 46 years of apartheid, Masiphumelele’s residents were never meant to be seen. The most they could hope for was to serve as cleaners in the predominantly white villages—if they were lucky enough to find employment.
In many of his interviews, Ndzube has stressed why it is important for his work to be relevant and accessible to people from communities like his own: to reflect the political, intellectual, and geographical journeys they have attempted to make, despite inheriting conditions meant to keep them from even dreaming of escape. His work reminds us that South Africa’s labouring invisibles—the domestic hand, the construction worker, the urban and rural unemployed—have dreams for themselves and their children. Through Ndzube’s work, they come to life to bring those dreams to fruition. They challenge the order of things, turning the world upside-down. They announce themselves to the world, no longer content with being invisible, quiet, functional objects. Though burdened by history and circumstance and disenfranchised by the remnants of apartheid, Ndzube’s figures inspire South Africans to forge futures worth dreaming about.
September 15, 2021
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