Recently relocated from Cape Town to Los Angeles, Simphiwe Ndzube (born 1990) combines painting and sculpture to stage characters that smoothly dance off the canvas and into the physical space. Their legs go beyond the surface of the 2D artwork, reaching the floor as 3D phenomena. Their heads balloon outwards, thick with hair you can touch.
What instantly sets the artist apart in the crowded visual arts market is his unique, original style, certainly—but also his subject matter that is derived from his own imaginative universe and, by way of which, he offers us new, memorable insights into important social issues that might seem tedious when read in news. He calls his fictitious world—that he uses as a vehicle of truth—the “Mine Moon”. It isn’t escapist, rather it is supposed to facilitate a deeper immersion in reality.
The Mine Moon is fantasy, local African legends and national history all in one. It explores themes of power, conflict, exploitation and occupation through instances of violence and humour. The storytelling oscillates between joy and hopelessness. The context remains autobiographical—the artist’s experience as a young black man growing up in South Africa, where, even after the end of apartheid, institutional racism and neocolonialism are rife. Ndzube’s recent body of work focusses on the people affected by abuses of authority; these figures are on their own search for freedom, love and meaning in a setting that has deemed them, as the French West Indian psychiatrist and political philosopher Frantz Fanon phrased it, “the wretched of the earth“.
Ndzube states: “We begin in the real world and through interaction with the work enter a fabulist tale in progress. I’ve attempted to create the genesis of a cosmology that finds itself in the uncharted lands and trackless seas. In it exists characters, gods, and demigods—different people influenced by the post-apartheid black South African experience. It emerges from the tradition of magical realism and is expanding to points currently unknown.”
The artist’s narrative influences include Ben Okri, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Haruki Murakami, Hieronymus Bosch, Gabriel García Márquez, Italo Calvino and Zakes Mda. In particular, Ndzube highlights the book Magical Realism: Theory, History, Community (1995) by Wendy B Faris (University of Texas at Arlington) and Lois Parkinson Zamora (University of Houston) which describes magical realism as “a mode suited to exploring—and transgressing—boundaries, whether the boundaries are ontological, political, geographical or generic. [It] facilitates the fusion, or coexistence, of possible worlds, spaces, [and] systems that would be irreconcilable in other modes.”
Introducing his Cape Town exhibition “Uncharted Lands and Trackless Seas” (January-March 2019), Ndzube traces the history of the Mine Moon as follows: “We are told it resembles a space untainted by modernity, such as the desert and Johannesburg mining sites. We are also told of the Mungu People, the extraterrestrials that came and colonised the Moon to extract a bounty of its natural wealth, leaving a landless labour class, the Spirit People. Since then one of the major vocations of the Spirit People has been Gravedigging.
“Since the occupation began the Spirit People have used Gravedigging as a subversive tactic of survival during the day, and engaging in performative competitions on their days off. On occasion, the Goddess Nanana appears riding her totem spirit animal in what looks like a grand arrival from another planet to awaken her people from eternal sleep and take them to an expanded state of awareness. Ultimately, with the dictator named Gorogo ever-returning from the dead, the transcendental impulse of the Spirit People appears to be forever uncertain and precarious. The major adventure still lies ahead—perhaps they will remain in the state of potentiality as long as they are in the Mine Moon.”
Ndzube brilliantly extends his narrative for his Los Angeles exhibition “In the Order of Elephants After the Rain” (September-November 2019). Here he tells the story of the Mine Moon’s last remaining dam and the planet’s sole water source, which has been stolen from the moon’s native inhabitants by its colonisers, the Mungu people. The title is derived from an African saying that describes the movement of elephants after a storm following a period of drought: the giant animals gather in a parade and amble in procession down to a freshly renewed pool to drink, bathe and play. The exhibition is an exploration of the Mine Moon’s inhabitants’ geopolitical, socioeconomic and spiritual relationship to water, and its natives’ strength and search for higher purpose in times of cruelty and exploitation.
Another point to be noted about Ndzube’s work is his use of dances known as “swenking” and “pantsula”—although, in his art, often faceless male bodies can appear amputated or distorted, they are charged with an energy of razzle-dazzle motifs that suggest rhythms, motions, performativity and corporeality inspired by the South African working-class tradition of “swenking”. During the decades of apartheid, “swenking”, a pageantry among black labourers blossomed. The Swenkas, exclusively male, peacock against one another, performing elaborate dances to call attention to the details of their flamboyant Western-style outfits and accessories as an extension of their own masculinity and dignity.
While swenking is for older workers, “pantsula” dance is the choice of black young men and women, including Ndzube himself. The word pantsula is Zulu, meaning “waddling like a duck.” With quick, technical footwork and acrobatic twists and turns that are usually low to the ground, the dancers take over busy city streets, moving to house music. The theatricality represented and codified by Swenkas and pantsula dancers in Ndzube’s works are where the personal becomes political.
Simphiwe Ndzube received his BFA from the Michaelis School of Fine Arts at the University of Cape Town in 2015. He is represented by Nicodim Gallery in Los Angeles/Bucharest and Stevenson Gallery in Cape Town/Johannesburg. In addition to the ones mentioned above, the artist’s exhibitions include INXS, Nicodim Gallery, Los Angeles (2020); SITE, Library Street Collective, Detroit (2020); NOISE!, The Frans Hals Museum, Amsterdam, The Netherlands (2018); Waiting for Mulungu, The CC Foundation, Shanghai (2018, solo); Bharbarosi, Nicodim Gallery, Los Angeles (2017, solo); and Becoming, WHATIFTHEWORLD, Cape Town, South Africa (2016, solo).