Obviously, each of Simphiwe Ndzube’s pieces was created at a particular time, in a particular place, from particular materials. However, that’s about as much as you can cover in simple, obvious terms. This is as much as you can explain without starting to sound like his surreal landscapes and eclectic figures came to you in a dream – the strangest, most vivid dream of your life. Although at this point – after going through the craziness of last year and the recent NFT boom – it might seem tempting to painstakingly quiz him about the time and place each piece was created, we’ve settled for a chat about South Africa, Los Angeles, and Mine Moon.
In your experience, what was it like to grow up in the South Africa of the 1990s?
The 1990s was the time when South Africa was going through a transition period into a democratic, non-racial Rainbow Nation. Those first 10 years of my life were a glimpse into a unique transition period that I did not understand. I felt the intensity of hope that was injected into a people who had to suddenly forgive and forget. I grew up feeling the residue of the political landscape. I was aware of how far we could and couldn’t go, spatially. People were very limited by the previous system, but even once they weren’t, they still stayed within those limitations. Growing up in townships, I didn’t know much of what was happening outside. I remember Chris Hani’s assassination in 1992. I remember because my uncles were active in the fight for freedom, so I recall the protests and the feeling in the air after that period. As children, however, we remained innocent. We played, explored, got in trouble, and there was a strange relationship with our parents since they had to commute long distances to the suburbia where they worked. As children, we had a lot of time to ourselves.
You hold a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the Michaelis School of Fine Arts. Why did you decide to pursue art academically, what sort of student were you, and how did it feel to be on the other side, giving guest lectures?
It was luck. Throughout my schooling, I always had teachers supporting me. Before I went to Michaelis, I already had two very prominent South African artists as mentors, namely Peter Clarke and Jane Alexander. They encouraged me to apply to art school, and Jane happened to be a professor in sculpture at Michaelis. I already had an in. I depended on government stipends to live at school because my family could not afford any of that. I hustled by selling artworks on the side to raise funds for materials. I wasn’t smart, but I paid attention.
For the first time, I was in a mixed school with people that spoke English. It was a cultural shock. I averaged fifty-five per cent on theory, and I was happy with that because then I could have all of my time in the studio to develop a much stronger studio practice, even during holiday breaks. I worked really hard on growing my relationship with my work. To have finished art school and continue to practice is a blessing. It feels humbling to be giving lectures for students whose place I once was in, essentially. I feel lucky to share the information that I needed and wanted to see when I was that age; I don’t take it for granted.
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A few interviews have given us a glimpse into your studio. Is there any particular reason why it’s the way it is and how do you keep it organised?
I have just moved to another studio which seems to be even more organised than the last one. As a painter, to have something like a storage rack to stack up all your paintings – that in itself makes me feel like I’ve made it in life. An organised studio makes it easy to know where everything is when you have many responsibilities and projects to attend to. So it’s definitely helped me be efficient in work. I hoard a lot, I collect a lot of shit; so organising it makes everything look less like Francis Bacon’s studios in London and Dublin. There’s an advantage in not buying the same thing over and over again because you don’t keep losing it; you know where it is.
Your work uses a myriad of bright colours, bold patterns, and interesting textures. How do you avoid visual clutter and know when something’s complete when it’s time to stop adding things and walk away?
I’m obsessed with composition. Colour becomes really important in the way it suggests how much an image is finished, how much it needs to be balanced out. Sometimes there are paintings that are oversaturated, and they’re ok, they have a place. Sometimes, I think of colour and texture as music notes: rhythm being in texture, colour carrying longer, ambient notes – you feel its intensity or lightness.
Maybe there’s also something about coming from Africa, a place that embraces the vibrancy of colour, with people that are not afraid to explore the ways they represent themselves. So colour never freaks me out. For me, it represents exuberance, warmth, invitation, and a becoming.
Is there any particular intention behind the way you depict figures in your works? How does this relate to the way you see bodies – both other people’s and your own?
I grew up in a very poor neighbourhood that was dense, highly populated, and very vibrant. One of the most beautiful things about growing up there was everyone being on the street, and the different types of bodies having a place to exist on the street, forging a strong community where they had a space to be acknowledged, to be seen, and to be embraced. Many different types of figures that worked within and around my community, and the figures that move around the cities of Cape Town, from townships, they’ve had an impact on me in the ways that I see people. I pay attention to the humanity in them, to the souls in them, and often wonder what their stories are.
So, what I do in the studio, I channel a lot of these different types of bodies that I have come across throughout my life – some of whom were also people I was scared of as a child because of the stories that were created around them – some are imagined, some I continue to see walking and moving around downtown LA, and I want all of these types of bodies to form a population of what I call The Mine Moon.
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People who sew, knit or otherwise work with fabric tend to develop these deep, meaningful relationships with the staff of their favourite fabric store. What about you, any fabric shopping anecdotes?
I love Goodwill, thrifting. My studio is located around the fashion district and the flower district. Every single time I walk outside, how people who are coming to shop are dressed and the types of different fabric materials sold in stores continue to serve as major sources of inspiration, and possible additional materials that subvert the expectations of what the materiality of a traditional painting is supposed to be.
In the art world – especially in more high-brow circles – there seems to be this constant debate about the value of intuitive, emotional, meaningful art. Especially when it comes to ‘liking’ art without any intellectual explanation for an intuitive response. Why do you think that is? Can’t we just like the art that we like?
As more and more people break into art circles, and collaborations begin to happen more and more, the art world is beginning to open up from its perception of an elitist, exclusive thing to be enjoyed only by a certain type or group of people. I think as this world opens, more and more people are allowed to have opinions about what they connect with. Contemporary art is so broad and so challenging, and oftentimes confusing even for other artists. It is very important that art remains something that people are still allowed to experience and form their opinions on what they think they are pulling out of it in terms of interpretation and meaning. How they attach to it individually is important.
So, when I create, I am also not concerned about what the work means, but how it feels and whether it sparks questions, whether it takes you on a journey – nowhere or somewhere – and the most important thing is not to get an answer, but to find something special, even if there is no word to describe it. As long as there is something that draws you in to admire the image.
When asked about your artistic role models, you mentioned Peter E. Clarke. Please tell us a bit more about the sort of work he makes and why it’s important.
He was a prominent South African painter, writer, and poet. He lived to see when apartheid began. He and his family were forcibly removed from Simon’s Town to Ocean View, as part of the Group Areas Act by the apartheid government. So the stories he tells in his works continue to be important visual educational supplements for schools, and for us to learn, too. They are a very important part of South African art history.
To have known him as a person, to have been guided by him, meant so much more to me than having an idol I looked up to. I took so much of how he lived as an artist: the simplicity and the sophistication, taking care of other artists and remaining humble, getting to work, and staying connected to home. He is one of the most beautiful people and most amazing artists who have had such an impact on me. The world deserves to know who he is. His work continues to teach us, way after he’s transcended to the afterlife.
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While I think we all understand what you mean, at least on some level, please explain what you meant when you said you want your work to be ‘uncomfortable.’
To have grown up surrounded by so much suffering, violence, and hunger, but to have also seen the very same people balancing out, to live their lives beautifully, colourfully, making time to dance and embrace, I feel so much of that still continues to come into my work. And there is a strong part that very often I find the work communicates a violent past in a way that’s almost psychological in its visual rendering. I’ve often heard people are confused by how they are drawn to most of my work, but something about it sits somewhere slightly uncomfortable, sort of on the edge and sometimes it achieves that, or sometimes it finds a way for people to relate to. Because, after all, we all hurt, and it’s part of life.
In a few earlier interviews, you’ve mentioned being inspired by literature. How important is language to you as an artist, especially as a speaker of Xhosa?
It’s interesting that this question is coming up now because I just had a beautiful conversation with one of my favourite writers who is also a Xhosa-speaking person, Zakes Mda.
The first book that I read of Zakes was in 2011, and I was introduced to it by a friend who was in African studies. In the library at the university, I noticed there was so much more African literature material that I had never heard of in high school in Laga. It was there I saw Zakes Mda. By impulse, I picked up Ways of Dying; somehow the title simply implied something I would be interested in reading.
I remember it was one of the first books I had read and never put down all the way through to the end. I remember being fascinated by this journey of the protagonist, Toloki, and his journeys through what he had self-appointed as his job, which was to be a professional mourner. And the absurdity of that in itself to me was so relatable.
I could see immediately the connections that came with how Zakes describes the mental psychology of how he sees himself and how he is projected by other people who seem to have ideas of normalcy that for himself, he doesn’t see himself in that way. The visual descriptions of how he looks, how he smells – his stench, the way he moves through different families – really creates a picture to me where I could literally see this person. I knew who he is. I was always taken aback by how real but also how fantastical, and also how slightly hard to believe that story was.
Tell us more about this author.
Mda writes in a way that is so visually descriptive and vernacular that every time I read, I always see paintings appearing through the sentences, even though I never actually make paintings inspired by those sentences. But they trigger something. I find when it comes to literature, with narrative forms of writers like Haruki Murakami and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, my imagination is often enticed, and I feel a connection. I feel way more inspired than if I were to sit and watch a movie of these books.
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You seem to have a very positive, productive attitude towards releasing your work into galleries, into the wild. Did you ever feel anxious about that stage of creation and if so, how did you overcome the feeling?
It starts with how I create the work. To not be attached to what the work means, whether the work fails or becomes problematic, has often liberated me. To not be afraid to put the work out, to have people see the work, keep the work, add value to the work, and trusting that no matter the speculation, if the work is good – things will work out. It is indeed scary because we can see how easily art can be used as porn for investment, moving money around, way outside the artist’s intention. But one cannot stop and be afraid. Gotta take a leap of faith.
For many artists, the most frightening, difficult thing is confronting the blank page. What do you usually do at that stage?
I light up a joint, I put on my most favourite music, surround myself with images of old works, images of historical art references; I set up all the conditions to equip me with a note or two to get started. I enjoy the trip and the journey into the fantastical imagination.
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