Simphiwe Ndzube’s Bhabharosi
at Nicodim Gallery, Los Angeles (through October 14, 2017)
By Lorraine Heitzman
Simphiwe Ndzube, in his bold debut at the Nicodim Gallery, has produced a personal and political tragicomedy that is an insightful commentary on the human condition. Set against the backdrop of South Africa where Ndzube was born, Bhabharosi tells the timely story of the hero’s journey that is steeped in the colors and customs of his birthplace but speaks to universal themes. His fresh perspective resonates with a vocabulary that is both witty and visually stunning.
All photos courtesy of the artist and Nicodim Gallery / Lee Tyler Thompson
Bhabharosi, the namesake of the show, is a fictitious character whose invented name has roots in isiXhosa, Ndzube’s native language. It is a name that, for the artist, implies the hardship in persevering, as well as the hope for overcoming adversity. Inspired by world literature and contemporary painting, he has crafted a boisterous narrative that marries Francis Bacon’s screams and Beckett’s dilemmas with the grit and joy of South African street life. Ndzube paints a dystopian world that acknowledges the struggle of life and the drive to transform oneself.
The first impression of Ndzube’s paintings is made by the fanciful figures set against desolate landscapes. His palette is reminiscent of comics printed on newsprint; punchy highlights coexist within a muted and saturated world. There is a nagging sensation one gets from studying the work, reminding you of something you can’t quite put your finger on, something subliminal and unknown. Is it the decadence of a George Grosz portrait or the compositions and colors of a Japanese woodblock print? The male figures (they all appear to be male) are headless and dance about, not on conventional limbs, but upon writhing, snake or root-like supports. Their strangeness is compounded by their anonymity and by the peculiar logic of the narrative. Ndzube’s unusual use of color, the animal print patterns, battered traffic cones and old fashioned lampshades all support the contradictory nature of his work and this duality lends itself to multiple interpretations. The artist claims the figures are striving and in the process of transformation, but is there not a hint of the apocalypse, too?
In scenes that can be read as either joyous or harrowing, Simphiwe Ndzube depicts figures in fancy attire, inspired by the Sartorial Swenkas of South Africa. Swenkas, derived from the word “swank” are street competitions of working class Zulu men that reward those with the most outrageous, creative outfits. The obvious pride in their dress reflects the aspirational nature of the Swenkas, an attitude that Ndzube applies to his subjects. In contrast to these characters, there are allusions to other figures that are more pedestrian. There are literal “stuffed shirts” with khaki pants and neckties affixed to the canvases, more the uniform of a banker than a dandy. These effigies, less fanciful than their painted counterparts, may be just three-dimensional everymen, but they smack more of the status quo. While the wildly dressed figures dance with abandon in derelict cars and boats, the stuffed shirts are lifeless.
In Untitled, Eclipse, we observe two nattily attired figures without heads and arms, dancing like scarecrows caught unawares. One character sports a glove on a stick where his head should be. Their roots support them atop a boat that is propped up on sawhorses and an umbrella bound to the bow offers the only protection from a black sun. They seem headed for a futile journey, with no means to progress. What appears to be a person, (a witness or perhaps a narrator) in the foreground is only a wildly patterned shirt. Littering the landscape are plastic safety stanchions while birds surround them rather ominously. Ndzube paints this curious scenario in circus colors and strong patterns and one wonders if he is implying something apocalyptic or just an absurd revelry?
Untitled (Swing) is the outlier with its somber, more monochromatic palette. Here, as in other paintings, a suited character is held aloft and tethered by wires. He is in an interior environment, but weeds have sprouted from the ground, a neglected stage of sorts. Behind him, a makeshift table supports another, smaller character who, bending from his waist, appears to be searching for something with the light bulb that supplants his head. In front of the painting on the gallery floor, Ndzube has placed a traffic cone with a branch jutting out, capped with a stuffed glove. Well-integrated with the painting in scale and subject matter, the traffic cone calls attention to the scene by urging caution. The restrained figure blindly searches and moves forward, but his chances for freedom seem remote.
Punctuating the space in between the large canvases are several freestanding sculptures, painted drop cloths scattered across the floor and one sculpture that is suspended from the ceiling. The sculptures are a lively counterpoint to the paintings. In one sculpture that is entitled the same as the show, Bhabharosi, a mass of foam vibrates atop a crudely built wood table supported by three hinged table legs outfitted with shoes and mismatched socks. Beneath the arc of an open umbrella, a lightweight fan is whirling. The small motor that powers the sculpture causes an awkward, organic jiggling movement, recalling the scene in Lindsay Anderson’s Oh, Lucky Man! where the secret medical science experiment is revealed to the surprised horror of Malcolm McDowell’s character. Ndzube’s sculpture also seems innocent and amusing at first glance, but there is a slightly menacing aspect that is undefined, like that of a ticking time bomb.
Another sculpture is suspended in air, suggesting a fallen angel captured midflight. Crudely suspended with wires and neckties, the figure, sporting a suit jacket, has an illuminated lampshade for a head that is framed by a long blond wig. An inverted umbrella completes the figure evoking a mermaid’s tail or, as the artist suggests, a seahorse. Ndzube explains that Bhabharosi is something of a shape shifter and here the masculine veers towards the feminine. The sculptures bring to life the exuberance of his characters more forthrightly than his paintings, but combined they tell the full story.
However compelling Ndzube’s fictional and biographical narrative is, his story is not his art. The artwork stands confidently on its own merits and speaks to all of us across continents and cultures. His work defies easy explanations, but the compelling and subliminal mysteries within the imagery engages and functions on a level that is nevertheless effective and moving. Art always operates this way, through poetry and imagination, and Bhabharosi has plenty of each.
Lorraine is an artist and writer living in Los Angeles. She has written about the local arts community for ArtCricketLA and Armseye Magazine and is currently a regular contributor to Art and Cake. In addition to exhibiting her art, Lorraine has her own blog, countingknuckles.com, and her art can be seen on her website lorraineheitzman.com