at Nicodim Gallery, Los Angeles (through 20 March 2021)
Reviewed by Nancy Kay Turner
God is beginning to resemble not a ruler but the last fading smile of a Cheshire cat.
I will eat the last signs of my weakness
Remove the scars of old childhood wars
and dare to enter the forest whistling
like a snake that had fed the chameleon
–“Solstice,” Audre Lorde
Simphiwe Ndzube’s engaging exhibit, entitled Like the Snake that Fed the Chameleon at Nicodim Gallery, is a visual and aural treat composed of paintings, sculptures and two installations, all bathed in a soundscape created by the artist in collaboration with Thabo K. Makgolo and Zambini Makwetha. A master storyteller, Nzdube creates an existential, otherworldly space where the ordinary becomes extraordinary. The work defies easy explanations, as mystery is piled on top of enigma. Each painting or sculpture shares a homemade, do-it-yourself aesthetic, with all seams made visible, as though haphazardly sewn, stitched, stapled, glued and pinned together in a hurry. All collaged elements are intentionally separate and noticeable, like a homey piecework crazy quilt. Ndzube juggles fact and fiction, the real and the imagined, with a skill and dexterity of a trained magician while employing inventive improvisation like a superb jazz musician.
Left, Simphiwe Ndzube’s The Kiss (2021) and, right, Marc Chagall’s Birthday (1915)
An example of this is the painting The Kiss, whose composition is clearly a nod to Chagall’s Birthday. A woman, clad in a striped dress, is flying upside down in an acrobatic move while reaching for her earthbound lover, whose sweater and pants are actual found used clothes. Ndzube’s use here of levitation (as in the expression “head over heels”) becomes a metaphor for the ecstatic feeling of love. The man simultaneously inhabits two contradictory worlds — the painted hallucinogenic landscape and the white box gallery space (akin to an actor breaking the fourth wall that separates the actor from the audience), as his pants legs leap out from the picture plane and his feet clad in shoes land onto concrete.
Seeking connection and communion, the lovers reach out for each other with elegant, expressive hands in symbolic gestures — the man’s right hand is a Buddhist mudra, used when seeking knowledge; his reptilian tongue and pink ears are highlighted by bright color and summon the senses of hearing and smelling. This evokes the way snakes use their tongues to “see,” and lizards to “smell,” while for humans the tongue is connected to food and sex (although children stick their tongues out playfully and in defiance).
Riotous color and patterns abound in this and all of the paintings, as Ndzube orchestrates color like a maestro. The man’s slacks are the same color as the mountains, while the woman’s neon hair is echoed in plowed land. The yellow and green of the landscape migrates to the stripes of the dress. Ndzube scumbles pastel blue over the violet of the sky with expressionistic vigor. Sharp aesthetic choices manage what could easily result in sensory overload, as opposed to what translates here, in The Kiss, as joyful abundance.
Nearby, the wonderfully wonky Beast of No Nation looks like an unraveling, deconstructed Nick Cave sound suit. Like Scarlet O’Hara’s dress made from curtains, part of the fun for the viewer is to note the parts that make up the whole. Voluptuous velveteen rubs up against a fringed curtain, sewn onto part of a striped wooly rug next to a thin Hari Krishna orange fabric and culminating in a denim jacket with a Nordic patterned shirt with a dangling hand holding a curtain pull. This contraption (which I did not see in action — the viewer has to ask for it to be turned on) fascinates even when still. It reminds one of the many creative ways that children make boxcars out of discards or impoverished people fabricate vehicles out of recycled materials, proving that necessity truly is the mother of invention.
TaBhiza, The Flaneur is an idler, or a stroller. 19th century poet Charles Baudelaire coined the phrase in 1863 while describing someone, usually a male, who wandered the emerging city as a way to observe and experience it. Implicit in the term is someone who is a dandy with no visible means of income. Here, TaBhiza is a stylish hybrid — half man, half animal — striding confidently with his blue shoes, his denim jeans and his clownish coat of many colors. Emerging from the shell-like collar is a blue grotesque head, open in the back (literally an air head), with silver menacing sharks teeth growing like a tumor from the neck. TaBhiza is like a character in a theater of the absurd play, mixing jauntiness and menace all at once, a real Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in blue jeans.
A small shelter made of corrugated sheetmetal, often seen in South African townships, appears in many of Ndzube’s paintings and is recreated here in a dream-like installation entitled Rainbow Nation of God, Cities on the Sky. The shack is cobbled together of humble and recycled materials, much in the way Ndzube pieces his other sculptures together. Though bereft of people, the house is raised on a single, thick post lifting it over a festive garden of artificial foliage planted by the absent inhabitants.
The sheer theatricality of this exhibit nearly masks the deep philosophical questions that crop up. One looks at all the hybrid half-men, half-animal creatures and wonders about the nature of our existence, of how we tame our animalistic desires. Our human yearning for communion, connection and communication is evident in the figurative imagery as couples make love or constantly look at or reach for one another. The fecund gardens, filled with extraordinary plants — growing as fast as Audrey in Little Shop of Horrors — are like a supernatural Garden of Eden and begs the question: what is real?
The viewer cannot help but get swept away by the swirl of sound, color and motion, all the while sensing the tug of darkness, the undertow from some yet-revealed beneath. This created world seems like a giant wish fulfillment dream of abundance instead of poverty, joy instead of sorrow and light instead of darkness. A brave new world, it is, one wholly worth exploring.
Featured Image: Simphiwe Ndzube’s Silumko (2021)