Critical: Surreal artist Blessing Ngobeni’s paintings feature bold colours and thick layers of paint. Picture: SUPPLIED
Critical: Surreal artist Blessing Ngobeni’s paintings feature bold colours and thick layers of paint. Picture: SUPPLIED

Surrealist painter Blessing Ngobeni uses his brush and paint to explore the idea of how western-acquired tastes such as the love of material things have subverted Africans’ values that were essentially based on the philosophy of ubuntu.

Added to this, the desire for and love of power by African politicians, chiefs and kings has distorted Africans’ identities to the point that many people have resorted to wearing masks to hide who they really are, Ngobeni believes.

His latest exhibition, Masked Reality, which is on at Circa Gallery in Johannesburg, is pregnant with these politically charged narratives.

It seeks to unmask a typical contemporary African — citizens and politicians.

Essentially, a painter who cleverly fuses spiritual insights and self-actualisation in his work, in Masked Reality, Ngobeni is also experimenting with other media such as installation in addition to painting, and the results are devastatingly delightful.

Using mainly vivid colours and thick layers of paint, the exhibition is bold in tackling often vexatious contemporary political issues on the continent, using the most subtle of touches.

His message in this exhibition can be best understood through unpacking metaphors that are cleverly embedded in the works.

"In some cases, I use the metaphor of monkeys engaging in some particular activity in relationship to a particular material that people love, for example cars and expensive clothing labels," Ngobeni says.

"In reality, these are human beings and [the paintings indicate] how much they have lost the essence of who they used to be.

"For example, the notion of ubuntu and simply being human no longer defines
who we are because of western influences."

Ngobeni is scathing about people who define nationalism in a narrow sense, especially focusing on colonially designed borders between African countries.

"The issue of border-ism is a problem. These borders were designed by colonisers and yet, African countries religiously define the nationhood within the narrow parameters of these borders. Why can we not destroy these borders and start afresh, redrawing our own borders," he asks rhetorically.

The exhibition, the second since he joined Everard Read Gallery late in 2016, is a continuation of his first exhibition with the gallery in September. That exhibition, Song of Chikote, dealt extensively with politics.

"That particular exhibition dealt with the history of the [Belgian] Congo [now Democratic Republic of Congo], and how King Leopold II of Belgium [the former colonial power in the Congo from 1908 to 1960] used local people to do his dirty work when millions of Congolese were killed during atrocities that were painful and devastating," he says.

"That was very sad, and more so because this history has not been published adequately. It is forgotten history, and therefore in my research, I stumbled on this dark part of history. ‘Chikote’ refers to a sjambok that was used to whip the victims in this orgy of brutality to befall the Congo."

Ngobeni, 31, who first studied art at Artist Proof Studio, was awarded the prestigious Reinhold Cassirer Award in 2012, funded by art auctioneers Strauss & Co.

The award offers an emerging South African artist in the field of drawing or painting under the age of 35 the opportunity to spend 10 weeks at the Bag Factory’s studios.

It was founded by the late Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer in celebration of her husband Reinhold Cassirer’s love of the arts.

Winning the award opened doors for Ngobeni.

"Suddenly, I had galleries knocking on my door. I eventually joined Gallery Momo until last year, when I left to join Everard Read Gallery, which has given me an opportunity to create the kind of work that represents who I am and what I feel.

"I do not create work for people, because if I did that, I would not be real. That would not reflect who I am."

Ngobeni — who had a troubled and dark childhood, including sleeping on Johannesburg’s streets as a runaway child from Tzaneen, Limpopo, and serving jail time for armed robbery before discovering a love of art in prison — was granted a three-month residency by Creative Fusion in 2016.

He spent three months working at the Cleveland Print Room in the US.

"As part of the residency, I had an exhibition there, and just like the opening of Masked Reality, the opening attracted several people including artists, young and old," he says.

"My openings, for some reason, always attract huge crowds including artists.

"Some of the audience tell me that my work engages and touches them in profound ways," he says.

"Recently, one of the visitors told me that my current work has made him to introspect and question his own identity. He said it helped him to find himself eventually.

"I am grateful that my work has the ability to touch viewers in a special way, and that should mean that I am on the right track."

One of the top artists to emerge in SA in recent years and whose works are the toast of the local art-buying market, Ngobeni believes lynchings — such as those in the Congo under King Leopold — still occur in all African countries.

"The attack on the African soul has not stopped.

"These days it is more subtle, and its methods have become more complex to notice. The torture is no more physical, but mental," he says. "For example, the idea that if you drive a Ferrari or any expensive car, you are suddenly assumed to be belonging to another class and that you are no longer who you were before, is totally wrong," Ngobeni says.

"When people see you driving an expensive car, they automatically, without even the decency of engaging you, conclude that you have lots of money. It never occurs to them that you may have used your last savings to acquire that car."

With his art now highly regarded, and among the top earners of his generation, Ngobeni has not forgotten where he comes from.

In association with Bag Factory, he launched a residency programme early this year that sees a promising artist receiving a grant and an opportunity to create works at the Bag Factory for three months.

"This does not mean that I have a lot of money, but this is my way of cultivating creativity in the sector as well as motivating young artists who are travelling the hard path that I have," he says.

"The system often does not encourage new and emerging artists, and so, it should be our responsibility as artists who are now established to also pave a way for those following in our footpath," Ngobeni says.

Masked Reality is on at Circa Gallery, Rosebank, Johannesburg until February 25.

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