The art of observing family dynamics
Buhle Wonder Mbambo uses charcoal in part to depict his family’s rise from the symbolic ashes, writes Scott Williams
There were nine puppies stolen, cursed and killed. According to Buhle Wonder Mbambo, his grandmother attributed his aunts’, uncles’ and mother’s ill fortune to the cursing of these puppies. His family’s future had, seemingly, been set in stone.
This bit of family history recounted by his maternal grandmother is one of Mbambo’s formative memories in which his Zulu traditions play a central role.
He is an artist, based on West Street, whose journey from his village in KwaNgcolosi to his studio in Durban has covered a period just short of a decade. He started with art classes at the BAT Centre in 2010 and was included in the Velobela mentorship programme at the Durban University of Technology in 2012.
Another definitive experience was his 2016 residency in Bremen, Germany, as the recipient of the Bremer Kunst-stipendium art grant.
Mbambo, 29, creates art primarily in the medium of charcoal drawings. He recalls his first classes at the BAT Centre, where he was presented with a range of art materials. The sticks of charcoal transported him back to his village where he was encouraged to draw, even on the walls of his home.
He views the success he has had with charcoal as deeply symbolic of the role he plays in his family’s rise from the symbolic ashes.
His series of drawings is organised into themes such as Ukumisa Insika in which he explores the concept of being groomed for leadership, to bring light to the road. This exploration is biographical.
In one such drawing from the series Umkhanyiselwa 1 (The Illuminated One), Mbambo portrays a solitary figure, elevated and floating above a group of people. While the people below are drawn in only the dark tones of his charcoal, the sole figure is rendered in a bit more colour. The heads below come together, collectively buoying the individual with the power of all their hopes and dreams.
"Yes, the family was cursed … in darkness, but when I was at school doing art and selling work I started realising that I wasn’t a part of the nine [puppies]. I had to come and bring the light," he says.
It is clear that the floating individual in his drawing is a self portrait.
However, in the same series from 2017, there is another perceptive piece entitled Black Tax vs Dreams. This title tells of a personal tension while facing the roles assigned by tradition to young black breadwinners.
In a previous interview Mbambo talked about "unlocking themselves from financial burials", which becomes the duty the migratory black workforce has to "people back home".
"From my window in West Street I see the routine every day. I see people rush to work in the morning and then they leave in the afternoon. The same happens the next day and I ask myself what would drive people to do this? I saw there is only one reason in common, they need to keep food on the table."
The conflict for many such breadwinners lies in the demands modern life and family traditions place on them. The challenge is to see to it that their families can eat, to scrape together a meagre living and then, by some miracle, try to create some wealth.
Mbambo’s search for the precarious balance between tradition and personal prosperity appears in his two Imiyalezo mixed media art works. In both, an elderly figure and a child hold an empty spoon in their hands.
He believes these are the sorts of questions a man will ask at the generational passing of the torch. A man becomes concerned with the responsibility to those who came before him and those who will come after him.
A black man is concerned with the cultural norms that are governed by tradition, and levels of adherence will determine whether he is a "good" man. These questions about black masculinity and their relationship to working in urban, western spaces can become awkward.
Mbambo tackles what could be misread as a hint of selfishness or frustration by providing context in other works. In the large diptych, Happiness is a Process, he expresses his view on the tug-of-war between the past and present. In this drawing a vast sea of garbage is beneath a dramatic sky, there are two panels and in one of them is a white table with empty chairs.
His reflections are partly inspired by Prof Pitika Ntuli’s 2013 interview on the Marikana massacre during which the veteran artist-academic referred to the generational crisis of perpetual poverty with which black miners, and by extension black people, seem to be cursed. He said that when the descendants of people who suffered the economic oppression of apartheid raise questions of reparation, they are effectively silenced.
This is effectively the ambivalence that Mbambo takes on in Happiness is a Process. The empty dinner table and chairs represent the absence of discussions about reparation. It is the expression of disbelief at the generational indebtedness to a past that still burdens many young people in the country.
Mbambo has, since becoming a professional artist, answered many calls for help from home and has built a house for his grandmother. Perhaps he is now seating himself at the head of the table and waiting, spoon in hand, for the silence to be broken and an appropriate type of justice to be served.
He is preparing for a solo exhibition at the Durban National Art Gallery. He has received an invitation to attend the Art House and ROSL residencies in the UK.
• Buhle Wonder Mbambo will host an open studio on June 14.