As If You Care, an exhibition of mixed media works by Blessing Ngobeni at Gallery Momo
The new Gallery Momo may have opened with a group exhibition but Ngobeni’s current solo exhibition “As If You Care” sets the tone for the standard of future shows.
Two years ago Blessing Ngobeni, winner of the 2012 Reinhold Cassier art award, had his first solo exhibition. It was at this exhibition that the highly successful actor Samuel L. Jackson (who interestingly is reputed to share ancestral roots with the Benga people of Gabon) walked into the gallery and bought Ngobeni’s collage construction titled “The Devilish Man Act”. This art work features a heightened exchange between two figures rendered in Ngobeni’s signature style of graffiti cross comic collage cut from the pages of art magazines and seamlessly attached to the canvas in complex layered compositions. In this art work a finger jabbing man who is portrayed as a classic horned devil with an aggressive smile of dazzling white teeth, threatens a voluptuous woman. Both figures have been conceived in bloody red tones and are set against a teary, milky streaked background. These streaked backgrounds are common to Ngobeni’s work and symbolize the tears of sorrow. The woman turns her head way from her aggressor but the wide open eyes in her breasts cannot help but see. As in much of Ngobeni‘s work the subject matter of this piece is social commentary. In this instance he explains that it comments on the “devilish” way men perpetuate a state of being feared by their wives as a form of control.
Artworks to a lesser or greater extent are connected to the artists life experience or condition. There is a direct connection to what life dished up for Ngobeni and his art works.
His experiences at the hands of immediate family had all the right ingredients to mark him badly and permanently. A biological father who walked out on the family, an uncle that denied him education and the love shown to his cousins, time spent in the bush in rural eastern Cape as a seven year old child and time on the street as a 10 year old child to escape home conditions culminating in time in juvenile detention. Although it would be easy for Ngobeni to believe as the Neo Expressionist Puerto Rican artist Jean Michael Basquiat, that he was cursed from birth, there is no indication of such a conviction.
Though his success against phenomenal odds may tempt one into believing he is blessed with potent guardian angels, his story is really one of the power of choice and the inspirational quality that creative expression has to make a holding space for lived experience, a sense of purpose and to build self-worth.
These choices included decisions not to use drugs while living under the bridge and not to become a gang member and to pursue an education while in detention. His artistic skill earned him the respect of inmates and warders alike and sometimes served as a conduit between estranged prisoners and their loved ones in the form of a portrait given as a gift. If there were any guardian angels they came in the earth bound form of an empathic prison warden impressed by his artistic talent or a fellow inmate who offered him free accommodation on his release until Ngobeni found his feet in the outside world.
A lack of a formal art education has both advantages and disadvantages. Its advantages were a liberation from the standard fare of art institutions and fast tracking to finding a unique voice. “Art does not have to have a formula –a line can go as far as you want it to” he says.
Highly attuned to political shenanigans of the current regime and critical of present leadership the title for the exhibition is taken from one of the works on display. Its inspiration is founded in a personal experience. He has been described as an Afro- Picasso by artist and academic Thembinkosi Goniwe and referred to as “the beast of the nation”.
Ngobeni walks a lot and fast. Ask him why he walks fast and he’ll tell you “I’m chasing my dreams”.
It was during one of his walks while doing a residency in San Francisco that he witnessed an adult pull a child roughly. It was an action that led Ngobeni to question whether this person really cared about this child. For Ngobeni there are larger ramifications when looking at the political arena. As for as he says “I have found that most people act as if they care about the greater good, particularly those in power, but in reality they don’t”. He goes on to suggest that they are governed by “a personal agenda” and that” the vulnerable have indirectly offered themselves as slaves of capitalism”. He believes that the solution to such circumstances lies in with the masses who “have to take it upon themselves to abolish the existing destructive system.”
Ngobeni is a shining example of a clear, direct, heart felt response to the games, ego and corruption of the current regime. His work and life are testaments to the spirit of what is achievable. In the words of the late John Muafangejo he is an ambassador of “hope and optimism” in spite of present difficulties” .
Blessing Ngobeni is an artist to watch.