Traces | Nkhosinathi Thomas Ngulube

by Catherine Terblanche
Cate Terblanche, 2017

The artist Nkosinathi Thomas Ngulube has built up a reputation for producing large scale paintings and public sculptures. Some of his most notable public works include a collaborative work with the South African artist Usha Seejarim, installed as part of the Freedom Charter project at the Walter Sisulu Square in Kliptown, Soweto.  He has also collaborated with the artist Marco Cianfanneli to produce a floating Golf Trophy for Investec, as well as producing public sculptures for the software company SYSPRO for several of their initiatives including installations at Sun City.  Ngulube has also created sculptural park benches for the City of Johannesburg as part of their public arts programme in Hillbrow and Yeoville.


But while his artistic career has been built on these monumental pieces, Ngulube finds peace and solace in producing miniature works. His exhibition entitled Traces shown at the Candice Berman Gallery in Bryanston from 30 March to 13 April 2017, features several of his miniatures.


Ngulube states that his miniatures are often produced in response to his large scale works and sculptures. In contrast to many artists who view working on a larger scale as liberating, he feels this scale demands far more from an artist.  In his opinion, the scale is often the dominating and controlling factor in the creative process, governing the artist rather than the other way around.   As a release from this tension, he often rewards himself with the pleasurable experience of pure painting on a small scale.  Some of these paintings can be seen as a subtext to the large scale works he was working on at the time, while others are a documentation of seemingly unrelated issues that concern the artist on a personal level. 

He lovingly refers to these miniatures as ‘recovery pieces’, something which brings a sense of calm to him after the chaos of engaging with several metres of canvas or concrete forms.  For him the production of large scale pieces is often so mentally and physically exhausting, it leaves him emotionally drained despite the fact that the creative process is supposed to be uplifting.  It is as if ‘something valuable has been stolen from him’ he says with a soft laugh.  A quiet spoken man with a gentle soul, Ngulube often draws inspiration from his daily surroundings, but its understanding and interpretation is greatly influenced by his spiritual attitude towards life.   Due to the size constraints imposed by the miniature works, themes for these works are often contained, but still try to express the complicated, and often contradictory nature of contemporary life.


For instance, a work such as Friend Request (2016) is a reflection on the mocking fashion in which contemporary technology as desecrated the special bonds that (should) exist between true friends, reducing the notion of friendship to a mere icon on a social media platform.  Paradoxically it simultaneously allows people to ‘connect’ where this would not have previously been possible.  Another small scaled work entitled Man and Parrot (2016) tries to capture the delightful childhood memory the artist has of a man who trained his parrot to speak. The fascinating process by which the parrot eventually came to echo the words spoken by all in the neighbourhood has been transformed into a visual documentation of this magical experience as a child. 


However, his miniature works are not always a light-hearted or tongue in the cheek observations of daily life. Several reflect some of the very difficult, complex social and political issues currently experienced in South Africa.  The work Corporate Pig (2016) is a comment on the complexity of business ethics and capitalism which simultaneously advances one while exploiting another. Another example of this schizophrenic human behaviour is investigated in the work entitled Social Protest / Mental Guernica (2016), which comments on the ‘mental battles’ associated with social protest action. While protest action has become common place for bringing attention to social injustices, it often only results in the balance of power being shifted, with no real or lasting changes. 


Ngulube lives and works in Cape Town, and enjoys sharing his creative knowledge with others by running workshops for the youth, as well as mentoring artists from rural areas. He is currently represented by the Candice Berman Gallery in Bryanston.  Further information regarding his exhibition Traces can be found on the gallery website

Catherine Terblanche is an independent art historian, lecturer and curator.

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