Daniel Stompie Selibe’s art – part collage, part paint and frenzied mark-making – is a striking contemporary example of the revival of Expressionism in the South African art context. His works, while utterly distinctive and singularly his own, capture the dark dystopian drive which, historically, has defined this pre-eminently German art movement. Psychically turbulent-eruptive-jarring agonistic, Selibe’s works, however, are not only a throwback to a Modernist past, they are also abstract yet visceral configurations of South Africa’s present moment. Indeed, I’d venture to wager that virtually no other artist in our present clime has best captured the difficulties of our time.
However, while Selibe’s art could be interpreted as an aesthetic of suffering, this reading also fails to recognise that the artist’s drives and objectives are by no means merely nihilistic. Rather, Selibe’s is an art which reflects the greater complexity of what it means to be ‘human-all-too-human’. The reference here is to Friedrich Nietzsche who, for the cultural analyst of the Expressionist era, Gottfried Benn, ‘was the earthquake’, the epochal game-changer, who rewired German aesthetics in the early twentieth century. Nietzsche of course prevails, as does German Expressionism, for both the man and the movement possess a raw durability which is strikingly in evidence in Daniel Stompie Selibe’s art.
To understand the artist better, I visited him in his Johannesburg studio, but also visited his art in situ, in the private homes of collectors. What intrigued me was not only the artist’s vision but its fast-growing appeal. My first encounter was telling. Two works hovered above a large flat-screen television and a glistening black entertainment unit. The contrast was striking, technology’s black sheen at odds with the rough-hewn, abraded surfaces of Selibe’s works. Part collage, part adventure in paint, these works spill-slip-glide-leap-thrust, for what drives them is an inchoately organised energy. Scraps from a sheet of musical notation – a distinctive signature and leitmotif – appear amidst the congealed mix, reminding me of the centrality of music as a Dionysian force in Nietzsche’s writings, most notably in The Birth of Tragedy, for it is also this Dionysian drive which drives Selibe, though in his case the momentum-peaks-troughs-jarring shifts-leaps are inspired by Miles Davis.
When I finally meet the artist in his studio I am struck by the continuance of the chaotic visual idiom he has made his own. All about there is splattered paint, the works nearly indistinguishable from the studio floor, wall, or the artist’s splattered trousers. And here a later Abstract Expressionist, Jackson Pollock, springs to mind, for it is the continuum of nervous energy which defines Selibe’s world and atmosphere. ‘The mood of making an image is personal, it is emotional about who you are’, he says. This radical subjectivity is not surprising, but what for me is surprising is the artist’s phrasing – the mood of making an image. For if artworks tend towards a degree of fixity – an ‘image’ suggesting something pictured – I find this assumption obliterated in the works hanging on Selibe’s splattered wall. Indeed, it is the very refutation of the image that is most strikingly evident, for it is not a thing one sees but a ‘mood’, compacted and conflicted, which one feels.
Simon Schama’s description of the paintings by Soutine is fitting here – ‘observed phenomena dissolve completely into a pottage of paint – the paint flung on with abandon, wet into wet, forming ropes, snakes, or flat ribbons of sharp colour, while the whole surging surface is sometimes slashed over with welt-raising strokes of black’. Indeed, it is black – a non-colour – which dominates Selibe’s paintings and vision, a blackness that is consuming, haunting, which the artist cannot vault. In saying this I do not wish to ignore the importance of colour. My point, rather, is that Selibe’s use of colour is always circumscribed, whether literally or metaphorically, by a darkness, a blackness, tormented and restless.
I make this observation carefully, for it is not my aim to perceive or construct the artist as a figure who is solely consumed by victimhood or a history of oppression. It is true that he is well aware of this dark inheritance, and yet, on meeting the artist, one is also struck by the artist’s gentleness and grace.
How then are we to understand Selibe’s engagement with the difficulties – psychic-aesthetic-political – which shape us? I think that Achille Mbembe, in Critique of Black Reason, serves us well here, for he notes a doubled consciousness, a twofold strategy, in the experience and articulation of black experience – as ‘a “sickness” of a political nature’ but also as ‘a practice of the transformation of symbols’. It is this conflicted yet connected set of conditions best explains the power of Selibe’s art, for while it never shirks our pathological history, it always remains empowering.
Lest we forget, ‘The colour black has no meaning. It exists only in reference to the power that invented it, to an infrastructure that supports it and contrasts it with other colours’, be those colours raced or aesthetic. Mbembe’s qualification is an important one as we move forward, for it is not my aim to conceive Selibe as a political artist. On the contrary, what matters far more is the artist’s ability to internalise a political reality and to express it humanly. He gives density and psychic complexity to our aggrieved human condition.
That he has favoured musical notation in many of his works is one clue to this more enabling-if-difficult vision. Standing in his studio I see this leitmotif repeated. But there is also another musical iteration, this time in the form of a shimmering broken disk of vinyl which forms a work’s abyssal centre. Refracted lashes-slashes-drips-swabs of black paint, broken fleetingly by threads of red and white, suggest a centrifuge of glimmering night. And, when I ask the artist from whence his inspiration comes, this skull of night is reaffirmed. ‘I am influenced by my surroundings’, he says. ‘The sounds of Johannesburg … night screams … a robbery’. Disaffection-panic-fear-pain-threat is therefore uppermost in Selibe’s lived world and his imagination. He cannot separate himself from the inhibitive and crushing impact of threat.
Is Selibe an inner-city seer, a medium or conduit? Is his art an imaging of that which possesses no definable face? And what are we to make of the noise which his works – part painting, part collage – emit? For there is no doubt, to my eye and ear at least, that the artist’s works are alarming – they are acts, pressurised and congealed, which have harvested the siren squeal and shrieks of Johannesburg’s night world. Is it this ability on the part of the artist to gather up the traumatic shreds of night which best distinguishes his appeal? Are his works expressions of states of emergency? Are they warnings? Pleas? And is it this hopelessness upon which his works teeter?
His works are ‘experiments’, says Selibe. Their root lies in ‘a devastating past, both emotional and psychological’. While the artist does not elaborate upon this burning matter, it seems to me that he inhabits a world that ‘confuses’ him, a world unabated in its expression of wrath and anger – a world wild and immoral, bereft of certainty or clarity. And yet, he adds, ‘the more I do it [create] the more I get clarity’.
Here we return to the artist’s ‘making’ of an ‘image’ – painting as a cipher for an abiding agonism, for Selibe’s works teeter on the edge of nothingness, questing at every twist and turn to express the unsayable.
Here we also return to the doubled-edged sword that is blackness, for if blackness dominates Selibe’s canvases it is because it signals a void that stems from subjection, displacement, denial, emptiness. It is the very void which Steve Bantu Biko – like Frantz Fanon – repeatedly reminded us that we must overcome. For it is a void – an unsayable NOTHINGNESS – which fundamentally refuses the human. A void which not only subjects and objectifies the body of a black man, a child, a woman, but which threatens to crush their imagination, their intellect, their soul. Which is why Biko should state in I write what I like that ‘The first step … is to make the black man come to himself, to pump back life into his empty shell; to infuse him with pride and dignity … This is the definition of black consciousness’. But of course, this statement is more easily declared than acted upon, for what strikingly distinguishes Selibe’s work is his ability to arrest the void, to pump back life into an ‘empty shell’, reclaim some ‘pride and dignity’. Indeed, it is this transformative power which, to my mind and heart, signals the artist’s struggle on behalf of the black soul.
No other artist in the realm of contemporary South African art has more daringly confronted the psychic damage at the nation’s core. The very strength of Selibe’s art, therefore, resides in its unwavering immediacy and yet its portentousness. If his works are ‘structured but not’, this is because they prefer to arrest a final outcome, outwit a false yearning, the better to confront a raw and confounding truth.
It is curious, in this regard, that Selibe should describe the music of Philip Thabane and Winston Mankunku as ‘profound and clean’, for it is perhaps these sounds which he most longs to express within his art – yet cannot. For there is nothing resolved within Selibe’s difficult expressions through art, no point of repose, no reassuring balm, no peace. Instead, we inhabit worlds obfuscated-sullied-dirty. His canvases refuse the benign solace of resolution, or the imagined godliness that stems from cleanliness. Dystopian-wild-restless-churning, the worlds which he creates are ‘a breakaway from the norm of doing things’. This is because Selibe’s works refuse both objectivity and moral idealism, choosing rather to embrace an inner-blinded-blunted-searing optic. After all, he says, ‘we live in the shadow of the unknown’, from which, it seems, we can never escape.
In this regard we can I think agree that Daniel Stompie Selibe embodies the archetype of Expressionism. But it is not this easy congruence of being and type which truly matters here. Rather, what matters is our capacity to recognise connections of the spirit across time and place, without losing sight of the radical singularity of Selibe’s art. I think the growing appeal of his work lies in its unremitting darkness – his works, like apparitions, linger in the depths of our psyche. They are the sonar or encrypted code of our unconscious.
I am looking at four works on paper arranged along the artist’s studio wall. In comparison to Selibe’s sprawling canvases they may seem minor, and yet within these works I find an acute expression of the artist’s radical austerity and difficulty. At the centre of each is a loosely defined and unstructured mass of black paint, surrounded by drips and smudges of excremental brown. The black mass, suggestive of Biko’s morphing and ‘empty shell’ or void, is parasited at the crown by scraps of technological imagery. These works on paper are not only potent but relatively simple in their execution and affect – indeed they are devastatingly so. For what they remind me of is not only an historical abjection – the bodily forms are ragged and ill-formed, as though bereft of self-possession and self-control – but also of an equally insidious subjection to the corrosive lure of capital. Because it is by no means accidental that at the frontal cortex of his ragged black bodies Selibe should place technology. This is because for the artist the black body is not only the victim of colonialism and apartheid – and its continued victimisation within a pitiless post-apartheid era – it is also a body afflicted by greed and capital. For today it is not enough to speak, or write, on behalf of the human. Our lives have indissolubly blurred into technology. We are Frankenstein’s spawn, Steve Jobs’ hapless acolytes. Our story, the story of South Africa, cannot be satisfactorily understood without grasping the accelerating divide between poverty and wealth, and along with this witheringly cavernous gap, the inconsolable rage, anger, despair, and desperation which its compels. For as Pankaj Mishra blisteringly reminds us, ours is the ‘Age of Anger’, ours an age disordered, which reason cannot countenance and explain away. And it is precisely this accelerated futility factored into a divisive discourse which artists like Selibe must confound, for it is not reason which can save us but art.
It is our ability – as artists – to inhabit the volatility of the present moment, its ‘widening abyss’, which signals the truth of our fractured and irreconcilable lives. This, I think, is Selibe’s greatest gift – for he knows, with Nietzsche, that we must pass through decadence, that we cannot override the existential impossibility of our current condition. Fatality is omnipresent, our world wracked by the failure of any abiding moral vision. The conflicts which we witness all about, which infect our news stream, are but the symptoms of this failed human condition. And it is precisely because of this failure that I have persisted in questioning the validity of identity politics as a saving paradigm.
In this regard, it is salutary to remember James Baldwin’s observation that ‘People are trapped in history, and history is trapped in them’, and, all the more witheringly, that ‘The rage of the disesteemed is personally fruitless, but it is also absolutely inevitable’. It is this potent and maddening paradox that lies at the heart of Selibe’s vision and work. His is a rage against the void, against the oppression of possibility, against the consuming machine that is Empire and Technology. The brilliance and the pathos of his work lies in the artist’s recognition that futility is inescapable, that the war is unending and ‘absolutely inevitable’.
It is this forked realisation which sets Selibe apart. His is an art refined by oblivion, which stands as a remarkable testimony to this enraging hopelessness. And yet, when one encounters the man, it is not this demonic rage which one meets but rather T.S. Eliot’s ‘infinitely gentle, infinitely suffering thing’.
Selibe’s great art, therefore, occupies a tipping point in the experience of being human at this point in the twenty-first century. His is not only a black South African consciousness but a consciousness that is engulfing the entirety of the world; a consciousness distressed, panic-stricken, fearful, hopeless, which, nevertheless, must forge a path, no matter how inarticulate and graspingly futile. It is precisely this impossible-enraged-confusing-mortal condition which Selibe’s art dealer, Candice Berman, has aptly described as ‘post-millennial-Neo-Expressionism’. For it is a moment, a time, an age, remorseless in its embrace of darkness and the desire to overcome it. In this sense, then, it could be said that Selibe has defined the zeitgeist, the mood and temperature of our age. But then, as the neo-expressionist, David Salle, has reminded us, when examining an art work we must not only ask what it is suffering from, we must also ask – what does it love.