Archive: Issue No. 50, October 2001

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Pitso Chinzima

Pitso Chinzima
Attacking Family Pleasure
Dissected VW Beetle
On 'Graft', 2nd Johannesburg Biennale

Pitso Chinzima

Pitso Chinzima
Attacking Family Pleasure

Pitso Chinzima

Pitso Chinzima
Attacking Family Pleasure
(detail) 1997

Pitso Chinzima

Pitso Chinzima with
Attacking Family Pleasure

Pitso Chinzima

Pitso Chinzima
Empty Jacket

Pitso Chinzima

Pitso Chinzima

Pitso Chinzima

Pitso Chinzima

Pitso Chinzima

Pitso Chinzima
Competition commission

Pitso Chinzima

Pitso Chinzima at work

Pitso Chinzima
by Kathryn Smith (October, 2001)

Recently selected as the South African national representative for the São Paulo Biennale 2002, Pitso Chinzima has been quietly making his presence felt on the Gauteng artworld landscape since his inclusion on Colin Richards' 'Graft' exhibition on the 1997 Johannesburg Biennale.


Pitso Chinzima describes his working method as "in transit". Full-time work at the Johannesburg Art Gallery leaves him little time to pursue his own art-making aggressively, but he has a backyard "studio" at the JAG. "The kind of work I make is based on what I see around me. It's not like a painting that needs a wall. You can expect art anywhere. I pick up things all over between home and work, and I build installations at home. If they don't work, I break them down and start again. It's no good to try and paint these experiences, for example. What does painting a taxi tell you about riding in taxis?" Chinzima has a veritable archive of mental images and anecdotes of urban existence and art becomes the springboard for expressing these through process-related work and material transformation.

He has little time for artworld politics or for curators who have preconceived ideas and agendas behind who they promote and who they don't. He also wonders about definitions of artists as "young and up-and-coming" and when one should be defined as "old and down-and-going".

He cites Noria Mabasa and Moshekwa Langa as major influences - Langa for his career management skills and Mabasa for her sculptural abilities and interpretation of metaphysical experiences - "making something out of nothing".


"The premise of my sculpture is based on the whole idea of the known and the unknown. This idea is applicable to my sculptures in general.

"In short the idea of the known and the unknown are interdependent in the sense that one can see the unknown through dreams. The known in this case became the 'catalyst' for dreams to exist. Through dreams one captures, by memorising, skeletal details of the unknown. For instance, whenever I dream, howver abstract the information of the dream can be, I can still separate incidents that I know from real life out of incidents that I 'know' out of the fantasy world of dreams. The whole process in psychoanalytic terms is based on the conscious and the subconscious minds.

"At the end of the day this renders my works to a poetical element. Thus I prefer to call them 'three dimensional poems' rather than sculptures. Some of these works are so automatic that to a poetry orientated viewer they may seem as though they were created whilst fast asleep. I do not prefer to apply this thesis on one particular artwork as this applies to all the artworks, despite the difference of materials used or even the size."

[from the catalogue for the exhibition 'Art Dialogue', curated by Ralf-P Sieppel and David Koloane, Castle of Good Hope, Cape Town, 1999]


Chinzima's activities at the JAG far outweigh his job description of Assistant Exhibitions Officer. He's involved in every aspect of the day-to-day running of the space, including some work in conservation. He's currently facilitating the launch of the Joubert Park Project as well as creating a series of memorial sites for people he has witnessed experiencing the violent side of Johannesburg existence. "These things are interesting, but not, at the same time. I saw one woman collapse in the park - I think she had a stroke - and they left her lying there suffering for about 30 minutes before she died. The ambulance took about three hours. So I am commemorating the space behind the park bench where she lay." Using staffs from the Zionist Christian church, tyres - which Chinzima and others of his generation associate at once with travel and violence - and other elements, he is building a shrine which he expects will ultimately be assimilated back into the community. "If they steal the work, they will become a guilty accomplice to my guilt I feel about these things." He is also referencing "action painting" in a space where a man was stabbed and ran trying to escape his attacker, leaving a trail of blood, as well as a girl found assaulted and murdered on the train tracks adjacent to the park. "These things are totally shocking, but they happen. It is especially bad on Monday mornings. I have now come to a point where I refer to these things as "visual breakfasts" - you have to try and deal with them before you even think about making tea." It's hardcore stuff, but poignantly revealing of the secret and not-so-secret histories of inner city dynamics.

Chinzima was a long-standing member of the advisory board at the Market Theatre Galleries until they closed in 2000. He was an exhibiting artist on 'Art Dialogue' in 1999, an exhibition of cultural exchange between Germany and South Africa. Five artists from each country were invited to participate and Chinzima showed two large sculptural pieces, Inside Out and Tribute to All African Women. Inside Out comprises wire mesh with weathered leather strips, resembling flayed flesh, and is a representation of Chinzima's experiences in the back of police vans. Tribute is a transformed wheelbarrow that used to be his only dining-room furniture. He turned it on its end, transforming the handles into feet and cutting open the base to resemble a stomach cavity.

For 'Graft', curated by Colin Richards for the 2nd Johannesburg Biennale, Chinzima used a VW Beetle as the raw material for his piece, called Attacking Family Pleasure. Impelled by a desire to be a student with a car, he had bought the car and driven it illegally for some time (and got caught), but realised it was too risky. His family, however, were proud of the car and used it to go to church. Knowing the rather dodgy history of how he acquired the car and feeling too guilty to sell it to anyone else, he decided to cut it up "like a cake", joining the two rear halves and then the front halves. He wanted to install it on the ceiling of the South African National Gallery with the engine idling, but the gallery vetoed that idea. It was mounted on the wall.

Chinzima's technique of cutting designs into sheet metal with a cutting torch (what he calls "metalmorphosis" because it renders the steel quite cloth-like in the process) was first mastered in Empty Jacket (1995). A hollow torso-type form on a base with wheels, the piece is aggressive and confronting, not unlike a lo-fi version of robotic artist Mark Pauline's fighting droids.


Proposals for next year's São Paulo Biennale were administered via the National Arts Council. The NAC selected curators who then chose one artist to work with. Together with Prince Dube from the Johannesburg Art Gallery, Chinzima's proposal to represent the theme of "metropolis" by working with functioning and wrecked taxis and audiovisual elements won through. The Johannesburg taxis used will be representative of those that make the trip between Kliptown and Baragwanath, transporting hawkers and commuters. The Durban taxis also form part of a well-known route: "This one particular taxi was famous - its registration is MSP, which led to people calling it the Mississippi and other names. So I'm trying to get hold of taxis with the same registration, because it has a certain power. Prince is from Durban, and he's used this taxi before," says Chinzima. He plans to purchase working taxis from drivers - "it's not for me to drive", he assures me, "it's for the artwork. It's about killing that pleasure and using it as a canvas." He plans to leave on a "fact-finding mission" to São Paulo before the end of the year.

And about his inclusion on the Biennale? "I have problems with how artists get selected for these things. If you research past Biennales, whether it's Venice or Kwangju, you find the same artists' names recurring year after year. And it's the same with South African exhibitions of contemporary art 'after apartheid' - when you see the same artists every time, you must ask what is so contemporary about South African contemporary art? If you wear jeans, it must say 'Levis'. It doesn't matter whether they are real or fake, as long as it has the right label. So with the São Paulo Biennale, I feel like I'm going to an initiation school, but Prince is determined and articulate, so the pressure is a bit less. I just hope our selection is not window-dressing."

He is experimenting with photography at the moment with a series of images documenting two mating dogs he saved from scavenging downtown: "They are not the kind of images people feel comfortable with. For me it's about looking at impulses - dogs don't have the word 'public' or 'private' like we do, so they are happy to do whatever, wherever. And summer seems to make people behave the same way - I see them in the park all the time now. I want to make them into a book, you know, like those small, cheap pornographic books and I will write a series of small stories. I think the Love Life campaign should use them for their billboards." Anyone from Love Life listening?


Aaron Pitso Chinzima was born on May 4 1972 in Diepkloof, Soweto. His primary schooling was undertaken at Holy Cross Convent in Diepkloof, where he studied basic art with Sister Mary Vienna. He followed this with a year at Qhobosheane Higher Primary School, Madibane Secondary, and matriculated in 1986 at Thaba-Jabula School in Klipspruit. He has a BA(FA) from the University of the Witwatersrand and he currently works fulltime at the Johannesburg Art Gallery as Assistant Exhibitions Officer.

Studied art at Funda Community College under the Creative Youth Project
Studied part-time at the Johannesburg Art Foundation
Studied full-time at Funda under the African Institute of Art
BA(FA) at Wits University. Graduated in 1997
Member of the Wits Fine Arts Students Union and Chiawelo Youth Club
Member of the African Literature Association
Designed costumes for the Johannesburg Jamboree procession event
Taught kids' art classes part-time at the Johannesburg Art Gallery
Stage design for the African Literature Association at Wits
Lectured in Sculpture at Funda
Adjudicated poster competition for World Population Day and calendar competition for King Korn
Adjudicated calendar competition for King Korn
Included in first edition of Millennium Multichoice Africa calendar

'Annual Student Exhibition' at Funda Community College
Group show at the Africa Cultural Centre
'Annual Student Exhibition' at the Gertrude Posel Gallery, Wits University
'Future Prospect' at the Newtown Galleries
Group show at the Nondi-Nisa Art Gallery in Sandown
'Graft', curated by Colin Richards, SA National Gallery (2nd Johannesburg Biennale)
Curated an exhibition co-hosted by the Gauteng Department of Arts and Culture and the Turkish Embassy
'Art Dialogue', Castle of Good Hope
Absa Atelier Award exhibition, Johannesburg
'Babel Tower', Johannesburg Civic Gallery
Group show at the Akha Museum of Modern Art, Pretoria
'X-Pressions of Identity', Johannesburg Art Gallery
Curated 'Words and Visions' for the Department of Education, MuseumAfrica, Durban Art Gallery and Royal Hotel, Durban


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