Archive: Issue No. 56, April 2002

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Mgcineni 'Pro' Sobopha
Bullongwe Series no IX
104 x 102 cm

Mgcineni 'Pro' Sobopha at the AVA
by Paul Edmunds

From Thembinkosi Goniwe via Peet Pienaar to Colbert Mashile, a fair amount of recent artmaking has examined initiation rituals, particularly that of male circumcision. Mgcineni "Pro" Sobopha is the latest to explore this issue in his show at the AVA, catchily titled 'Skins, Scars, Blankets and Blood'.

Sobopha recently obtained his Master's degree from Michaelis where his work focused on Xhosa rituals in contemporary South Africa. He was concerned specifically with representation of ulwaluko or the circumcision ritual. Here, in his first one-person exhibition, Sobopha presents a series of "paintings" constructed from sheepskin, blanket, cow dung and pieces of fabric. The work is based both on his own experience of circumcision and on having seen the ritual performed on others. His use of unconventional materials arises both from an intention to challenge accepted forms of visual articulation and the search for an appropriate mode of visually representing ulwaluko - an aim that is achieved in the more successful of the works.

My immediate reaction to the exhibition was a visceral one, the surfaces, colours, textures and tones evoking a very physical response. In most works a flayed sheepskin spreads across the format, flush with a ground made of cow dung. The surfaces are scored, burnished and coloured, and are as beautiful as they are brutal. Despite the irregular surfaces and gestural handling, there is a solidity and confidence to the works that is pleasing and seems to demonstrate a satisfying measure of control.

The two works on the gallery's far, short wall (all the works are untitled) are just taller than they are long, their compositions dominated by sheepskins spread across the format in an irregular starburst. In the work on the right there is heavy scoring and the skin is a dark, burnt umber in the centre. Rents in the skin reveal a scarlet blood-like ground beneath. The skin is set into a ground of dung a little lighter in colour than the work's centre. The work on the left bears a skin lightly scored in parts with what may be the beginning of an image, but the whole is dominated by a section of dirty white blanket with two red bands. This clings closely to the surface of the sheepskin and has warped from its original rectangular shape in the process of its fixing there. The red stripes in the blanket play off against a red splatter in the top half. A literal interpretation is tempting - that this represents spilt blood from the circumcision process - but this is offset by the physical and abstract nature of the work and the response evoked by this. In several other works scraps of fabric (sis or isishweshwe) serve a similar purpose.

Sobopha's ability to compose and manipulate materials and formal elements is more successful than the simple narratives suggested by the literal images which sometimes find their way into the works. In the first piece, on the left as you enter the gallery, a face is drawn into the off-white pile of the skin and cuts harshly through any involuntary response to its materiality. Operating in the illusionistic space suggested by this image, one can discern what may be a circumcised penis in the foreground. In other works one sees figures, implements and images which are not always that well drawn and which detract from the powerful abstract and material language which prevails elsewhere.

Sobopha's depiction or exploration of this ritual reveals it as an uncomfortable, rigorous physical event, but one which is bound into a social fabric and situated within a continuum of tradition. His evocation and depiction of this ritual is better served by his use of very physical elements which engage the viewer's body in palpable dialogue than by the use of literal elements which tend to function in a linear, narrative way.

Until April 13

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