Colbert Mashile at Gallery on the Square
by Kresta Tyler Johnson
This past month, a solo exhibition 'Tsa Bagale' or 'The Victors' was held at Gallery on the Square, showcasing the work of emerging artist Colbert Mashile. Graduating from the University of Witwatersrand in 2000, Mashile has risen to prominence on both national and international levels, focusing on initiation rituals and the traditions around circumcision. His recent work builds upon these themes but is infused with the natural and mystical elements that have become part of his environs since moving to rural Limpopo.
Gallery on the Square, located in the middle of the posh shopping centre Sandton Square, has been working with Mashile since the start of his career. The gallery itself is riddled with contradictions: geared largely at only the commercial possibilities of art, and surrounded by retail stores catering to the elite and wealthy, it gains credibility by promoting such talented artists as Mashile. The exhibition took up nearly every inch of the gallery space, except for one front window, which was left for products from Ardmore.
Minus the questionable hanging of two works on glass in the small walkway between the exhibition spaces encasing the elevator shaft, the show was well installed. A few paintings stood in contrast to the numerous works on paper, which have become Mashile's signature style since first exploring printmaking early last year at David Krut Print Workshop.
The works on paper have a unique angularity and the integrity of the paper's unevenness was maintained by the images being floated in the frames. I inquired if this was the gallery's framing decision, and curator Craig Brown confirmed that it was. He said that he pictured Mashile 'pulling the paper from a roll and cutting and tearing it where it suits him.' This irreverent image added to the aura of Mashile's spontaneity.
The exhibition provided evidence of Mashile's ability to move from painting to printmaking and back again. In nearly every work, what emerged was a subtle tension between an invasive nature and a sense of serenity. It was just this dichotomy that was so engaging.
Mashile was born in Bushbuckridge in the Northern Province and as he says, 'I come from a place that is shrouded by powerful cultural norms and customs.' These customs, such as the ritual of circumcision, informed his earliest work, and he sought refuge and healing through art. As he has matured, the psychological underpinnings are still evident, but his imagery has transgressed these limitations to begin addressing issues such as home, language and the natural landscape.
Mystical figures, phallic images, pods, huts and organic shapes are but some of the visual stimuli, which abound in Mashile's recent work. Upon entering the Gallery on the Square the viewer is aware of the harsh commercial light being dimmed through the vibrant, magical reality which exudes from the canvases and paper of Mashile's creations.
The commentary on the relation of humans to the environment is unquestionable. Miniscule figures stand unobtrusively atop high structures surrounded by open berth, and in one work Tshika-Nosi masses of people are literally consumed by an unidentifiable funnel. Some of the paintings depict a clear concern with masculinity. In both the works, Untitled and Pholo, horns dominate the structures, conveying male aggression.
Much of this recent work is the result of Mashile's move this past autumn from Johannesburg to Limpopo. Unable to handle the stress of Jo'burg, Mashile sought refuge in the quietude of Limpopo where he could 'feel and experience my Africanness, let emotions come through and discover the truth about myself.'
After his perusal of the exhibition, invited speaker, Moleleki Frank Ledimo formally conducted the opening. Speaking largely off-the cuff, Ledimo acknowledged Mashile's high profile, adding that, 'a lot of artists are passing through and dying, but it gives me great confidence that work is being done by young artists', clearly referring to Mashile who stood modestly next to him.
Mashile, a humble individual, reflected on his use of symbols and icons. He commented that it simply shows the 'truth about the land and its people and thus my existence in South Africa.'
This is a very poignant statement from such a young artist, but obviously reflects someone who has a clear understanding of the prevalent issues in South Africa. Mashile has found an individual way in which to artistically communicate his own concerns and those of society as a whole, and he does so in a remarkable manner.