Gallery MOMO, Cape Town
02.07.2015 – 15.08.2015
I couldn’t even regret being nearly run over twice in Bo-kaap on the way to Gallery MOMO to see Blessing Ngobeni’s, ‘As if you Care’. The white vaults of the gallery space that was formerly Brundyn+ echoed with metaphorical rallying cries against an unfair and despotic system that Ngobeni understands all too well.
Mural-sized mixed-media works writhing with Basquiat-esque figures make up the bulk of the exhibition. Lurid totemic forms lurch between the canvasses, trampling the urban landscape in a hellish political pop-apocalypse. These large figures are constituted by smaller depictions of civil society. Around their ankles are more of the hoi polloi (perhaps referencing how civil society unwittingly condones their leaders’ behaviour). Many of the compositions resemble Guernica, remastered to critique our own civil war of sorts: the corruption and scandal-riddled rule of “Democratic Slave Masters”.
The intended audience of the show is the Everyman, so it was lucky for me that I had brought along a friend uninitiated into the highfalutin world of art whose response could verify the impact of the work. There was no doubt that the paintings functioned to communicate Ngobeni’s message; that society needs to wake up to a political climate that allows evil politicians to exploit the vulnerable and the poor. The artist – who ran away from a broken home, made his way on the streets of Joburg and went to prison for armed robbery – makes an audacious and refreshing statement on behalf of people who have slipped through the cracks.
My companion went so far as to remark that the streaks of the paint that drain from Ngobeni’s human/animal hybrids made it seem as though the viewer sees the art through tear-filled eyes, and I don’t think this reading of the work presumes too much of the intent of the artist. The works are emotional and richly embedded with metaphor. The exhibition functions on an academic (as well as a visceral) level, including symbols of different regimes, maps where historical revolts occurred and referencing texts such as Orwell’s Animal Farm and Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart.
Ngobeni’s paintings use bold unapologetic lines and collaged magazine spreads to elucidate their layered meaning. One such work, Untouchable (Politician), depicts a nightmarish figure, whose contoured cranium is familiar to South African political satire and whose debt owed to the common man is topical and trending as I write this; suspended out of reach of a band of medievally armed commoners. Money fans from his pockets, shadowy horns crown his head and the quotation “cheers to those who tend to look away” floats among the news clippings that make up his suit. The revolutionaries below are reminiscent of Hieronymus Bosch’s inhabitants of hell. They moan up at the him, waving their blunt tridents and filmy hatchets. They are frozen in disappointment.
Ngobeni doesn’t mince words. The blurb of the show reads like an excerpt from the communist manifesto, inciting disgust for the purposefully appalling Punch and Judy portrayal of the politics of South Africa and the world. “Those in power”, it reads, “are driven by greed and self-promotion and contribute little value, like our under-performing head of state, whilst the general public are unable to better or enable themselves nor challenge the system.”