How do you write about a trio of visual artists? How do you assemble words about the worlds created by a superbly gifted ensemble of innovators? It only makes sense that the write-up must speak of them as a Trio, unearthing, with “scintillating leaps of the imagination” (as the Frenchman Foucault muses), the ways in which they and their oeuvre swings (curvet wildly, this or that way, with daring vision), interacts (probe persistently, inquire and introspect, as they converge and diverge), with infinite & forceful dynamism geared towards endless possibilities.
A trio, I mean this Trio, is governed by an impressive stylistic and thematic balance in the broader visual palette and landscape of imagination. This is not to say there aren’t wonderful moments where one-part of the Trio jumps off the track, adventurously disturbing the congruency, soloing to his or her heart’s content, while the comping pair holds space, for dear life. Delicately.
But in our Trio the dialogue is accidental; but for the sake of this write-up please permit me to settle for improvised.
The music is (in) the balance.
Our Trio’s practice is guided by a certain kind of curiosity of or towards the Marvelous. This guiding principle is what Foucault, in Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth, calls Care:
. . . the care one takes of what exists and what might exist; a sharpened sense of reality, but one that is never immobilized before it; a readiness to find what surrounds us strange and odd; a certain determination to throw off familiar ways of thought and to look at the same things in a different way.
– Michel Foucault, in the chapter ‘The Masked Philosopher’
If you leap further from the Frenchman, like our Trio does, back to the future, ceaselessly into the past, like our Trio does presently, reality reeks of deadening inadequacy that, for instance, once got Abel in Bird-Monk Seding to lament about South African literature as“uniform in its dearth of imagination”. As bard Unathi Slasha suggests; though this charge by Abel is leveled against literature, it could easily and justifiably be extended to the arts, or in his words, “our cultural life”:
Current narrative strategies, the telling of our tales, with their stubbornness and predilection for sticking to the traditional representation of the real, disclose an impoverished imagination packaged in technical clumsiness.
– Unathi Slasha, ‘Much with the Dead & Mum with the Dying, or Rigidities of Rationalism, Camaraderie Criticism & Contemporary South African literature’
Presently we need new myths, new tales, tools to tell old ones with a renewed sense of vision and freshness. After all, Sony Labou Tansi, in a foreword to The Seven Solitudes of Lorsa Lopez wrote in 1985: “Art is the strength to make reality say what it would not have been able to say by itself or, at least, what it might too easily have left unsaid.” An implosion in reality, a leap upward and beyond it, is our Trio’s element.
Simphiwe Ndzube creates these wildly spectacular pieces that are beaming with color, with limbs that often extend beyond the boundaries of the canvas, permitting us to wallow in the fantasy and magic and expansiveness of his imagination. In almost the same way, Pamela Phatsimo Sunstrum’s work stretches this motif of the mythical & marvelous, sometimes thrusting us into a galactic universe through an impressive transformation of archival photography and use of cold hues. Nicholas Hlobo does it too, by way of drawing from the rich Xhosa cosmology to mine legends and folklore. An implosion in reality, a leap upward and beyond it, is our Trio’s element.
THE ELEMENT is an anarcho-syndicalist infoshop upstairs of a black building in Woodstock, Cape Town at 357 Albert Road. Sandwiched between tiny workshops populated by well-intentioned liberals and half-way-woke Millennials, the infoshop is where I’m at; here to have my brains fried. A talk is scheduled, antecovid-19, presenting Tariq Trotter’s film, Black No More, who, I learn, could not make it. Few familiar local faces made it. I made it, but I’m late. The room is clouded by a smell of freshly baked nice things, stalls of Leftist popular education printouts and monochrome photographs of erect silicone dicks by Patricia Piccinini.
Camae Ayewa is moderator of a conversation which, from where I’m standing right now, is as real as a horse galloping on a tomato. But she’s talking to a Black woman she later refers to as Rasheedah, American accent, notepad in hand. From her left is my Trio, that I’ve come to see. Sunstrum, Ndzube, Hlobo. The series is called ‘Factory Settings: Aesthetics of the Afrodiasporic futures’. Grab a A5 meeting programme; grab a seat; Rasheedah grabs my attention:
“Uhm, your tableaux are vignettes of an interesting transcultural hybridity. Through your use of color, and of course, technique, brush strokes, you play quite well with opacity. Pieces like The Archivist, Gusheshe II, Young Freeman, Panthea 5, and many others. We see this transparency, in tone, we see through them, we see their multiple mysterious selves. Sort of dual personalities at play. I found that to be quite fascinating.”
Camae: “I actually wanted to say I was drawn to the volcanic chaos that cuts through some of Pamela’s pieces. Might be indicative, suggestive of something else: a world brewing and ready to erupt right before our eyes. Something French theorist Foucault calls ‘possible storms’.”
Pamela Phatsimo Sunstrum: “The body is a landscape. Etched in the body are the narratives of the landscape. I’m interested in the myths about these bodies, the legends about these landscapes. I often create a tension between the two. But through the bodies I am able to access other dimensions where, hopefully, we could acquire new modes of knowing, of cognizing, and becoming. Additionally, this duality, this doubleness, speaks to what Michael Dash, in Marvellous Realism The Way out of Négritude, calls a “double alienation”, this sense of occupying multiple selves simultaneously.
Camae: “It’s interesting this whole geography of parallel universes, dimensions. A nice interplay on time too. The past and the future. We are in the same wave, me and Rasheedah, with Black Quantum Futurism which explores this idea of bodies, of Blackness in time and space. We argue of course that the body, in time and space, is central to white territorial and colonialist expansionist imaginary. How does your work, Simphiwe, treat the question – which is a political imperative in as much as it is an aesthetic one – of the imaginary?”
Simphiwe: “I’m committed to a seamless weaving of the fantastic, the mythical, imaginary, the strange, with and in construction of new realities. My work is engaged in myth-making and mining existing theories about magical realism. In South Africa, so much of this genre can be enriched by indigenous folklore, which is not only a vault of knowledge but a portal to a heightened consciousness.”
Camae: “Nicholas (Hlobo), a salient feature in your work is also imagined spaces. How does this inform your practice?”
Nicholas Hlobo: “I want to imagine marvelous spaces where we can forge new realities, a new language, and ways of dreaming. And possibly a template for a new humanism. Why not? The lines in my work seek to carve new pathways to alternative futures. By these standards, or this truth, as corroborated by essayist and novelist Unathi Slasha, art is most productive when it explores various ways of engaging with reality, by way of “originating new names or myths or modes”.
Simphiwe: “I think there’s a feeling, generally, that our tools, our grammar, is inadequate. This, of course, compounded with the sentiment that ours are fractured subjectivities, in need of recuperation. I like therefore this idea by bhut’ Nicholas of a new humanism, or search of, in so far as it doesn’t become a sort of escapism.”
The preceding feature was a speculative work of fictocriticism by the author.