National Arts Festival
The Merriam Webster online dictionary defines Stockholm Syndrome as ‘the psychological tendency of a hostage to bond with, identify with, or sympathize with their captor.’ It is hard to make sense of the multiple problems we face in this fast-moving world, so we soldier on like we are addicted to the disorder. Blessing Ngobeni’s ‘Chaotic Pleasure’ invites us to pause and reflect on the complex issues of power and abuse. It is also an ideal critical response to the confusing, dramatic, and uncertain times we are caught up in. The exhibition includes large scale mixed media paintings, sculpture and drawings in the artist’s trademark animated form. The artist also incorporates fascinating coded inscriptions. The work is featured in the inaugural virtual National Arts Festival (vNAF), itself a response to the outbreak of the novel COVID-19 pandemic. Ngobeni is the Standard Bank Young Artist for Visual Art for 2020.
The work in this exhibition addresses many issues traversing from the intensely personal – A Thing Of The Past Haunts I-VI finds Ngobeni reflecting on a troubled past in the countryside, and in the urban jungle that is Johannesburg – to the pressing forces of the everyday. Key national problems like the contentious land ownership issue, tribalism, and corruption that derails progress are not spared in this conceptually rich, raw, and uncompromising show. Ngobeni is a proud African who wants to see a united continent moving forward, embracing progress. This is seen through his damning critique of xenophobia and the genocides of the past. In Shopping For Black Skin I & II, the artist also problematizes conflicts fueled by the outside world bent on stealing the continent’s resources amidst the chaos they create in cahoots with greedy African puppet leaders.
What quickly draws one’s attention to Ngobeni’s abstracted works in this show is how visually rich and dense it is. Critics have always pointed to elements of Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring seen in the way Ngobeni maps out jigsaw-like pieces and forms which he paints over. The words and symbols added onto the canvas provide useful hints to making meaning of the work if one finds it too complicated and confusing. Then there is the ever-present crowned bird or fish figure hovering on the side. Ngobeni can also be quite economical with his canvas as he does leave parts of it blank. Some critics see traces of Dumile Feni and Pablo Picasso in Ngobeni’s work. There is honour in carrying the torch passed on by Feni. Surely there is nothing wrong with repatriating the ideas and forms Picasso appropriated from the continent.
What doesn’t escape the eye is the artist’s obsession with the phallus symbol in the work. It is a bold critique of patriarchy and the abuse of power on a continent where the male figure is at the centre of all that is going wrong in Africa. From femicide and misogynist violent actions, to corruption, to civil wars, you name it, there is always the male imprint. It is a cross-cultural trait that needs to be shaken.
‘Chaotic Pleasure’ is a project that’s been in the pipeline since Ngobeni was announced as the winner of the Standard Bank Young Artist for Visual Art award for 2020. And fast-forward to the time we find ourselves trapped in, I learnt that some of the work included in the exhibition was initially not part of the project. However, in the additional works I see thought-provoking pieces that speak well to the rest of the show, as well as address the multiple problems currently confronting us. The new work considerably strengthened the show. So, I see it befitting to say a few words on the artist’s reflexive addendum.
African politicians keen on maintaining diplomatic relations with China don’t know of a better way to confront their all-weather friend and ally on this latest deadly export. In Made in China I (2020), the image of the human skeletal figure in the centre flanked by the dog- and pangolin-headed figures, evoke haunting imaginations of the origins of the novel coronavirus pandemic. It is a polarizing subject that haunts the world’s collective psyche and generates robust debates on authoritarianism and the somewhat ill-thought-out excessive responses by various governments, as well as censorship regarding what we can or cannot share or say as tech corporations and friends police us. In the work Ngobeni is speaking for the enraged yet silenced ordinary voices drowned in these noises of diplomacy and good international relations. Speaking truth to power is a powerful act of resistance and the artist’s responsibility.
The tree mural in Ngobeni’s work oozes tears down the wall. With all the heavy hashtags weighing around it, including #BlackLivesMatter and #ApartheidHasLootedBlackPeople, those are certainly not tears of joy. The work which intersects artistic practice and activism, is a reminder that injustices of the past and the present need to be confronted.
That good art provokes thoughts and elicits reactions cannot be disputed. This body of work ticks many boxes. However, an online show has its shortfalls. The idea of viewing an exhibition in one direction as dictated by the flow of the video is not tasteful for everyone. There is a reason why some people like to start from the end and conclude by reading the curatorial statement. Others opt to zigzag through an exhibition. Posing the video for a good view of the individual works – only to find them without labels, especially for someone well known for cynical and expressive titles like Ngobeni – is not exciting either. A PDF version of the images and titles supplemented the online videos well, but I wonder if many requested it from Everard Read, the gallery representing the artist.
This is my third year living in Makhanda. I have learned to cherish the National Arts Festival as a highlight of the year, an event certainly not to be missed. The situation we currently exist in is beyond our control of course. While the virtual festival is better than nothing, I still don’t know what to make of it. In this lockdown period, I have enjoyed online talks and conversations featuring creative practitioners, but I still feel that this alternative, especially in video form, does not work well for Ngobeni’s ‘Chaotic Pleasure’. So much is missed in presenting the work in this format.