21.11 - 28.01.2021
Simphiwe Ndzube’s ‘The Fantastic Ride to Gwadana’ worldscape, at Stevenson Gallery, Johannesburg, is as beguiling as it is enthralling. His obsession revels in the grotesque, the incomprehensible, the unusual, and ‘the othered’. His world opens up space for a discovery. To live in this fictionalised boundary-less, intangible, utopic space is transcendental. ‘The Fantastic Ride to Gwadana’ translates vernacular idioms and distorts the language of traditional witchcraft and sorcery in order to breathe new life into those often considered the pariahs of society.
Gwadana in the Eastern Cape has a reputation as a place of witchcraft and dark magic. The exhibition portrays misfortune, grounded in real events and in ones wholly fantasised due to the narrative that cloaks this part of the world. However, Ndzube’s Gwadana is not the world of horrors that populate the tales about this place. Witchcraft becomes a canvas of exploration into realms of fantasy.
The characters of ‘Gwadana’ wrestle with the grotesque just as they inhabit the fantastic. One need not look further than themselves and the society that they dwell in, which are filled with horrid things that may just be too much for our realities. There is an insistence on the androgyny of the figures in Ndzube’s work. This ambiguity gives the viewer a sense of the murkiness of this terrain, that the world of witchcraft or sorcery is not a linear or obvious occurrence. It subsequently captures the absurdity of those who want to persecute others based on the inexplicable.
The use of assemblage and collage is hypervisible in the work, including the combination of unlikely objects put together to create these sculptural paintings, is unsettling and effective. In Ukhala Kwexilongo there is a photographed brown hand attached to the figure with clips, which evokes a sense of disembodiment or dismembering. The disembodied and dismembered presence of these figures is evocative of their othered experience and existence. As he draws parallels between witchcraft and otherness, in the ways in which it plays out in real life, Ndzube just doesn’t relegate this to the world of the superstitious.
The use of bright neon colours goes against the representation of things-that-are-done-in-the-dark- that-should-not-be-spoken-of lest we ourselves, speak them into existence and fall victim to their prowess. The landscapes of Gwadana are just as important as the figures themselves. The setting consists of neon cloudscapes, fluorescent mountains, anthropomorphic vegetation and markers of impoverishment, such as corrugated iron.
Ndzube has coded the work in a way that speaks to specifics but can also be universal. For instance in Abagula Ngenqgondo Abayolwanga and ‘The Fantastic Ride to Gwadana’ there are billboards of OMO – a well-known soap brand in South Africa – which speaks of our inability to escape the throngs of capital even in a fictive setting. The work also references Santu Mofokeng’s Winter in Tembisa, which exudes a ghostly desperation with its expansiveneness save for the giant OMO billboard that stands out. The presence of adverts becomes an omnipresent critique of the socio-economic struggles and the inequality that many South Africans experience.
There is a permeative presence of the natural world and industry in the work. The smoke being spewed towards the air, the pollution, the polarity of cleanliness and purity that the rivers, mountains and the plant life might have to offer. This brings one back to a sobering reality that, to imagine that the fantastic might save us from our own vagaries, might be as horrific as it is humorous. That is to say, although we are transported into this reality there is still that unnerving awareness of the ills that lurk out there. The presence of nature, on the other hand, offers something quite hopeful albeit rendered otherworldly and fantastical.
The work leads us to lift the veil that magical realism, myth making, and mythology invites us to. What this work brings up is the language to mark the unmarked, brings awareness to the elasticity of being and an eternal present. It is in the incomprehensible that we may find meaning, because what both lives inside and outside of us is a cockamamie of the wondrous and the terrifying. Ndzube’s ‘The Fantastic Ride to Gwadana’ is testament to this.