Strauss & Co.
22.07 - 28.07.2023
The Sculptures of Sydney Kumalo and Ezrom Legae is a retrospective exhibition recently on show at Strauss & Co. in Johannesburg. The exhibition comprised 92 sculptures presented alongside the publication of a comprehensive catalogue raisonée of the artists’ works compiled by Gavin Watkins and Charles Skinner, a culmination of a 25-year project The two artists were born in South Africa in the 20th century and practised between the 60s and 90s. They were part of the generation that founded what is regarded as the South African modernist approach in sculpture. It is my view that African Mythology and Modernism are inherently intertwined, with Modernism’s founding motivation principally located in African aesthetic and culture.1See, for example: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2021/jun/14/masks-monsters-masterpieces-yinka-shonibare-picasso-africa
The word Ntu means The Body/Person. It is taken from the original Nguni language, which is also called Bantu language, Bantu meaning Bodies/People. The Body as an African mythological construct refers to the many elements of the universe when combined as a unit or a single body. Indigenous African sculpture, including masks, interpreted this by stylising human and animal figures that incorporated different elements of the universe. This was achieved through exaggeration, minimalisation, omittance and installation. She Goat (1990) by Legae has a square head which does not resemble a goat. What is familiar about it, though, is the structure of a four-legged animal. This intentionally modernist distortion allows for a universal representation of a four-legged animal, visually interpreting the concept of Ntu/The Body of a four-legged animal.
Another major aspect of African Mythology is the interpretation of the human condition. Legae’s Chicken Series (1978) is a comment on human suffering as well as, an aesthetically modernist interpretation that may allude to the indigenous folklore about how hens cluck when birds of prey snatches one their chicks. They cry using a Bantu language, Akho madoda kule ndlu, meaning, There are no men in this house to protect us. The commentary suggests that human suffering is a consequence of cowardice. The torture and death in detention of Steve Bantu Biko is specifically referenced in the series.
Ntu/The Body as a universal entity is considered to have many characters, naturally, and therefore cannot be confined to one category. This is emphatically expressed through the idiom uNtu zizithunzi ezininzi, meaning, The Body has many shadows. These shadows include animals revered as totems, wherein certain characters of human behaviour are encapsulated. John Knox Bokwe was a 19th century intellectual who protested the abolishment of African traditional customs. Bokwe in Xhosa means Goat, a totem of strong will. African Goat may well be connected to this totem, as it is evident the artist appreciated revolutionaries like Biko.
Spirituality is another shadow of Ntu. Sydney Kumalo’s Mythological Rider (1970) is a portrait of two mythological creatures, rendered in a modernist style, one symbolic of a human figure riding a four-legged creature. African Indigenous Mythology subscribes to different metaphysical beliefs, such as the control of dreams. In Xhosa it’s called uMlawuli we Thongo, meaning, Dream Guide, which Kumalo poetically references as, Mythological Rider. The artwork is a portrait of African Mythology that, when one is guided in a dream, they transform from their conscious physical bodies and become a subconscious mythological body/entity in an abstract environment.
Modernism, as it is typically understood in the West, represents progress from tradition. The fact that African mythology predates Modernism points to an aesthetic culture that – although, in a sense, traditional – has advanced understandings of perception and metaphor. Entering into this tradition, Legae and Kumalo used metaphors to interpret society, conceptually, visually and spiritually. The Body has many shadows, and these two artists depicted them uniquely.