Blessing’s beasts of our nation

For geopolitical reasons that shape power games in world art history, I won’t hazard to call the work of Joburg artist Blessing Ngobeni surrealist.

That old European movement had a propensity for gimmicks that this young artist’s work manages to rise above.

This is notwithstanding that Ngobeni is inspired by dreams and other visions to compose our world anew so that the beasts of our nation become apparent for all to see.

His exhibition, titled On This Earth, is on at Gallery MOMO in Parktown North, Joburg.

Ngobeni is the winner of this year’s Reinhold Cassirer Award.

His collection of mixed-media paintings on paper assembles pimps, politicians and other creepy humanoid creatures into a troubled economy of meaning.

Hence, a considered walk through these images soon becomes a meditation on life in our highly charged society.

Ngobeni’s work reflects the quality of our relationships with ourselves as individuals and as a collective that makes up the South African experience.

In Raining Bus-Boy, a mixed-media work that employs magazine cut-outs and acrylics on paper, Ngobeni represents the ANC’s enfant terrible, Julius Malema, in his querulous element.

He wears the now-signature beret of the angry youth.

The artist shows him with his mouth agape as it issues ribbons in the colour scheme of our national flag.

He also holds a party whistle decorated in a similar fashion, complete with the national flag and ribbons.

Malema is given vampire fangs and is accompanied by a ghost-like apparition that shares his beastly looks.
This perhaps suggests the
proverbial amorphous backers and handlers who control the agenda of many a shifty political personality.

Ngobeni’s marching Malema carries troubled baggage under his arm.

On it is a picture of a gathering of Marikana miners. Ngobeni has transformed these riotous workers into monstrous creatures too.

Where this stranded, freakish Malema with distorted limbs might be taking or leading these workers is a question left to the viewer’s imagination.

What is most apparent though is that all of this is taking place in a tortured land where a barrage of bullets fall like rain.

The ground that everything stands on is a layered, hideous heap of crime, hurt and all sorts of moral paucities.

Ngobeni’s cast of slanderous and cantankerous individuals with their well-documented inflammatory public lives, such as Malema’s, are elevated into representative symbols of the depravity that shapes our world.

To appreciate this reading, one has to put aside the merits or demerits of the troubled youth politician’s purported pro-poor politics, for instance.

What is important here is how they are experienced and perceived in the popular imagination.

The same tempered gaze is required for Ngobeni’s cast of prostitutes in the city.

The two works, titled This Dance I and This Dance II, confront us with tortured figures drenched in blood and filth.

Ngobeni gives us deformed beings that walk with penises as long as legs.

The women sport onion-shaped buttocks that morph into their limbs and exposed breasts.

Others are caught bending over as they expose themselves to the stares of passers-by in dingy alleyways.

The outsized and pathologised figures in the pictures are shown dancing on top of other smaller bodies strewn along the ground.

The large and ostentatious freaks are mindless of the bleeding fallen victims of their jive.

There’s not much sunshine in Ngobeni’s visions. Everything is rendered in a mucky, opaque light.

The air is always marred by raining bullets, slimy drips or shards of assorted sharp objects. Living is not easy here.

Life’s a constant battle.

However, Ngobeni’s work is not a judging gawk but a candid reflection, which is not to say the 27-year-old artist is without moral bias.

His work makes a clear statement of the bad state of our world.

The point is that Ngobeni’s work is simply free of pity.

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