Blessing Ngobeni on a quest to create a generation of thinkers through art

The artist, in a camouflage cap and a long checked winter coat and scarf, stands being interviewed in front of one of his art works.

Published Aug 14, 2023

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Blessing Ngobeni’s recent body of work, titled “Ntsumi Ya Vutomi”, is a reflection and celebration of his artistic journey over the past two decades.

The title translates to “Messenger of the black experience in neo-colonial apartheid masquerading as a liberal democracy”, and Ngobeni sees himself as embodying this message through his art.

The exhibition is curated by Thembinkosi Goniwe and Nkuli Nhleko and can be considered a survey exhibition or a “time-lapse” of Ngobeni’s artistic evolution.

In the new series, Ngobeni departs from his signature style of jagged figures and introduces rounded, simplified bodies set in sparse urban environments.

This exhibition explores themes of the black experience within the context of neo-colonial apartheid, highlighting the complexities and contradictions of contemporary society.

Ngobeni incorporated fur, cotton wool and fabric into his artistic repertoire, which has allowed him to expand his storytelling palette. These materials serve as visual metaphors and provide new narratives for his art.

For instance, he mentions a collage called “Mirrored Soft Life”, in which he mines fabrics like cotton and cotton wool for their metaphorical meanings within the context of his painterly storytelling.

Blessing Ngobeni’s ‘Ntsumi Ya Vutomi’. Picture: Yang

“The story behind that is the history that was not supposed to be known to black people,” said Ngobeni.

“One of the upholsterers in America was given these couches to repair and they found human hair inside.

“The couches were coming from a former slave owner who used to shave black people’s hair because at some point, black women created patterns using their hair as a form of communication.

“So through the patterns, the women were able to communicate with one another the plans to free themselves. When the slave keeper discovered their strategic way of communicating, he decided to shave them and stuff their hair inside the couch to comfort his butt.”

Blessing Ngobeni’s ‘Ntsumi Ya Vutomi’. Picture: Yang

Ngobeni's work delves into the experiences that individuals go through, examining the circumstances that either enable personal growth and development or discourage progress.

Through his art, he reflects on the past while maintaining a forward-looking perspective.

“My personal history led me to create what it is today At some point, I was incarcerated. And that's where I started, sketching other inmates. And that time, it was more of killing time, rather than thinking, it was a talent.”

Blessing Ngobeni’s ‘Ntsumi Ya Vutomi’. Picture: Yang

Ngobeni’s life story is a testament to his resilience and determination to overcome adversity.

Despite facing numerous challenges from a young age, he managed to rise above his difficult circumstances and establish himself as a successful contemporary artist in South Africa.

His early life was marked by hardships, including his parents separation at a young age and being sent to live with an uncle who subjected him to physical abuse.

At just 6 years, he decided to run away and lived alone in the bush for around five years, trying to survive on his own. Although his mother eventually found him, he still struggled to find a sense of belonging and home.

At the age of 10, Ngobeni left his home and made his way to Alexandra in Johannesburg, where he got involved in criminal activities.

This led to his arrest for robbery and he spent close to six years behind bars. However, it was during his time in prison that he had a turning point in his life. He reflected on his past and decided to make positive changes.

Through this experience, he discovered his passion for art and decided to pursue it seriously.

Once released from prison, he dedicated himself to his artistic endeavours and his talent and hard work yielded impressive results.

Blessing Ngobeni’s ‘Ntsumi Ya Vutomi’. Picture: Yang

Over the years, Ngobeni’s art has garnered recognition, leading to numerous awards and accolades in the art world.

He is now considered one of the finest contemporary artists in South Africa, and his work serves as a powerful reflection of his life experiences and his commitment to addressing societal issues through art.

One recurring theme in Ngobeni’s art is the critical depiction of the rapacious nature of capitalism. He fearlessly confronts and portrays the exploitative aspects of capitalist systems, shedding light on the adverse effects they have on marginalised communities, particularly black individuals.

Over the years, Ngobeni’s art has garnered recognition, leading to numerous awards and accolades in the art world.

“A black body is enslaved even today to believe that they must go to school, then find a job, instead of not creating generational legacies. We are being zombified into believing that a white man must provide us with a job in order to be successful.

“The work of art that I create is to trigger somebody to think beyond what they see. This is one of the reasons I created the Blessing Ngobeni award, so we can create a generation of thinkers. Imagine a country without young thinkers?”

“Ntsumi Ya Vutomi” runs at the Standard Bank Art Gallery until September 16.

The exhibition is free and open to the public.