Interview with Senzo Njabulo Shabangu (Part Two): Towards a Concrete Concept

Location: LL Editions Fine Art Printing, The Bag Factory, Johannesburg, South Africa

Date: Friday 28 November 2014 at 09:00



Senzo Njabulo Shabangu I came to Johannesburg with a dream to become a pilot. I spent close to six months looking for academies. Ai I think it was really tough because I applied for bursaries as my father couldn’t afford to pay for the course  because it’s very very expensive. So I was in Johannesburg for six months up until my older brother and Robben Smith, the owner of the house in Kensington, one day asked me why I don’t look for an art school since I drew every day instead of wasting my time to become a pilot.

Mmutle AK. So now, here we are moving into a situation whereby you are actually coming into contact with art formally.

Senzo NS. so they just ask me that question ‘why don’t you

Mmutle. pursue art?

Senzo. …pursue art, Yes, it was like they just opened up something for me. The following day they advise me to walk around Newtown and check Art Schools en go to UJ (University of Johannesburg) to check if I can apply for a fine art qualification. I woke up, came to town, went to Newtown. But before I found my way to Newtown I had to start at Carlton Center. At Carlton I met a group of artists by chance drawing in the open space. They also had an exhibition as well. I spoke to them about my interest in an art career and they told me that there were some art classes offered by the Johannesburg Art Gallery on Fridays and Thursdays. I went there to enquire, but it was easy, the moment you arrive there they just said ‘sit down’ and gave you paper to start drawing….

Mmutle. …there was no long procedure

Senzo. I met good artists there, one guy Blessing Ngubeni I also met him there. He works here now. So we were kept busy drawing each other, doing portraits. I enjoyed it very much…

Mmutle. This is in 2006

Senzo. Yes, it was nice because I did not know… I never went to a place where they could offer a free art lesson, also free art material. I mean I just went there without anything so they gave us pencils and whatnot, we were seating and just drawing. Hanging around a group of artists it was also …blood to me, I felt like, very very good. For the first time in Jo’burg I was making friends and I was around people I could relate to. Sometimes we would seat and do portraits. I don’t know if I can jump to that place but what happened I found out now about those art classes they used to call them Taxi Art Classes. But back then I did not know that those art classes were funded by David Krut.

Mmutle. So you only learnt about this later…?

Senzo. I found out maybe two years ago or so. I was just chatting to David about that period of my life and he said ‘I was actually the one who funded the materials’

Mmutle. David Krut has published the Taxi Book series?

Senzo Njabulo Shabangu at work at LL Editions Fine Art Printing, The Bag Factory.
Senzo Njabulo Shabangu at work at LL Editions Fine Art Printing, The Bag Factory.

Senzo. Yes, yes. I remember that in those classes they used to use those books as references when we spoke about art. From the books I could see that artists were doing well financially.

Mmutle. Would you say the books gave you an idea of the industry itself?

Senzo. Yes. While I was attending those classes one day we walked to Mary Fitzgerald Square in New Town. While we were walking around my friends took me to Artists Proof Studio to introduce me to the space. When we arrived there, the administration said they were still looking for artists to enroll. But it was late because they wanted to fill a space of those people who had dropped out. It was before June. The following day I went again to give them my CV. But they told me they don’t want a CV that shows how you have passed your high school subjects…

Mmutle. I assume they wanted a portfolio

Senzo. …they wanted the portfolio. They said I must bring artworks. So I had to go to Johannesburg Art Gallery to ask for artworks. I don’t know how it happened I managed to also in one weekend to go home and get some more artworks. They did not just want the recent work they also wanted older works so that they could see my progress. I went home to Mpumalanga, collected some artworks and they took me at Artist Proof Studio.

Mmutle. …late 2006?

Senzo. late 2006. I was very very late they were already done with the still lifes drawings. They were about to start doing techniques, printmaking techniques. That was another challenge because the first day I arrive at Artists Proof Studio I had to do a lino plate. To me it was a new thing, If I remember very well I went out and did a drawing on a plate, a lino plate, a drawing of Brenda Fassie – the sculpture of Brenda Fassie at the Bassline. I did that sketch, our instructions was that we should cut. They gave us the tools to work on the plate at home. But I did not understand the initial instruction on how to work on the plate, by Lucas Nkgweng – the facilitator, you see with lino you have to cut outside the lines. I decided to cut the lines themselves. The following day when we were printing Brenda Fassie was not there (Laughs)

Mmutle. (laughs)

Ssenzo. She was gone. When we were hanging the artworks to present them they found out they can’t see anything. They couldn’t see anything. Lucas got angry , I remember he even took away the print. But someone explained to him that I was still new. I had to do it again. But I was very very late when I went to Artist Proof Studio, but I managed to settle down, it was another world to me the whole year 2006.

Mmutle. So you did the last six months?…

Senzo. yes I did the last six months as my first year. At that time there were also rumors that I won’t move to second year. But I don’t know how I managed. I was suppose to repeat…

Mmutle. your first year

Senzo. …Yes, the first year

Mmutle. The course was for how many years?

Senzo. It was a three year course. So they moved me to second year with the group. I think somehow my artworks were like improving so they move me to second year. Second year I think that’s where I started to settle down and understanding printmaking techniques.

Mmutle. So you were there 2006, 2007

Senzo. 2007, 2008 it was my third year. I think it was very successful, I don’t wanna lie – I enjoyed the whole course. I decided to do internship, to work as a printer for one year.

Mmutle. At the Proof Studio itself

Senzo. Yes, in a Pro Shop. They have a Pro Shop where Motsamai works with Susan Erasmus, Letlhogonolo Mashaba and Pontso. I worked there as an assistant for the whole year of 2009 cutting paper and proofing plates. At the end of 2009 I applied for the art residency here

Mmutle. …at The Bag Factory

Senzo. yes here at The Bag Factory. At the beginning of 2010 I received the news that I had won the David Koloane award.

Mmutle. This afforded you the opportunity to have your solo exhibition

Senzo. Not solo but a group show here and the residency and to have a studio. You see at Artists Proof Studio I will only do my work at the end of the day after assisting people. But the time to do my own work was limited during that year. I was starting to be a printer not an artist. You know as a printer you are only concerned with other people’s work. When I won the David Koloane award it was also a click and a reminder that I had to look at my own art practice.

Mmutle. …it drew your attention to your own craft…That’s when the David Koloane award was established. So you were the first David Koloane Art Award recipient?

Senzo. Yes, so we came and did presentation here. It was very nice. I think it was the beginning of my professional art practice.

Mmutle. So it means 2006, 2007, 2008 …those are the years whereby you are being trained. 2009 you assist in the studio. In a way we can look at this as your apprenticeship. In 2010 when you won the David Koloane Art Award it drew your attention to your own work. Obviously you had your solo here and this was the time …by the way when did Krut see the print of the guy who owns property, was it before the award was announced?

Senzo. He saw it here after the award was announced.

Mmutle. while you were here? and you and the guys had your exhibition at Arts on Main and Krut saw it there as well?

Senzo. Yes and again being here I think it was also another thing because in 2010, that year alone I think I met a lot of people around here

Mmutle. Lots of artists?

Senzo. Yes, it even happened that Rachel Nthabiseng (Montshiwa) from Pretoria she met me here. We started talking and she invited me for a show in Pretoria while I was still going through the residency. So she invited me for a show in Pretoria. It was beautiful, I had an opportunity to exhibit with other artists whom I did not even know. You know Pretoria is like another world. It’s even tough to penetrate (laughs)

Mmutle. (laughs) …yes difficult to penetrate it’s another world. Let’s now stick a little bit with your subject matter. You spoke a little bit about the little boxes earlier on, accommodation spaces. I would like to know how did you get to the point where you started to develop an interest in accommodation spaces as a social issue in our society, when did you start seeing this as an issue to address through your work?

Senzo. It started from personal experience. Before I started thinking about people and social things I go through my own life. Each and every piece I create it got a piece of me as well or my own story. So like, I said that the new concept that I am working on is inspired by boxes…. I am getting tired of renting; ever since I arrived here I have been renting…

Mmutle. You would like to own property?

Senzo. yes I would, you know its tiring to see that since I came here I have been giving people money. Through that process I have faced a lot of things; I have been through a lot of ordeal. At some point I was even kicked out from the place I was renting in Nord by the red ants. This was when I was at Artist Proof Studio! I’m tired of those things, you know.

Mmutle. and I suppose you had paid rent to whoever who owned the place, …the building at the time?

Senzo. …yes whoever who owns the building did not pay! I came back from Artists Proof Studio to find the red ants throwing my artworks and stuff out. Razor fences and barbed wires had already been erected. All those stories inspired me to work on this concept. At the moment I live in a bigger space. It’s a house. I have a baby girl, she can play. But I am still renting. But fortunately I live with people who understand that I am an artist, they have given permission for me to work there. It’s an open space, so I am lucky actually, even though I have this freedom – permission to work from home, but I feel that I cannot be comfortable because the space it’s not mine. And I know that any day I can go back to that situation of finding myself without a home.

Mmutle. So the little boxes have something to do with interrogation of private spaces

Senzo. Private space …yes…

Mmutle. …somebody makes money, if you want private space you must pay somebody to have a private space. But if you could buy private space then it is not such a headache because you own the space.

Senzo. Yes, because you own the space and you no longer thinking like someone who is renting. You are no longer there temporary you are controlling the space. So these little boxes I was in the house and there is this piece that I did, it shows my baby daughter; she was crawling around and I did this sketch of her on top of the boxes. But while I was in that space I realized that …it’s very tough to for me to work in the studio while she is around because she wants to touch everything. You know when a baby is crawling you have to look after her protectively. So I came up with this artwork called ‘Doubt your doubts’, she is climbing on top of these boxes it’s a risk that she is taking.

Doubt your doubts

Mmutle. …and maybe she is even unaware that she is taking the risk.

Senzo. So I wrote something about this artwork, I felt like… you know I call it ‘Doubt your doubts’ but don’t doubt God because God is in control of the baby to grow and that process of crawling she has to do it. So after this I made the print of it and it just opened up something that these little boxes, I need to explore them more, that’s why I’ve been here…it’s a start now of it. I have also done these monotypes inspired by the same theme. When I was looking at these boxes they reminded me of these apartments, tall buildings. You know a box is something

Mmutle. …you wanted to dismantle the box …

Senzo. Yes to focus in the box I am still looking in the box (laughs), I don’t know how to explain it

Mmutle. So do you see the box as a phenomena, like the art industry itself, it is boxed. We rely on people who support the arts to get by. In a way it means the artist’s freedom is limited. In a way the box is a metaphor for lack of control of the person who is inside the box…

Senzo. True, so I still have a long way to go. I’ve just started actually – it’s been two months.

Mmutle. The work that I was familiar with in the past was where you either had somebody who was carrying the city above their head and so on, I have just seen some of the images (pointing to the tablet), so in a way now we can move into the last question in terms of where do you see your work now say eight years from now? Let’s just choose an even number …years from now. Where do you see your work in terms of interrogating the box or would you like to see how far will the box will take you perhaps it brings something along? But do you think when you interrogated the city with the woman having the city above her head introduced the box as a metaphor or the box came about as your little girl was playing in the studio …or was it random?

Little Boxes

Senzo. I think somehow the city leaded me to the box …because I used to draw a lot of cityscapes for years. While I was drawing the city all those years I realized that the city is mine too,…I was not just drawing …I was claiming the city for myself.

Mmutle. you were owning up to the city; were you saying ‘this is my space’?

Senzo. Yes, because I have paid my dues. Since I’ve been here I have been up and down, you know I have been through a lot. So drawing the city gave me that power, good networks as well. Even you, you know me as the artists who uses the city in his works.

Mmutle. but the box itself doesn’t it look like you are zooming into …

Senzo. …yes…

Mmutle. …for example the city it’s a macro aspect of our social living and the box is – a small space…

Senzo. I am zooming in, but even now as I am zooming in I felt like …exploring a space is not only zooming in. like I said it’s like a destiny too. That’s why it is even tough to tell a story of where I see my work years from now. Now you are interviewing me during that process of a seed…

Mmutle. …the beginning of a concept, of an idea that you are working on …

Senzo. …So I can’t explain my work with the box only but I can say God is in control … because he has led me to this point and each and every day I grow in my work and each and every day he opens that light to me to give me that idea and I know that he is in control. So in eight years from now I don’t know, but I know he will take me wherever he wants me to be. He will push me. An art career is a sensitive thing. But these boxes are a destiny to me now. As you say, they can explain the art world but they can also explain a personal gift from him as well…

Mmutle AK. Yes

Senzo NS. That’s why I feel like I have to explore more and more and focus and I believe that in time he will open to me. I just have to go through the process because it is a long journey (laughs)

Mmutle Arthur Kgokong. It is a long journey

Senzo Njabulo Shabangu. It is, it is

Mmutle Arthur Kgokong. Senzo I just want to thank you for giving me the time to interview you. It was an honor to get to know how far you have come. So thank you


N.B. Many thanks to Morena Leshoka Joe Legate for allowing Ntate Senzo Njabulo Shabangu’s interview to take place amidst the activities of LL Editions Fine Art Printing Studio during the artist’s residency there. Ditebogo tse di tletseng!

22 February

© Mmutle Arthur Kgokong 2015

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