18 February 2021
Triptych, ‘In Dedication’ the new nucleus
On February 4, 2021, the artist Senzo Njabulo Shabangu shared a series of images from his studio via social media. From what I saw, it looked as if he had just finished working on what appeared to be a new piece. A closer look at the images revealed a compelling triptych. The work was rich with textures where the cutting tools had found their way in the realisation of form. The work also featured an interplay between image and text. As I looked at the images of this new work, I realised that it was more than half a decade since I last spoke to the artist about his work and life.
‘In Dedication’, the new piece, depicts five figures confidently challenging the viewer’s gaze as they look out of the picture plane. In my first viewing of this artwork, the central figure struck me as a reference to Barack Obama, the former state president of the United States of America with a slight-twist reference to the late former South African state president, Nelson Mandela. But I could have been wrong. I think most first impression of an art experience without the presence of the artist rely on instinctive guessing, visual vocabulary and prior knowledge of the artist’s past work that the viewer has been able to accumulate over time. We can be agreed that the discourse that the work attempts to erect within itself as a narrative, adds to the interactive moment with the artwork. In liberal circles such conclusions are permissible. But often they are nowhere near to what the artist intended to say to us. In our journey to make sense of works of art, we are at liberty to interpret the work in any way in our effort to make sense of it. However, it is the artist who can guide us towards clarity with regard to what the work is really about ///
The floating symbolic structures that are characteristic of Shabangu’s earlier work is present in the work. This feature together with the artist expressive lines connects the work to the artist’s recognizable troupe. Was I correct in assuming who the central figure was who is represented in the work? I reached out to the artist and he was enthusiastic to talk more about this artwork.
In this instalment of the Intraparadox series, I corresponded with the artist Senzo Njabulo Shabangu to tease-out the message inherent in this new piece ‘In Dedication’. This work is part of a new body of work the artist has just finished working on. The artist openly discusses the conceptual origins that provided the inspirational framework upon which ‘In Dedication’ is based. We learn about the upcoming exhibition that will feature this new body of work by Shabangu at Melrose Gallery, Johannesburg.
Mmutle Arthur Kgokong: Good morning Mr. Shabangu
Senzo Njabulo Shabangu: Good morning
MAK: I hope you have had a good day so far…
SNS: I am good, how are you?
MAK: All is well on my side, thanks for agreeing to correspond with me regarding your most recent piece ‘In Dedication’. I am just fascinated by the direction South African art is taking especially the younger generation. Our art has become, should I say, unhinged from being an exclusively socio-political expression to focus on personal politics.
It is as if artists have turned their attention on the inside. It seems their artistic out-put has become about themselves. It is sort of a personalized approach.
What are your thoughts in this regard?
SNS: I agree with you. Thank you for recognizing this. I would also like to thank you for inviting me to talk about my recent work. Yes, I always believe that as artists we are not aliens, we live on earth and we also get affected by our surroundings as well as our socio-political circumstances and personal politics. We are the voice of the people we live with. So, I personally believe that if you see us in our work it means you as a viewer you also see yourself. Basically it is important to look deeper into ourselves as artists because that’s what makes us unique when we express ourselves through our work.
MAK: Your observation that if ‘I see myself in the work of artists, I see myself.’ is quite profound. I suppose that’s how we know when art speaks to us. Thank you for making art.
SNS: You are welcome and thank you. It’s not easy to be true to yourself as an artist. You are human after all. But I always pray that God reminds me of who I am. We are living in an era where there is a lot of pressure with what is trending and selling. We can easily forget our own voices.
MAK: Of course it is not easy in a world where artists are bombarded by the urge to be relevant. To be famous. To be known. In actual fact this takes long to accomplish.
I take it that a lot has happened since our 2015 interview.
SNS: Our last interview was really beautiful.
MAK: I am happy to hear that you think it was great!
SNS: I am grateful that we are still alive after all these years. As you know the pandemic alone has turned each day into a decade. We should be grateful of every second. I am blessed to have had our last interview too, I use it as my mirror. It’s a reference to the tracings of my journey as an artist.
Since our last interview, I got married and I am blessed with two more kids. I have been blessed with a home, a roof. Most of all I’ve managed to build a studio at my home and settle down. As an artist, as you know, my work has a fascination with ‘floating’, which is the idea of not owning property.
SNS: I have also managed to experience the other side of being an entrepreneur through the selling of my own work. Through this experience, I have created my own client mailing list, to give my clients a chance to know me personally. It’s quite a substantial list. This lessens the pressure we give the galleries in expecting them to single-handedly sell our work.
I have taken a break from printmaking though, to focus on other techniques such as drawings, sculpture, woodcut and painting. I still have prints that I have created which are still doing very well in the art market.
MAK: I am happy to hear that in the middle of all these developments there is still great interest in your prints.
Please tell me about your most recent work?
SNS: The work I have recently produced titled ‘In Dedication’, is about people who have chosen to follow their dreams. These people have accepted their talents. They have tried to stay true to themselves, especially the youth, to be direct the black child.
MAK: What inspired you to produce this work?
SNS: I saw the work in a dream while I was visiting my in-laws in the Free State during the last festive season. It was as if I was talking to my late Mom. She said I must engrave on a stone and as she showed me this vision I saw young people being crowned. They were standing besides high pillars. Immediately when I woke up I asked my wife, Keke, to pose for me. She is the figure on the left. When we got back home from our visit in the Free State, I decided to start working on the piece, immediately.
I had to find more youthful faces, especial those of people I admire. As I was working, President Barack Obama came to my mind as well as Bobo Ndima, the fashion designer, whose career I have been fortunate enough to follow. The list goes on of the people I wanted to capture. On the heads of the figures, I have placed floating crowns that I saw in my dream. I have captured them as if they are falling from the sky. Some of the people I saw in my dream were wearing robes or gowns.
MAK: This is quite interesting. I take it that Ndima is second from the right. Who are the other figures featured here?
SNS: The figure in the white jacket is Bobo Ndima, then Barack Obama, my younger brother Wonder Nkabinde, who is a dentist, and then the US Supreme court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The piece was going to be big in scale if I have forced to fit-in everyone I saw in my vision. I have tried to use my imagination and portray the work as I received it. But dreams are so hard to capture, they are hard to interpret as well, the same way it is hard to draw them.
MAK: Thank you for clarifying the depicted personages in the artwork. As I said earlier the rendering of the depicted figures or personalities leaves a room open for the viewer to assign them names as they please. For instances, when I look at the central figure, for me it is a cross between Obama and Mandela. But that is just me and my enjoyment of looking at the work. As much as it is quite a mission to interpret dreams or to reproduce them, in themselves; artworks acquire a dreamlike state, I always think of them, artworks that is, as doorways to the inner workings of the artist’s psyche, their mind.
SNS: Thank you. I respect your view as someone who admires the artwork. Especially on the point of a cross between Obama and Mandela. I always believe that God loves his people and even when the hero alala or aphumula (passes on) God raises another one. On the piece I have engraved words of a song called in iSi-Zulu ‘Kuyobongwa namaqhawe aphiwe nemiqhele, Abuse njalo njalo.’(The heroes will be rewarded. They will be given crowns, They will rule forever and ever)
MAK: Interesting, how long did it take you to produce the work between coming back from your in-laws and its completion?
SNS: The work took me a month and one week to complete. The moment I started to work on the piece I couldn’t stop. I actually cancelled lots of appointments and projects so that I could focus on this work. I am blessed that my wife and family gave me time to be in my studio. I could focus on my work.
MAK: You are fortunate to have the support that you have, otherwise the work would have taken longer to complete if ever. Thanks to the support you are getting from your family you managed to complete the piece throughout life’s interruptions. It seems as if there was such a rush for you to work and complete the artwork. Excuse the …sort of a pun; you were dedicated.
Please tell me, how is this work connected to your work in general and will it be part of an upcoming show?
SNS: I work differently when I get a vision. I get Goosebumps. I sometimes feel like it’s my last day on earth. What if I die before finishing my work and I don’t deliver? So yes, that might look like a rush but I pushed the production process to the point where I was happy with the results. I also get relieved when I am done working knowing that I did what I felt needed to be done.
The work ‘In Dedication’,relates to a body of work I have been creating in my exploration of different mediums. The different mediums I have been working with such as wood-blocks and work on paper. I have also treated the wood-block plate as a final artwork in itself without printing from it. I have also been working on the concept of combining images and words on paper or on any surface.
In this piece, you will notice that I have turned the crowns into iconic structures on each figure’s head. These structures represent the White House and world parliaments around the world. I am also happy that the work itself led me into global conversations that affect each and every one of us. This is something I have been opening up to over the past five years as an independent artist, to reach other audiences abroad.
MAK: How wonderful it is to know that you are expanding the conversation into a global one. Keeping an eye on contemporary issues, including the effects of the pandemic. Your art continues to be rooted in humanism though, if you allow me to put it that way.
So you have an exhibition coming up soon?
SNS: We have been planning a solo show, so yes, the work will be part of my Solo show at the Melrose Gallery. This is something I am hungry for, to make my work accessible to my audience. The official date of the opening will be announced soon.
MAK: What should the audience expect to see when the show officially opens?
SNS: The audience should expect more maturity, works that will open local and global conversations that shows that we moving together. Due to the pandemic we have experienced Lock Down together. We have witnessed businesses sink under challenges. We saw job loses. We have grieved and celebrated each other’s lives. The works on display will sort of remind us to tap ourselves on our shoulders and say we are proud of making it this far. That we are blessed and we will keep going forward. I believe that I have a lot to share but it’s a blessing to breathe. Indeed the show will consist of different mediums but they will be unified by one vision of execution.
MAK: I sense optimism in the message of the work you have been crafting besides ‘In Dedication’ and I look forward to see the rest of the body of work when the exhibitions opens virtually or on site!
SNS: It will be virtually because of the conditions we are facing but I will keep the audience updated. It looks like things are changing everyday in our world. We are also lucky that the whole world is working on making things better by saving lives and conquering the pandemic.
MAK: You mention dabbling in entrepreneurship as an artist to market and sell your own work. This is quite a remarkable accomplishment.
What are your thoughts on artists who want to work independently?
SNS: Thank you my brother. From the beginning of their careers, each artist needs someone who believes in them; those people are our patrons, galleries and word of encouragement. If an artist has these in place, there is no need for being independent and to do everything on your own. It gives you peace of mind to know that the person who believes in you as your gallerist, takes care of your affairs. That they understand your values. And also you as an artist you must understand the business side of art; artists need galleries and galleries need artists. The audience need to feed their soul in accessible spaces where the work gets the dignity it deserves. Artists need to feed their family and to grow.
MAK: It is clear…
SNS: To add, my experience of being independent made me understand the wealth and value of the art world. It taught me to understand the business side of it. It also helped me to create a good relationship with clients. It encouraged me to own assets and it instilled in me an understanding to save and invest. But doing all that takes away the time to create. It can cause a lot of traffic in your life. To be creative you need peace and also time. So it’s up to an artist. But most of all artist also need to know value of the work and they need a gallery too. The audience need to feed their soul in accessible space where the work gets the dignity it deserves.
Mmutle AK: For me, it is the ‘save and invest’, the value of ‘time to create’, the ‘valuing of work by artists’ and ‘respect to the space the galleries provide’ as well as the ‘galleries respect for the artist’ and the important roles each fulfils, that I hope artists and the general public reading this correspondence will keep in mind going forward.
Senzo NS: That’s it exactly
Mmutle AK: I thank you for sharing your professional experience and insight with me.
Senzo Njabulo Shabangu: You are welcome
Mmutle Arthur Kgokong: and thank you for granting me the opportunity to correspond with you regarding the piece ‘In Dedication’.
Senzo Njabulo Shabangu: Thank you
‘In Dedication’ captures the most important people in Senzo Njabulo Shabangu’s life. His wife, Keke Shabangu and his younger brother Wonder Nkabinde. Here we see the artist’s wife Keke Shabangu represented first on the left and his younger brother, Wonder Nkabinde, second from right hand. Isolating the work from our knowledge of its origins, it can be supposed that the three figures, which represent prestigious people outside of the artist’s immediate orbit, are harnessed; yes they are used as devices – to elevate two most important people in the artist’s concrete life; his wife and brother. But this is underplayed by the overall distribution of the figures. Which is somewhat illogical.
If the artist had approached the depiction in such a manner that his wife and brother occupied the second positions from either right or left, a possible option amongst many, The three prominent figures outside of the artist’s social orbit would provide pillars that frame the artist wife and brother.
Perhaps at one point in the compositional planning phases, the artist saw this possible distribution of the figures and its immediate connotation but opted for a more-broader content rendering. This feature aides our viewing. It’s liberating. It enables us to read the artwork in many open ways in our attempt to make sense of it. The inclusion of Bobo Ndima figure, second from left, in the final setting of this work imbibes this work with polysemy, multiple meanings. You have to think about the multitudes of people the artist saw in his vision, dream, to appreciate the final results of the sieve-selection process that determined who made it into the group portrait depiction. As such, ‘In Dedication’ is a homage to the most important people in the artist’s life.
The crowns retain the artist’s visual vocabulary. And as devices within the picture plane, they connects this piece to the earlier artistic output of Shabangu. Should any piece that will be featured in the upcoming Solo Exhibition at Melrose Gallery outshine what ‘In Dedication’ accomplishes, it would be because it shares a strong affinity with it. Such an artwork would exist because the artwork at the centre of our discussion precede its existence. It could just be that in it, the handling of the materials that defines this period in the artist’s career, have become crisper.
© mmutle arthur kgokong 2021
*I remain indebted to Senzo Njabulo Shabangu for allowing me to write about this moment of his life. Ke a leboga. +All images have been used with permission of the artist and may not be re-used without consent of the artist.
To reference, Cite this text:
Kgokong, M.A. 2021. Intraparadox, Correspondence with Senzo Njabulo Shabang: Triptych, ‘In Dedication’ the new nucleus. Mmutleak.com-Intraparadox. 26 February 2021. Available at https://mmutleak.com/2021/02/26/intraparadox-correspondence-with-senzo-njabulo-shabangu/