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At Standard Bank Gallery, Blessing Ngobeni’s ‘Ntsumi Ya Vutomi’ investigates the purpose in the human experience.

Blessing Ngobeni’s Ntsumi Ya Vutomi is framed as a survey exhibition. Courtesy of Standard Bank Gallery

Standard Bank Gallery is proud to present ‘Ntsumi Ya Vutomi’, a solo exhibition of recent work by Blessing Ngobeni. Picking up where he left off with his voluminous Standard Bank Young Artist of the Year for visual arts exhibition, Chaotic Pleasure (2020), with ‘Ntsumi Ya Vutomi’, Blessing Ngobeni takes only the best elements to evolve a style that is more lyrical than in previous years.

His work often responds to a reluctance to confront the brutality of black life, a subject that has been Ngobeni’s focus since his early days as a professional artist. Ngobeni’s belief in art as a transformative tool emerges from his recognition of how inseparable political consciousness is from one’s lived experience. Having experienced a difficult childhood that has included homelessness and, later, incarceration, Ngobeni took to art in prison, witnessing the humanity it brought to the lives of fellow inmates. From there he joined the Tsoga (Wake Up) Art Workshops and later on went on to study printmaking at Artist Proof Studio.

The building blocks of his visual language, for example, in particular his knack for mixed-media collage, emerge from his early struggles with affording a steady supply of work materials. This fact of circumstance, his continuing hypervigilance about his surroundings and his increasing grounding in post-colonial theory have all combined to create a style that is accessible, allusive and constantly breaking its own limits.

This exhibition showcases Ngobeni’s expansive skill set, in particular his ability to work across a vast array of materials, figuration styles, and formats. The exhibition features paintings, sculptures, installations, and video animations, setting up the expectation for a show bursting at the seams. However, the artist has opted to satiate rather than overwhelm would-be visitors to the Standard Bank Gallery.

Using his 2020 SBYA virtual exhibition Chaotic Pleasure as a departure point, Ngobeni continues to explore the all-encompassing violence of the post-colony and its impact on black lives while experimenting with varied compositional techniques and materials. “I’m working with the experiences that one goes through,” he says, “examining the circumstances that allow others to learn and grow, while others feel discouraged to do things. It is a way of reflecting while looking forward.”

Ngobeni has never shied away from confrontational depictions of the rapacious nature of capitalism. Of late, fur, cotton wool, and fabric have expanded Ngobeni’s storytelling palette, allowing him to expand on and delve into new narratives and visual metaphors. He points particularly to a collage titled Mirrored Soft Life, in which fabrics such as cotton and cotton wool are mined for metaphorical meaning within the context of his painterly storytelling. “I see cotton as this wound,” he says, “a representation which goes back to what I call cotton children, the slaves. The cotton becomes our inheritance, like a pain that never ends.”

Curated by Thembinkosi Goniwe alongside Nkuli Nhleko, ‘Ntsumi Ya Vutomi’ is something of a survey exhibition (Ngobeni prefers to think of it as “a time-lapse”) in which viewers can expect familiar works as well as hitherto obscure series such as ‘Skeletons at Work’, in which the artist turns his familiar style of jagged figures on its head, introducing rounded, stripped-down bodies in sparse urban environs.

“It was a different way of treating my work,” says the artist of the series, which was shown for just ten days at Everard Read, Johannesburg, and was subject to positive feedback. “It was also a move away from collaging and a way of bringing the marrow of my work out into the open.”

The show evenly captures the many moods of Ngobeni; buoyant, playful, didactic (as always) but also reverential in the sense that he proudly wears his influences on his sleeves, throwing nods at the likes of Dumile Feni, Gerard Sekoto and Jean-Michel Basquiat. With the homages, the paintings are let loose from being unrelenting scenes of suffering and bondage and ushered into the realm of cross-generational collaboration.

The exhibition will be on view from the 3rd of August until the 16th of September 2023. For more information, please visit Standard Bank Gallery.

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