Art Young Artists 2020

Artist Simphiwe Ndzube Embraces Mystery as a Key Ingredient

A self-portrait by Simphiwe Ndzube (2020).
A self-portrait by Simphiwe Ndzube (2020).

In 2015, Simphiwe Ndzube graduated from Michaelis School of Fine Art in South Africa into an art world that he understood to be newly consumed by a long-overdue discussion about race and representation. “As important as that conversation” was, he says he “personally felt very constricted” by the sudden expectation that artists of color “say something about Blackness and subjugation.” Ndzube, who is as tenacious as he is independent, puts it simply: “I always prefer to have a conversation of my own.”

Ndzube’s work is like a kaleidoscope in which harsh reality enmeshes with hallucination and worlds weave in and out of each other, fantastic color exploding at their intersections. At once flamboyant and mystical, his practice is populated by evanescent figures that sprawl out in his paintings and strut through his exhibitions as sculptures. Sometimes these buoyant bodies are caught diving between the two realms—an appendage sprouts beyond the picture plane and into a pant leg, or maybe a wig replaces a face. Using primarily secondhand clothes and found objects, Ndzube’s chimeric assemblages have a material humility that underscores the magic they emanate. These objects also play key roles in grand narratives that the artist constructs. Inspired by mythology, Ndzube metabolizes experiences of migration, exploitation and precarity through fictive worlds like that of the “mine moon,” a far off celestial body plagued by colonizers, the invented history of which structured his most recent show with Nicodim Gallery in Los Angeles, “In the Order of Elephants After the Rain.”

Like that of a psychedelic Hieronymus Bosch, his work is inlaid with visual symbols that repeat across exhibitions and often appear as both objects and images. Perhaps the most striking of these is the umbrella, but there are also birds, traffic cones, sand, rafts and dinghies. When I sheepishly admit to Ndzube that, even after much deliberation, the iconographic order in his work remains impenetrable to me, he replies excitedly and with a laugh, “it’s impenetrable to me too!” It’s rare to find an artist so driven by the ongoing mystery of the things they make and this energy is what makes his work so immediately pleasurable. With a number of international solo exhibitions on the horizon, Ndzube will no doubt be creating for years to come.