CityLife Arts

Artist Bambo Sibiya, a visible contemporary art voice in South Africa

The artist has an Open Studio Reception this Sunday, November 8 @ 12 noon at August House, End Street, New Doorfontein. BAMBO SIBIYA will be in discussion with CITYLIFE/ARTS Editor EDWARD  TSUMELE about his life and art practice.

By Edward Tsumele

He has certainly emerged over the past few years as one of the most prominent , prolific, young and fresh voices on the contemporary art scene, whose visual voices are loud enough to be heard here and far, and whose visibility is hard to ignore.

These are a crop of young South African artists, emerging and polished, who are redefining the contemporary visual art landscape with their critical gaze on contemporary issues of the day, using paint and brush, photography and pencil, as well as other art material to tell the story of an evolving society, emerging from the limiting nature and character of apartheid to a full democracy. These artists are neither afraid nor hesitant to critique post apartheid society’s shortcomings, nor are they unable to use their talent to look at global issues that also affect  ordinary people in society.

Born in the 80s, just before the dawn of democracy jn the 90s, in KwaThema, a township on the  East East Rand, visual artist Bambolwami Sibiya would have been aware of then prevailing political developments of the 1990s, as the country negotiated its way into a full democracy. Though his art often deals with current political issues, Sibiya’s body of work does not focus on macro politics, but the small things that affect our everyday life, whose character and nature are political nevertheless, such as issues of global warming and the resultant climate change, patriarchy and its role in constructing  the attitudes in society for example.

“Yes, Bambo’s art is political, but it does not focus on the big politics, but small things that nevertheless affect communities in a profoundly political way,” says Sara Hallatt from the famous  inner city Johannesburg arts hub,  August House on End Street, where Sibiya has a studio where she is head of programming. In fact Sibiya is one among many other artists who call this vibrant arts hub home as they have their studios there.

CITYLIFE/ARTS had a chat with Sibiya in his studio on Tuesday, as he prepared  for a panel discussion at his Open Studio reception to be held tomorrow, Sunday, November 8. The Open studio discussion will focus on Sibiya’s  life and art practice, and Yours Truly, will engage with the artist. The function will be open to both the public and invited guests.

Hailing from KwaThema on the East Rand, Sibiya says that he grew up in a loving home, and his environment influenced the direction of his life in general and artistic career in particular.

“KwaThema has the distinction of having produced some of the most prominent artists in the country, among whom, are artists that came from Rorke’s Drift, such as Nhlengethwa and others. Nlengethwa is actually my neighbour back home,” Sibiya says matter-of-factly. Ironically Hlengethwa and Sibiya both have studios in August House, and as fate would have it, it looks like their lives are tied together for life.

And therefore as a young artist trying to pursue a career in art in KwaThema, a township that indeed produced a number of prominent artists in the country some of them quite prominent and still practicing today, such as Nhlengethwa, the young Sibiya obviously  had an option to learn art informally or formally.  But he chose the later, first at an art school in KwaThema where he first took art lessons when he was in Grade 9, and later at Artist Proof Studio in Newtown, Johannesburg, founded by Professor Kim Berman.

It therefore seems to suggest that Sibiya in his art pursuit, is quite deliberate about the choices open to him. and that he takes.

“I must say that I am very competitive when it comes to .my career development. For example, throughout my life as a young artist, I have attended several art competitions as a way of developing myself. Eventually I won an ABSA L’Atelier Award in 2012,the  Gerard Sekoto category. Entering art competitions was quite deliberate on my part,” he affirms.

Although Sibiya’s work does not deal with “big politics” as Hallatt insists, it is nevertheless political, many a critic maintains, pointing a the fact that it deals with politically charged contemporary issues of the day, such as global warming, the question of  patriarchy, the legacy of mining history, and recently in his recent exhibition at Everad Read Gallery a myriad of subtle ‘small political” themes were explored and interrogated.

“I do not choose to be political through  my work. It just happens that I deal with issues happening in society as I see them, and I end up with the kind of work that I produce,” he insists.

 One of his recent portfolios that is often cited widely, focuses on  the  interrogation of the mining history of this country, particularly migrant labour from the rural areas  of not only South African rural hinterland, but the rest of  the Southern African region.

Lured by often empty promises of fortunes that in most cases, prove to be illusive for most.

In this famous portfolio, Sibiya  started off by looking deeply into the lives of the women left behind by these men as they came to Johannesburg in pursuit of a better life. But then Sibiya’s pursuit of this perspective eventually morphed into actually looking into the lives of these men in Johannesburg, toiling in gold mines and living a precarious lifestyle. With-little money to show for their efforts, let alone send back home to their families, and living in crammed single men hostels on the reef, this portfolio is about these men’s  doomed lives, as it is about the unfair labour practices of the mining bosses of that time, and some may even argue,  of contemporary South Africa..

But then there was something good that evolved out of this situation of despair under the bowels of the earth,  and the wretched lives of the hostel dwellers  Because these people came from different cultures, a cosmopolitan culture developed among these workers, such as the evolving of Isicathamiya dance and music popularised by one of the most If not singularly the most successful musical export from this country, the multi-award winning Ladysmith Black Mambazo ,led by the late music innovator Joseph Shabalala.

And of course from the hostel also emerged a fashion trend known as KuSwanker. The Swankers series, by Sibiya is a body of work that became one of his most popular portfolio with both art lovers and collectors in recent years.


Sibiya has a unique in creative his compelling  visual narratives –the use of models to tell  different stories touching on different themes, and these are people from the community.

“First of all I have to identify the people from the community that I want to work with on a particular body of work. Once I have done that, I sit down with them to finalise the discussion, after which there is a photo shoot. Who I work with on a particular series depends on a specific message in a particular work. Sometimes it gets hectic, especially when working in the township, as some people, wanting to be involved jump in and insist that they too become part of the photo shoot. This off course sometimes n=becomes problematic as it interferes with what I have in mind,” he reveals.

Sibiya explained that choosing each model carefully is crucial to achieving his aesthetic as  art work has a specific message and not everyone can generally tell the story in the same way a certain character would, and therefore each model must have specific qualities and attributes.

After choosing the models and after the photo shoot, this is when the real work begins, as the artist must work on each art work, painting meticulously, guided by the model, and what comes at the end of it is are very complex character, often very different from the model a that that the artist began with. These characters assume lives of their own, almost like characters out of a novel, who  have personalities of their own. That in a nutshell, is the gist of how Sibiya creates a body of work embraced by many, far and wide, her and abroad.

“The way  Sibiya  works is not only expensive, but painstakingly slow,” points out Hallat as we conclude our interview.

The work that will be on display during the Sibiya’s Open Studio function on Sunday is multi-themed.

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