Mwande Zenzile’s exhibition reflects the tension between the lived reality and modernity

Nqanda nanga’manzi engene’ndlini, 14 May – 24 June 2022, Stevenson Gallery Johannesburg.

By Edward Tsumele, CITYLIFE/ARTS Editor

When it comes to Cape Town based and Eastern Cape born artist Mawande Ka Zenzile’s openings, they are always glamorously staged and infused with polemics. The opening of his latest solo exhibition at Stevenson Gallery in Parktown, North, Johannesburg, on Saturday, 14 May, 2022, was no different.

To start with and as is usually the case with the artist’s exhibition openings, he came complete with a  team from Cape Town, who worked hard days leading to the exhibition on its curation, and it shows in its impressive display.  The exhibition is accompanied by sophisticated installation comprising of stones and sand that form the centre stage display of the main exhibition room.

There was also a spiritually uplifting performance by Larissa Andrea Johnson, whose sound melded well with the mystic feeling exuded by the exhibition.

In a discussion with writer Themba Tsotsi, the artist touched at length on the role of formal art education, and whether it strengthens the  knowledge that an artists are usual born with, to express their inner feelings and capture the environment they find themselves, or actually formal education in many ways interferes with the innocence of art making.

The point is whether you agree with him or not, Ka Zenzile is hyper critical of the role of formal education in art.

“The problem with education when it comes to art is that the academy has a certain way of educating, that is deductive and does not allow one to tap into that which is outside the realm of established traditions in art education. That way it limits an artist from tapping into deep space for freedom and knowledge. I often experienced difficulties with my professors at my time at the University of Cape Town, who did not approve of my looking for knowledge acquisition outside the established norm of the academy where you have to references text written by others without you developing your own language of how you see and feel art. As a result there is always this tension between your lived experience and the episteme at university ,” the artist who has a masters degree in fine art from Michaelis at the University of Cape Town said.

“To be blunt I think that kind of episteme is nonsense. It is so deductive and does not assist an artist to tap into other sources of knowledge outside that paradigm because of the need to follow established academic methodologies,” he said.

His big scale abstract works of cow dung on board are fascinating to look at. They make the audience to travel deep into the mystic world the artist has created. The viewer will not miss the spiritual influence in these works as they transport you to a space where the artist has created a world that represents his reality.

Though the artist, especially in his earlier works, as well as the deliberate choice of the material he uses, the cow dung to paint, demonstrates his affinity to his rural upbringing and the natural environment of the area, he maintains that his works are not representational of Xhosa culture.

“Yes I come from the background of Xhosa culture, but that is just one aspect of my life. My other aspect is that I am influenced also by modernity, the Western culture, and therefore my work reflects the reality of who I am with regards to these two cultural paradigms,” he said.

Essentially Nqanda nanga’manzi engene’ndlini  exhibition comprises new painting, sculpture and installation.. The artist however often refuses to tell the audience the narrative behind his body of work on exhibit.

However in the case of this exhibition the artist’s written notes that give the viewer a sense of what has inspired these works, and even enough hint of what this body of work is trying to convey through the artist’s philosophical pursuit.:

“This body of work journeys into the different aspects and facets of humanity, transcending the most limiting beliefs about art, philosophy and spirituality. I often travel between Cape Town and Lady Frere, Eastern Cape; driving down the vast landscape, looking at the horizons, exploring the vastness of the land, the open space … this gives me a sense of freedom, a sensation of breaking away from the cluttered spaces of township, city or suburb and venturing out – escaping Plato’s cave.

With hindsight, I have realised that the lines and contours of the landscape found their way symbolically into my canvases. In these canvases, the lines and contours are transmitted and transformed – the shapelessness of the clouds and the mountains turn into smeared cow dung, oil and gesso on a piece of fabric, inviting the attention of the viewer to experience the landscapes differently. The imperfect clouds reflect the imperfection of life, the imperfection in my painting. It’s as if these lines and colours decide for themselves where they want to disappear and/or reappear, transforming the picture plane as they do. The works tell me to stop or to continue; they speak in a language, but it is a unilinear form of communication.

In this body of work, I explore a more holistic approach to thinking about my art practice. I am looking beyond geopolitics, affectation, identity politics and related theories, consciously and intentionally looking beyond the social happenings and their divisions – the dialectical hoax that man has created against the mind

Just like that, the mind is complete, the spirit is aware, and the mind and the spirit are whole. They open clarity, the clarity to look, to see; the clarity to experience the intuitive beyond the rational. J Krishnamurti has referred to this as looking and seeing without judgment or without interpreting. At these moments, I am driven purely by the desire to create art, not to react or respond.

Meanwhile, inside the studio; Wasulu music, the maskanda, Sufi music and the drums are beating, blocking all external noise from invading my mind. All the while the smoke of impepho when it escapes from the front door is like food from a burning stove bursting through barriers, desperate to free the soul from the entrappings of human behaviourism. I tranced, I danced and then journeyed back to the source, searching for the Sanusi, Itola and the prophet in me to guide the way. I journeyed deep into the practice, freeing the mind from self-delusion.

I am sifting through thoughts and blocking thoughts – external thoughts about painting and art history, society and politics. In turn, attempting to shift paradigms, move beyond form and content into a space of pure sensations, transcending popular visual representations. A culture of intellectualism is becoming dominant to the point that it denigrates creativity. My studio became my solace, where creativity is given a chance to strive.

This has allowed my work to get to a point where I felt no need to paint a figure to make a painting. I have found a desire inside myself to trust the sensuality and formlessness, the beauty and ugliness of dung.

This is not a conscious venture into abstraction nor a recitation of my educational background in art history. These works emerge from being in the moment, swimming in the moment, enjoying the moment and having a conversation with the stream of consciousness, and getting to the point where I silence it completely.

In that moment, it is me and the material, me and the colour, me and the form – from form to formless. It takes me down to the unknown, to the unfamiliar; removing all the expectations; focusing on the process, being hijacked by the process, being liberated by it and opening my eyes to see broader.

To me painting is a ritual I perform to help cope with reality, I am using my materials as a vessel to travel through and beyond limiting beliefs, whether these are psychological or other forms of dogma. This work is a move away from conventional beliefs about art or reality in general; I’m letting go of control over the process and allowing it to lead the way and try to break free from the burden of representation – the burden of collective consciousness or unconsciousness. In this exhibition, I quench my desire to talk about the political and economic state of the world, prevalent in my previous works.”

Nqanda nanga’manzi engene’ndlini marks Ka Zenzile’s first exhibition in the city since 2018. The opening was  accompanied by a performance of umrhube by Larissa Andrea Johnson and a discussion between the artist and writer Themba Tsotsi.  

Nqanda nanga’manzi engene’ndlini, is on  from 14 May – 24 June 2022, at Stevenson Gallery Johannesburg.

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