Simphiwe Ndzube’s exhibition delves into the mystery of witchcraft

The Fantastic Ride to Gwadana  by Simphiwe Ndzube is on at Stevenson Gallery, till January 22, 2021.

By Edward Tsumele

If you went to the Stevenson Gallery in Johannesburg, right now, you would find yourself engaged with witches. No, witch-look-alike figures, complete with exaggerated large limbs to boot. Every part of the body is exaggerated, making limbs such as noses, tongues, hands and just about everything about these characters bigger than those of a normal human being’s limbs..

But that is exactly the idea behind it all, in this impressive body of work by Los Angeles based South African born visual artist Simphiwe Ndzube.

Though witches for years have been part of the human experience in this universe, including in Ancient Europe and certainly in Africa till this day, nobody gets used to this idea that witches are just a creation of someone’s imagination. To many people, especially in South Africa, they do exist, and in fact their existence has proved to be fatal for many elderly people in the rural areas.

Many have read several newspaper headlines  even in recent years, about the fate of old women (and  interestingly it is always  old women, never old men) in rural areas, with Limpopo being particularly notorious in this regard, being stoned  or burnt alive because they have been accused of being witches who terrorise these villages. Their crime is simply that they are old.

Limpopo, however is not the only province where this country has a witch hunting problem. We all have ideas about the myth of witches and how they look like, though nobody with certainty will tell you that they have seen one in their lifetime, engaged in a witch small talk, and prove it by some sort of physical evidence, such as a self with a witch. But in fact that is the idea behind this exhibition title The Fantastic Ride to Gwadana Ndzube.  The exhibition is demonstrating the abuurdity of this deadly tradition, which continues to torment modern day human beings during this era of technological advancement, including artificial Intelligence. It looks like Artificial Intelligence technologies, will have to come to terms with the reality of living side by side with this old African belief system of witch craft, it appears. It is invisible, yet present and as deadly as the novel coronavirus.

Ndzube’ If anything else in this body of work dealing with an issue of death and life in this country, is demonstrating that actually it is not only Limpopo that has this unusual reputation of society throwing obviously without evidence, old  women of practicing whichcraft simply because they have gotten old. It is deadly in those part of the country to get old. The issue of witchcraft, is a wide spread phenomenon that he is meticulously highlighting in this exhibition.

The exhibition is actually fun to view as Ndzube’s witches, thank goodness, do not come out as those seriously, deadly spiritual creatures causing all sorts of problems to society. The paintings portray the caricatures of these unusual mysterious and seemingly deadly creatures that are said to come alive in the dead of night. They never show their ugly faces during the day. Never. In fact these characters seem to be in a celebratory mood even though they seemingly face the prospect of being stoned alive by an angry mood baying for their blood as they stand accused of being witches.

For this first solo show in Johannesburg, Ndzube exhibits large-scale magic-realist paintings that engage with indigenous belief systems around witchcraft and the idiosyncrasies of otherness.

“I’m interested in witchcraft as it relates to explorations and adventures into the fantastical and the imaginary world; its connection to magical realism and the postcolonial experience of people; the relationship between traditional values and western modernity; and the boundaries between the thinkable and unthinkable, the visible and the invisible.

 In many parts of South Africa and other developing countries, there is a belief that illness and other bad occurrences are related to witchcraft. This is predominant in rural areas where poverty leads to strained social relations. Attempts are made by individuals, families and communities to explain what appears to be unusual. This has given rise to the violent persecution of elderly women who are identified as witches,” the artist right points out.

Ndzube  reveals the inspiration behind this body of work. “Gwadana references a place in the Eastern Cape that has come to be known as the mecca of witches. The stigma associated with the space has resulted in secrecy and dissociation with Gwadana by those who grew up there. This folkloric version of Gwadana acts as a portal for me to enter into the concept of fantasy and the way that it plays out in daily life.

In being labelled an affiliate of witchcraft, one becomes other. To be other is to be vulnerable, rejected and scorned by society. The Mine Moon characters in this exhibition celebrate their own oddities and vulnerabilities, depicting the fictionalised Gwadana as a type of utopia wherein the societally persecuted are finally celebrated as equals. These characters are beautiful outcasts exposing the irrationality within supposedly rational post-apartheid societal structures that can turn the already underserved against each other, distracting them as a method of maintaining order.”

Besides the paintings, the exhibition also encompass other media, such as a soundscape. The Fantastic Ride to Gwadana includes a soundscape created by the artist in collaboration with Thabo K Makgolo and Zimbini Makwethu. This experimental work explores acoustic elements evocative of sorcery, witch-hunting and creatures that fly at night. Ndzube describes the work as ‘celebratory, a protest and an outcry against misjudgments of character and ultimate injustice against women, especially the elderly who are often associated with witchcraft’. The piece marks the first interpretation of Ndzube’s work in sound and will be audible throughout the exhibition.

However what is striking in this exhibition is the representation of women witches alongside their male counterparts. Unlike in contemporary South Africa, witches have always been understood to be old women. However this is in sharp contrast to the re-imagined world of Ndzube.

Ndzube’s figures, appearing simultaneously masculine and feminine in their grotesque revelries, convey a setting wherein the sexes might have a chance to transcend traditional, divided gender roles. The neon cloudscapes of previous bodies of work are replaced with fluorescent mountains and vegetation flanked by corrugated iron, as the artist offers a terrestrial perspective of the Mine Moon anchored in the economically deprived portions of South Africa where ideas about Gwadana and witchcraft have often arisen. This is indeed a conceptually powerful exhibition that deals with a current and complex issue of  the continuous tormenting of old women in South Africa’s countryside as they stand accused of having these supernatural powers of causing all kinds of things, misfortunes, illness and death in society. If that is the case, women are indeed

powerful in their old age to have the power of death or life over their fellow villagers.

.The Fantastic Ride to Gwadana  by Simphiwe Ndzube is on at Stevenson Gallery, till January 22, 2021. The Johannesburg gallery closes on 15 December, 20202, and reopens on 7 January, 20021. Appointments are recommended but not required. Address 46 7th Ave, Parktown North, Johannesburg Phone 011 403 1055.

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