The visions conjured in On this Earth, a show by artist Blessing Ngobeni at Gallery Momo in Johannesburg, are scary.
His is a world in which rain with the shape and force of bullets falls, where gallons of blood seep through and humans in the shape of gargoyles traipse along, and everywhere you look there are heavily pregnant women (with buttocks to match). It reminded me of the Igbo saying about trouble portrayed as a woman who is pregnant yet also carries a suckling baby.
The work on show is as much autobiographical as it is an acerbic commentary on his world — his South African world.
Ngobeni — born in Bushbuckridge in Mpumalanga and winner of the 2012 Reinhold Cassirer Award, funded by Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer — has lived a rough and tough life that belies his 27 years. But he is frank and accepting, as if it has been all part of a grand plan: that once he has had his just deserts from fate, he can live his life like everyone else.
I call him to set up an interview and a walkabout. He is in his studio at the Bag Factory in Fordsburg, he tells me, but can come over and do a walkabout at Gallery Momo. A few hours later, we meet at the gallery.
We begin our tour at the giant painting Raining Bus Boy, a work inspired by the killings at Marikana.
“We are in a dangerous situation. There is a big thing coming. People are angry in the townships,” he says in a calm voice, the one you might use when asking a stranger what time it is.
The painting is a lurid cacophony of guns, bullets and blood. At the bottom of the work a mass of people lies prostrate, as if they are victims of a rain-bullets tornado. A face in the likeness of Julius Malema — or, rather, what Malema would look like if he were a blood-sucking ogre — peers through, munching on a cigar in the colours of the South African flag. “The flag is not being respected,” Ngobeni says.
One might quibble, of course, and point out that Malema was not the problem in Marikana. He was, as any shrewd politician would, scoring points.
The exhibition includes an autobiographical diptych titled Confusion in a Child’s Mind. In one panel, a boy is holding a rifle; in the other, he is holding a violin.
In the former, the Johannesburg cityscape looms over the boy like a spectre and a funereal crowd marches past as a soldier keeps watch, as if the days of the suspended highway above them are numbered (was it constructed by a tenderpreneur?).
Regarding the ills that plague Jo’burg, Ngobeni puts forward an interesting theory that is not difficult to believe: “Perhaps some of the bad things that happen in the city are because of the ghosts,” he says, relating how he once saw a man stabbed while police were within earshot.
In the diptych’s accompanying piece, joyous yet touched with melancholy, people stroll by distractedly. Still, the city watches over everyone with that all-knowing, grizzled look of someone who has seen a lot.
And in another diptych titled This Dance (the dance of death?), a riotous medley of colour, sweat and emotion, women with distended shapes — one even has devil-like horns — are on the dance floor, squashing humans with their stilettos.
In an artist’s statement, Ngobeni says his work is “concerned with the duality [hmm, does that explain the preponderance of diptychs?] of the relationships city residents have with their environment”.
Ngobeni’s work is raw and apocalyptic, a quality somewhat undone by its exaggerated and stylised poise. But even in its exaggeration what cannot be denied is its mature gaze on the world.
Ngobeni points out: “My art is a conscious reflection on life in general, my life in particular and my relationships — specifically the relationship I have with my son, who, as my flesh and blood, is forced to share my experiences as an artist.”
Blood and semen are precisely the stuff that real art is made of.
The show runs until November 12 at Gallery Momo, 52 Seventh Ave, Parktown North