Pamela Sunstrum and Thenjiwe Nkosi: Contrasts that complement

Pamela Sunstrum (left) and Thenjiwe Nkosi. (Akona Kenqu, M&G)

Pamela Sunstrum (left) and Thenjiwe Nkosi. (Akona Kenqu, M&G)

In a peculiar way artists Pamela Phatsimo Sunstrum and Thenjiwe Niki Nkosi complement each other. Not only in their work, as can be seen in the first intallment of their "collaborative-solo" exhibition series, but in a more glaringly obvious way.

When we sit down to meet, I notice how they finish off each other's sentences and help each other order drinks, like old friends would. Despite Sunstrum's black clothes, piercing and tattoos, and Nkosi's pastel-coloured jersey and girlishly braided hair, it's hard to ignore the similarities between them.
Both were born in 1980, come from racially mixed parentage, lived around the world and completed their art studies abroad before settling in South Africa. 

But in their first collaborative show Before Being Asked by the Machine both hold their own as artists.

Nkosi's flat and sombre portraits of familiar faces question social constructs, as she interrogates: "What is a hero?"

Sunstrum's more abstract and geometrically heavy pieces lend themselves to what she describes as "an imagining of mythologies of a future".

"Aside from the obvious similarities, our approach to the world and our commitment to thinking and rethinking ideas made working together natural," says Nkosi.

As they question identity and dissect structures, this is their first "solo" show, which – according to them – is part of a two-part series, for now. Straight off the back of Before Being Asked by the Machine, the artists will exhibit broader bodies of work under the title Space Station All-Stars in July.

(Photo by Akona Kenqu)

They attribute their constant collaboration to their shared work ethic and approach to intellectual processes, as well as it just being practical. 

"It just made sense that we teamed up after meeting at the Bag Factory," says Sunstrum, who, like Nkosi, has been an artist in residence at the Jo'burg studio since about 2010. 

Nkosi's contribution to Before Being Asked by the Machine touches on the construct of the icon. Her series of oil-on-canvas portraits brings so-called martyrs to life and contemporary icons to the fore. Taxi driver Emidio Macia, author Bessie Head, Nkosi's great-grandmother, activist Winnie Mandela, soccer player Jabu Pule and rape victim Anene Booysen are among some the "heroes" hanging on the walls at ROOM.

Hani (Thenjiwe Nkosi)

"I came into this project having a problem with the idea of heroes and the process in which complex figures become manufactured symbols," says Nkosi, the daughter of an apartheid activist forced into exile during the struggle. "Who gets to be a hero, who gets to be memorialised? Who gets this status bestowed upon them and are my heroes relevant?" 

Sunstrum, meanwhile draws on defying structures in her small-scale pieces which she refers to as "compressed powerhouses".

Futuristic landscapes and intricately drawn geometric shapes are layered throughout her body of work, which she says is inspired by myths and physics.

A departure from her earlier drawings of an adventurous alter-ego named Asme, Sunstrum reveals that these landscapes are in fact new characters.

When I Read My Own Poems Late at Night (Pamela Sunstrum)

"I'm interested in the use of storytelling to make sense of our everyday experiences," she says. "For this exhibition I challenged classical mythologies, which are usually set in the ancient past. My new series of drawings speaks a visual language that goes beyond this. These are my depictions of futuristic mythologies."

Unlike Being Asked by the Machine – a titled borrowed from a collection of poems by South African writer Daniel Browde – their upcoming show Space Station All-Stars will feature more than their paintings and drawings.

"Audiences can look forward to a glimpse into a broader sense of our practices," says Sunstrum, who – alongside her drawings – is set to reveal a site-specific installation and animation. For Nkosi, the next exhibition will unveil a film she shot in 2008, an installation and paintings.

While Nkosi is quick to point out that Space Station All-Stars is not a sequel to Before Being Asked by the Machine, Sunstrum adds that "the work on our next show follows through on the ideas we introduces in our current exhibition".

Just as the first series in their "collaborative-solo" shows gives way to the next, the two are already speaking of a possible third project. "Pam and I are talking about working in a more performative space for the first time."

"But bigger," says Sunstrum. "Like an opera." 

Before Being Asked by the Machine is showing at ROOM Gallery, 70 Juta Precinct, Juta Street, Braamfontein, until June 8

Space Station All-Stars will show at Ithuba Gallery, 100 Juta Street, Braamfontein, from July

stefanie jason

stefanie jason

Following studying towards her Film & Media degree at the University of Cape Town and North Carolina State University, Stefanie Jason began work as a copy editor and writer for various South African publications, including Bona, True Love and Sowetan, as well as the Mail & Guardian. For the M&G's arts & culture supplement Friday, she writes about art, music & lifestyle when she isn't relaxing, traveling or checking out Jo'burg's many art galleries. Read more from stefanie jason

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