TAKE AN ALREADY angry and energetic approach to art making with a political edge, and exacerbate it with shoddy politics, unethical behaviour and the distressing circulation of the notion of ‘alternative facts’ in the country and the world, and you get Blessing Ngobeni’s current solo exhibition – the seventh in his career thus far – which probes and bashes against the horror of our times, using his intellect, his paintbrush and his anger as part of his tool box.
Ngobeni’s work has a reputation of unrelentingly splicing art historical references together, from across the spectrum, as it quotes and dissects the instruments and politics of our times. Often really crudely. Masked Reality sees an evolution in his approach, and if you consider the gallery space at large before you allow yourself to be sucked into the individual works on display, you will recognise an iconicity that digresses from his former works which boasted less of a clear composition than these.
Still, you see echoes of Bitterkomix and Norman Catherine, of the grotesque sexuality that is present in between-the-world-wars work of German artists associated with the Neue Sachlichkeit period of Expressionism, such as Georg Grosz, Max Beckmann and Otto Dix. There are bodies here which like those represented by Hieronymus Bosch of hell, centuries ago, are nothing but big pairs of buttocks farting poisonously into the ether. There are other bodies which boast grotesque breasts filled lumpily with malignant-looking red contusions and lesions. The psychological horror known as vagina dentata – vagina with teeth – is reflected as a green claw with sharp nails.
And the work is also extremely violent in its making. Heavy paint is splashed with purpose across these compositions, chunks of text from newspaper form part of the palette, where heads of characters are premised with the face of a snarling jackal or a fierce pig.
The centre piece of the exhibition is an installation contained by the oval space of Circa with a kind of gothic terror. Queen of Scavengers is suspended from the gallery’s ceiling and extends to the floor, featuring a demonic figure made of what seems to be papier mâché, which has myriads of blind black dolls attached to its fingers. As you enter the space, it feels as though you’ve walked into a horror film, and your adrenalin pumps and urges you to flee. But you don’t. You want to look further.
The dolls – children’s play things made of plastic – are blind because their eyes, too, like the rest of their little faces and bodies, are spray-painted black in the direct and almost haphazard manner for which Ngobeni has come to be respected. It’s a violent cauldron of an image which has tremendous impact, but as you come closer to it and feel it attempt to blind your sensibilities from the two-dimensional works on show, you might question its value.
Unlike the paintings and drawings, the work feels more ostentatiously dramatic. Ngobeni’s appeal has been in the deeply evolved images he creates with multiple references layering one another and fighting for your eye in the same image. This Queen of Scavengers seems out there to make you look. And once you have looked, you must draw your eyes away, to the more evolved material.
Having said that, it’s a Queen emblematic of Ngobeni having the creative stamina to continue reinventing himself. He has established a signature modus operandi and critical respect. Queen of Scavengers is the opening of a new chapter, and makes you both afraid and enticed in your desire to peer into Ngobeni’s future.
- Masked Reality by Blessing Ngobeni, is at Circa on Jellicoe in Rosebank until February 25. 011 788 4805 or visit circaonjellicoe.co.za