Using found objects and waste materials, Blessing Ngobeni immerses his art in the city and its many contradictions – its chaos and its calm.
BLESSING Ngobeni’s work tells of his personal journey in Johannesburg, a city he describes as ever-changing, a characteristic that makes it a marvel to explore. “My artwork speaks of the various happenings in Joburg from the buzz to rare silent moments that the city provides,” he explains.
Blessing Ngobeni's work tells personal tales about JoburgBlessing Ngobeni's work tells personal tales about Joburg“A positive about the city is that it perpetually re-invents itself. It’s a marvel to watch how the now generation or so called born frees are contributing to Joburg’s narrative, and the era of limitless information that they find themselves in,” the artist says.
“An interesting aspect about Joburg is that it has for years been seen as place where dreams are realised. This lends an angle on how cities all over the world are rapidly growing. I try to document the socio-economic undercurrents that are at play.”
Ngobeni, who was born in in Tzaneen, in Limpopo Province, studied at Newtown’s Artist Proof Studio and has worked for David Krut Publishing at the Johannesburg Art Gallery.
He currently displays his art at Unity Gallery at the Bus Factory in Newtown. He has also worked at the Michaelis Art Library in the Johannesburg City Library and as the head puppeteer, puppet show director and trainee cameraman at Red Pepper Pictures.
All these key experiences have been woven into his art. He has exhibited in several group exhibitions, including at Museum Africa and Unity Gallery. He was also a first prize and gold award winner at the Gala Ex-Offenders Awards.
Kagiso Mnisi, the public relations officer at Unity Gallery, says: “Most artists offer their political and social commentary from the sidelines of South Africa’s turbulent socio-economic environment. But Blessing Ngobeni has personally experienced many of the ills his vibrant and often shocking art speaks of – hence the vigour of his work.”
Economic KitchensEconomic KitchensIn describing his art, Ngobeni says: “Art pieces that I have done such as City In Blue and Jozi Siren depict Joburg as a medium that harbours calm and chaos in real time. This could be a representation of a child playing at Joubert Park and at the same time a person getting mugged at Noord [Street] not so far away.
“I am always amazed by the relationship that city residents have with their environment … On the one hand the people living in the city put up an exterior identity characterised by music, sex, entertainment and fast lifestyles. But this exterior face masks challenges in managing the basic elements of daily life,” he says.
“The art landscape in Joburg is quite challenging and competitive. This has made me work even harder and I am grateful for the attention that my art receives. This also applies to the growth of its value.”
Ngobeni comes from a broken home characterised by a strained and violent relationship with his stepfather. He left Limpopo for Joburg at the age of 10, and his departure had predictable consequences. He was soon involved in crime, and five years later he was arrested for armed robbery and spent close to six years in prison.
In prison, he took stock of his life and actions to correct its trajectory. He started studying for matric and was exposed to the Tsoga (Wake Up) Arts Project. With the help of warders and two friends who brought him art materials, he began to pursue his art seriously – with impressive results.
His work continues to address the contrast between prison, where the range of experience was limited, but where possibilities for personal and creative development nevertheless existed, and the city, where surface level vibrancy, energy, art and entertainment frequently subvert personal and artistic development.
Fallen TyrannyFallen TyrannySocio-political narratives are another element of the work, which is critical of the all-too-common abuse of power. His political commentary assumes the cloak of satire to communicate a message of disapproval at power mongering and social injustices.
It also addresses the inherent duality of the relationships city residents have with their environment, which is governed as much by corruption as it is active civil service, mentions Mnisi.
“The pressures of crime, poverty, transport and employment compound the intensity of the surface level relationships between individuals in the city, generating much of the passion – in positive and negative senses – so obvious in the city.”
The art itself consists of a range of found objects and waste materials, including magazine cuttings and found cardboard canvases. The rationale behind the use of these found materials is two-fold, Ngobeni says. Firstly, the materials themselves comment on the difficulty young artists have in trying to break into the formal art world, without being able to afford basic materials.
Secondly, the materials are purposefully selected for the role they play in the artist’s life. The magazine cuttings, for example, are taken from art magazines and feature the work of artists who have played a conceptual and aesthetic role in his own development. These cuttings are layered into the works at various depths, with many of them unrecognisable to the naked eye.
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