News / Africa

Traumatic Past Fuels Work of South African Artist Blessing Ngobeni

"Slow vengeance" celebrates the artist’s triumphs over adversity (photo by B. Ngobeni)
"Slow vengeance" celebrates the artist’s triumphs over adversity (photo by B. Ngobeni)
Darren Taylor
This is Part Two of a five-part series on 
visual artists in South Africa 
Continue to Parts:     1 / 2 / 3 / 4 / 5 

The images appear to him in dreams, but his paintings often look more like nightmares. There are swirling, phantom-like apparitions without eyes…Naked and heavily pregnant figures with the heads of men but the bodies of women, with bloated breasts, oversized teeth and hands that claw into the distance…Automatic rifles, clenched fists and attack dogs with scarlet eyes…Severed heads wearing crowns and smiling malevolently…All painted in frantic brushstrokes, mostly using shades of grey, black, white, blue, red and yellow.
“I dream about beings that are in human form, but they are not of this world. I don’t know what they are but they haunt me,” said Blessing Ngobeni. “They are scary, always chasing me, trying to catch me. Some carry swords. Some carry crosses. Some they have got four legs, but they are standing like a human….”
Last year Ngobeni won one of South Africa’s most prestigious art prizes, the Reinhold Cassirer Award, sponsored by his compatriot and Nobel Prize for Literature winner Nadine Gordimer. Some critics compare his work to that of world famous Spanish artist, Joan Miro. Like Miro, the South African’s creations are intensely surrealistic.

  • Blessing Ngobeni is recognized as one of the most thought-provoking artists in South Africa at the moment [VOA/D. Taylor]
  • "Economical kitchen" is Ngobeni’s way of satirizing the political elite’s lust for wealth (Photo courtesy of B. Ngobeni)
  • In "Red dot," Ngobeni paints Nelson Mandela as never before (Photo: B. Ngobeni)
  • "City in blues" is one of Ngobeni’s paintings showing his attraction to urban Johannesburg (Photo: B. Ngobeni)
  • "Jozi siren" is another of Ngobeni’s ‘city paintings’ (photo by B. Ngobeni)
  • "Slow vengeance" celebrates the artist’s triumphs over adversity (photo by B. Ngobeni)
  • This so called democracy, by Blessing Ngobeni (Photo: B. Ngobeni)
  • "Fallen tyranny" is another of Ngobeni’s political works (Photo: B. Ngobeni)
  • Blessing Ngobeni, pictured in his studio on the outskirts of central Johannesburg [Photo: Darren Taylor]

Ngobeni said as much as he tries to forget his nocturnal horrors, whenever he picks up a paintbrush, they return.
“Then I lay them out in my work; they infect my work,” he told VOA in his studio that was once an abandoned warehouse on the outskirts of inner city Johannesburg.
The infection he speaks of is perhaps a product of his past.

Ngobeni was a toddler when his mother left him in the care of an uncle in their home village in Limpopo province in northern South Africa. He never knew his father.
“My uncle wanted me to look after his cattle so he denied me to go to school,” he recalled. “If a cow jumped and kicked the jug that holds the milk he wouldn’t kick the cow, he’d kick me. He was always screaming at me and assaulting me.”
To escape the abuse, Ngobeni fled into the bush. “I became totally isolated and antisocial. I became an animal,” he said. “I was living that life of saying, ‘Now I am scared of human beings.’ Whenever I see a person I would like run away; I was surviving by stealing [food] from around there….”
After four years as a “scavenging bush sleeper” Ngobeni got a lift on a truck to Alexandra, a sprawling, impoverished township in Johannesburg. He was 10.
“I happened to become a street kid, sleeping in the street…. Life was hard. I was starving a lot of the time. Some things that happened to me then, I can’t talk about them,” said Ngobeni.
He admitted, “To get money I’d break into cars and steal things to sell, to survive.”
Armed robbery
Then, when Ngobeni was 14, an event occurred that changed the course of his life.
“This other friend of mine was exposed to some advanced [criminal] tools, like guns. Then he was like, ‘Hey man! Let’s do it, let’s do it….’”
Armed with pistols, he and his gang tried to rob a gas station.
“This friend of mine tried to scare the workers so he fired his gun into the air and that alerted people and soon the police were there. We tried to get away – only to find out that the guy with the [getaway] car had driven away when he heard the gunshot….”
The police arrested Ngobeni and his accomplices. He was convicted of various criminal charges and spent almost six years in prison.
“With the life I lived as a youngster, I can’t believe I’m 29 now. If I had carried on living the way I was, there were three things around the corner: life in a wheelchair, life in prison…or death,” he said. “A lot of my friends, they died. They got killed because of trying to rob people, trying to hijack cars….”
But jail did not imprison Ngobeni. It freed him.
To escape the daily drudgery of jail, and also the violence of life in prison, where he once saw a fellow inmate nearly killed for “a bit of dagga [marijuana],” Ngobeni began drawing.
“The first thing I remember sketching was a bird I had seen outside my cell. From then on I was obsessed with sketching. From there I fell in love [with art]. I used art to free my mind.”
It was in prison that Ngobeni started to dream “like never before.” He said at first his dreams scared him, but later he learned to “listen to them” and to use them to inspire his art.
“I model my painting on that of the Nguni people [some of South Africa’s original peoples]. They painted in patterns, in layers. I layer my work. It’s a process. It takes me stage by stage, up until I am satisfied to say, ‘This work is complete….’”
But for Ngobeni completion is not the same as perfection – a concept he shuns.
“Nguni artworks dripped, like mine. I enjoy the chaos of things that are not perfect, that appear to be incomplete,” he said, continuing, “I create my work out of love. I love my work more than anything. Everything that I pour in there is within me. It’s my private secret; it’s me who can do it in that way. I do what I like.”
Mandela…as never before
Ngobeni was released from prison when he was 20. From a tiny room in central Johannesburg’s chaotic and often violent Hillbrow suburb, he began painting – strange, emotional and frenetic works that are simultaneously disturbing and inspiring. Many are overtly political and reflect the artist’s desire for social justice and his disgust with corrupt politicians…works such as Red dot.
The painting depicts South Africa’s former president and international human rights icon Nelson Mandela in a way that few artists would dare: as a severed head, a streak of red paint flowing from his mouth. Charcoal rings encircle his eyes; his hair shining silver.
“I have painted Mandela in a devilish way; he looks frightening, almost like a demon. His eyes are wide and scary; he has big teeth,” said Ngobeni.
Again, Red dot was inspired by a dream in which Ngobeni saw Mandela as a giant tiger from which crowds of people were fleeing.
He explained, “I am suggesting that he is angry at the way his image is currently being abused, and at the way that things that he stood for are being betrayed by some people in South Africa right now.”
Artists usually depict Mandela as a refined, benign old man, using soft tones.
“In portraying Mandela like this all the time I believe that people don’t respect him. Like right now, he’s angry…at all the corruption in South Africa, and the failures such as our failure to have a good education system,” Ngobeni insisted.
He added, “People are always portraying Mandela as a saint but I am saying he is also capable of being a devil. We all are.”
‘People will fight’
In Red dot, a hand, fingers splayed in desperation, reaches for Mandela’s head.
Ngobeni explained, “This hand represents all those politicians who are trying to claim Mandela for themselves, as if he is a trophy. They always lie to us and say, ‘Vote for us; we are trying to make Mandela’s dreams come true.’ But they are not. They are only trying to make their own dreams of luxury come true. They are trying to deceive us by abusing Mandela’s image.”
Another hand clutches an AK47 rifle – a potent symbol of South Africa’s armed struggle against apartheid. “Right now there [are] people who are saying that after the old man [Mandela] bows his head down [dies], people will fight,” said Ngobeni.
By means of symbolism the artist said he is suggesting that, after Mandela’s eventual death,  there’ll be an “ideological dirty war” between those who will seek to claim the moral high ground that Mandela once occupied…a space to which they have no right, given their corruption, according to Ngobeni.
As in some of his other works, in Red dot Mandela’s image is inverted.
“In using Mandela’s head upside down, I’m suggesting that the business he started, in trying to create a prosperous South Africa for all, is not finished. Mandela’s dream has not yet been realized, because millions of South Africans are still poor and without jobs,” said Ngobeni.
“I am saying that many of our current leaders are neo-colonialists. When they were liberation fighters, they condemned capitalism. Yet they themselves are now our country’s biggest capitalists and they don’t give a damn about the poor. Mandela’s ideals have been turned upside down.”
Economical kitchen
In another of Ngobeni’s paintings, Economical kitchen, a figure with the head of a man and the body of a woman dances manically with teeth bared and head adorned with a frying pan.
Alongside the swollen stomach, an image of one of South Africa’s most controversial politicians, Julius Malema - currently accused of multiple economic crimes including tax evasion and tender fraud - appears to be instructing another man how to stop any hemorrhaging from the clearly pregnant woman.
Inside the figure’s belly are characters Ngobeni said represent corrupt politicians and business leaders who control South Africa’s economy.
The artist explained, “The Malema figure does not want any menstrual blood [which is a metaphor for] wealth to leak out of the stomach. The politicians want all the wealth for themselves…I am suggesting that at the moment the only ones with access to the economy, the kitchen where food is made, are the elites and more specifically a few key politicians, and they want to keep it that way.”
He added that the pan on the figure’s head suggests it’s the king of the “economical kitchen.”    
Ngobeni said, “The economy is being carved up by the elites, for them to share. Other South Africans must wait at the back door for the scraps.”
Another constant source of inspiration for Ngobeni is Johannesburg, a city he’s “in love” with.
His painting, City in blues, is dominated by a comical figure with an elongated, misshapen head, wearing pointy black shoes, and reading a newspaper. One of the white newspaper pages is decorated with the identical yellow images of two shapely women reading red books. Alongside them, a naked woman washes. In a corner of the work a man smokes a cigarette, a dog sitting next to him.
“City in blues is about unemployed people in Johannesburg who I see every day, and all the little things they do to pass the day away. Some read; others sleep the day away in parks. They all have the blues; they are all depressed,” said Ngobeni. “So those are the blues that I am talking about, which are scratching our hearts and scratching our souls in our daily ups and downs in the city.”
In some of his paintings Ngobeni presents Johannesburg as a character he’s named “Jozi” – the city’s nickname.
His Jozi siren is dominated by shades of black, white and gray. Just about the only color visible is a large red, clown-like nose on the face of the ghostly main figure, which represents Johannesburg.
“He’s now a character, a person who can be angry at any time [but also] a person who can welcome you and give you anything that you want. If you want to sleep in the park, obviously he’s going to be angry and then he’ll give you nothing,” said Ngobeni. “But if you’re active and you move around with him and experience him, he’s going to be kind and provide you with opportunities.”
In his work Ngobeni presents Johannesburg as a place of extreme contrasts, a city capable of love and hate, life and death, wealth and poverty – sometimes all on the same street corner.
Sound of a ‘hijacked’ building
The artist labeled Jozi siren his “sound painting.”
“I just heard the typical sounds of [central] Johannesburg when I painted it. The cars are like: peep, peep; peep! The taxi drivers [turn] left and right! The sirens [wail] when the police are chasing criminals and when the ambulance is going to try to save somebody’s life….”
Johannesburg, he said, is often vicious and rough and “eats the weak and the humble.” Ngobeni added that South Africa’s largest city is sometimes a place of no subtlety…and even less sobriety.
Jozi siren is also informed by his experience of living in and “hearing” a “hijacked” building in inner city Johannesburg.
“This bunch of people live there and they refuse to pay rent. They do what they want, when they want. They drink like nobody’s business. They make noise anytime – in the morning, in the middle of the night, in the afternoon….”
‘I defeated myself’
Ngobeni’s art sometimes celebrates his personal triumphs over adversity.
In Slow vengeance, a skeleton – again pregnant – ascends steps that could be shards of bone, arms extended.
Ngobeni explained, “In traditional beliefs we rose from the dust, and [it’s about] what I did myself – rising from the dust [to] become this artist who I am today.… I’m coming with a vengeance to show that I will fight [for life and art]. The ghostly skeleton is a person who’s rising from the dust.”
He added, “I called it Slow vengeance because it took me a long time to defeat all the obstacles in my life. In a sense, I defeated myself, that’s why I have presented myself as a skeleton – the traditional symbol of death.”
But Ngobeni, who once lived “as if death was just around the corner,” is far from dead. Instead, each of his unique brushstrokes affirms his lust for life.
He whispered, “When I paint I feel alive – even when I am painting about blood and death.”

Listen to profile of South African visual artist Blessing Ngobeni
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