Life Lessons on How to Make Art Work for South African Artists: New Frame
An aspiring artist continues to prepare for his solo exhibition this winter despite the coronavirus pandemic and South Africa’s 21-day lockdown.
Cromwell Ngobeni, 32, has a solo showcase slated for June 2020 at the Muzi Mavuso Art House (Mmarthouse) in Randburg, a former mansion turned into a space for art lovers and collectors. Even as global concern over the deadly spread of Covid-19 increases, Ngobeni continues to work in the hope that by winter, exposures will resume. He lives with 50 other artists in the studio where they all work. Fortunately for Ngobeni, who markets his art on social networks to more than 3,000 subscribers, his sales have not yet slowed. But pedestrian traffic has stopped.
Ngobeni is a self-taught fine artist from the small town of Ribungwani, near Giyani in Limpopo. He comes from a family with a talent for art. But his brother and cousin stopped chasing him, which prompted Ngobeni to want to create an artistic legacy. He also wanted to prove to his family members who doubted his abilities that art could be a viable profession.
An escape from reality
Ngobeni was bullied at school and his parents did not believe in him. To deal with his emotions, he would illustrate a different world to escape into, a world over which only he was in control.
“I discovered that I liked art in 3rd grade. My brother and my cousin drew and all I wanted was to become like them, ”he recalls.
As discouragement lingered around him, his passion for art only grew. He worked to master portraits. At 14, he drew a portrait of Tokollo Tshabalala from the legendary kwaito group TKZee. Amazed by his own abilities, he decided to pursue a career in art. He still keeps the portrait in his archives, to remind him of his beginnings.
“My childhood remains my greatest inspiration. I was bullied at school and had to fight to protect myself and that made me a bully, ”he said.
Ngobeni channels his childhood experiences into his work, using emotions to bring his works to life. He often works with a model, who poses for him in his Johannesburg studio.
In 2013, he started and completed a three-year printmaking course with Artist Proof Studio. Since then, his work has made waves on the art scene.
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Her use of social media to market her work has played a significant role in her national and international recognition. Ngobeni says Instagram’s high-definition visuals work well for her use of charcoal and pen, creating “naked eye conversations.”
“I mobilize elements of the drawing such as tone and lines… My work uses black [expressive] lines, which contrast with strong tonal values to portray intense… dramatic feelings ”, explains Ngobeni. “Because I use different emotions in my art, I don’t name my pieces. I believe my art is self-narrative. Sometimes naming the pieces becomes both difficult and unnecessary as each work poses relevant messages, which can be easily translated, ”he said.
Ngobeni, who was unable to make art as a subject in school, said the government should include art in the school curriculum, especially in disadvantaged schools, where art is simply done as a project once a year. Parents should support and encourage their children to make art. This allows talented artists like him to reach their full potential.
During apartheid, very few works by black artists were shown in galleries owned by whites. To make themselves known and earn a living, artists are forced to sell their work in the street at low prices, which devalues it.
The Western idea of what constitutes “real art” often leaves black artists in the dark. Their work is sometimes seen as simply “artisanal”. Ngobeni’s art seeks to break down colonial barriers while using innovative means to bring his work to the public.
“Normally, I sell my own stuff, through my social networks and my studio. I also participate in group exhibitions with Mmarthouse, Johannesburg Art Museum and Artist Proof Studio. It’s important to understand that artists are not the same – we do things differently because our audience is different. I never presented [at] the Grahamstown National Arts Festival although one day I would like to. I am not represented by any gallery but at the same time my work is visible, ”said Ngobeni.
He advises young black artists who are not under contract with art galleries to work on putting together a portfolio and submit it to open-minded studios such as Mmarthouse.