On Campus, Arts

Artist Simphiwe Ndzube Speaks on Breaking from Tradition

On an otherwise empty wall hang five canvases. Each contains an image of the seashore, with the coast distorted to appear textured. Five birds soar in the sky with their wings outstretched as though they are fighting against the current. At first glance, there appears to be people in the foreground of each of the works. But the faces are warped and imaginative—green with pink eyes and protruding tongues. Each person has clothing too, but not painted on. Real clothing is stuck to figures in the pictures. Pants stick out from the bottom of the canvas, and shoes touch the floor. 

These unique artworks belong to Simphiwe Ndzube, a South African painter and installation artist. On Tuesday, Ndzube stood in front of a room crowded with eager Boston College students. As he began his lecture, “Endless Experimentation as a Form of Healing,” images of his expressive and unique art were displayed across the large screen behind him. 

Ndzube spoke on his recent projects and the decisions that guide his artistry. His lecture was sponsored by the Institute for the Liberal Arts, BC Core Curriculum, and the African and African Diaspora Studies program. John Brooks, a visiting assistant professor in the English department, introduced Ndzube, who began his lecture talking about his experience being the first person in his family to become an artist. 

Not only has Ndzube broken away from family tradition by becoming an artist, the lecture highlighted how Ndzube uses less traditional materials in his art—going beyond just paint on a canvas. Bursting with character and color, his pieces incorporate clothes, mannequins, signs, umbrellas, and other objects. Ndzube said that this manipulation of unique materials helps create a sense of magical realism in his art.

“I can kind of play around with materials and pull things around … you know, kind of go back and forth,” Ndzube said. “It’s not premeditated but an intention to arrive [at and] to make work that feels like it is saying something.”

Ndzube said that some of his work possesses an element of humor. His exhibits include mannequins dressed in garish costumes and positioned with distorted body movements. The colors he uses for the mannequins and paintings are bold and playful. 

While discussing how he attempts to embed his art with emotional meaning, Ndzube said he creates portraits by imagining people he knows in their homes and includes these images in his paintings. He uses traditional African hairstyles and often depicts figures with dark skin tones in his work—paying homage to his cultural roots.

“I made these portraits as a way to kind of … add my people into my universe,” Ndzube said. 

Ndzube said that his work addresses both his current struggles and past experiences. His creative process reflects how he wrestles with both his present experiences and the history of African men, which is fraught with tension and violence, as he approaches a project. Ndzube said he processes his experiences as an African man through his work. In a piece from his exhibition titled “In the Order of Elephants After the Rain,” a mannequin holding an umbrella stands in front of a canvas depicting the same image. According to Ndzube, the work is meant to deal with questions of exploitation, occupation, and power—combining history with mysticism.

Ndzube said that the meaning of his art crystallizes as viewers interact with the work. Visitors are able to wander through his exhibits and formulate their own interpretations of his unique pieces. 

Merryn Couto, Lynch ’25, reflected on Ndzube’s lecture, considering his intentions behind his imaginative and humorous art.  

“One of the main takeaways I took was that art doesn’t have to have this big political push behind it,” Couto said. “[When] the spectator actually participates in the work to give it meaning, it kind of just takes on a voice of its own.”

Photos Courtesy of Steve Mooney / Heights Staff

November 11, 2021