(b.1985 Tzaneen, South Africa)
Kiss My Ass I, 2016
Blessing Ngobeni was born in Tzaneen, Limpopo. His mother left home when he was a small boy and he stayed with his uncle – who, in Ngobeni’s own words, treated him like a child slave and whipped him. This was the artist’s first experience of the chicotte. Eventually the small boy ran away from home and went to live in the bush. His mother eventually came to retrieve him and brought him to live with her and her new husband in Tzaneen, but in 1995, at the age of ten, Ngobeni ran away again – and for five years he would live on the streets of Alex township.
Save Democracy, 2016.
At the age of fifteen, Ngobeni was arrested for his part in an armed robbery. The trial took two years to reach sentencing and he received a sentence of nine years. He was released in 2006 having served six years and completed his Matric. It was also in prison the Ngobeni turned to art and taught himself to paint. By the time he left, he knew he wanted to be a painter. At this point he was making naturalistic images, inspired by the style of Michelangelo.
Queen of Scaveners, 2017
For two years he lived in Ponte in Hillbrow and Miles Bhudu gave him a space in his offices which enabled Ngobeni to work. Ngobeni participated in an SABC 2 show about life in prison before starting work at David Krut Publishing at the Johannesburg Art Gallery and Red Paper Production as a puppeteer. In the following year, Ngobeni joined the Artist Proof Studio but he was expelled the following year for not attending all his classes – because he was still having to work to support himself.
At this time, his work was being sold by Tendai Gallery. Shortly before he was due to leave the gallery, over 200 artworks were stolen. Ngobeni continued to work at Red Paper but he was deeply disheartened after having his work stolen. It took him a year to start making art again and when he did, what emerged was the birth of a new style; much darker, using weeping dripping paint. Ngobeni had tapped into the source of his pain and was making art to heal himself.
Portraits of Lust I, 2016
Ngobeni rapidly developed a style of his own, using montage, paint, and distorted, contorted figures. Later his work would be compared to Picasso, Basquiat, Miro and Norman Catherine. His nightmarish imagery and sense of the absurd lent his work to that of the surrealist genre. At the time, however, Ngobeni had yet to encounter any of these artists or learn about the iconic 20s art movement. At this time Unit Art Gallery in Newtown was representing and supporting him.
In 2011 Ngobeni applied for the Reinhold Cassierer Award at the Bag Factory and won it. This would mark a big change in his reputation and for the first time the media started taking an active interest in his work. For this, he was given a three-month residency at the Bag Factory. He was given a studio space, accommodation and an allowance for food and materials. He also collaborated with the artist Emega Udemba from Nigeria. This culminated in a show called “Emergency Exit” in 2012.
Make Us Great Again, 2016.
It was at this time that Ngobeni caught the attention of Gallery MOMO, which started to represent him from this period.
In 2013, Ngobeni got the Impact Award from the Arts and Culture Trust and in 2014 he attended a two-month residency at the Headlands Centre for Art in San Francisco. In 2015, he was chosen for the Cleveland Foundation’s Creative Fusion Program. He was one of several international artists to travel to Cleveland for this residency and was the only candidate from Africa. In early 2016 he was invited to a residency in New York and shortly afterwards visited France to attend a graffiti workshop called Grafikama.
Exhibitions during this period include three solo shows at Gallery MOMO (2012, 2014 and 2015) as well as appearances at the Joburg Art Fair in 2013 and 2014. In 2014, he appeared at the Art Fair wearing prisoner’s clothes and a severed cow’s head that dripped blood – as a performance piece.
In early 2016, Ngobeni moved to the Everard Read and CIRCA galleries. His first show – “The Song of the Chicotte” – opened on 7 July 2016.
The Daily Maverick has described Blessing Ngobeni as “producing award-winning work … that is fiercely critical of South Africa’s political elite.” He says he tries to chase away the darkness through his work – and attributes his recent use of bolder designs and brighter colours as a strong emerging life force that is doing battle with the darkness within and around him.
Today Blessing Ngobeni has established himself as one of the leading younger figures in contemporary South African art. He is represented by the Everard Read and CIRCA galleries in Johannesburg, Cape Town and London.(text and courtesy Circa Gallery Joburg)