By T.F. Chan
Johannesburg has grown into the cultural capital of Africa, a beacon of creativity that has beckoned to talents of all backgrounds and genres, and hatched the continent’s biggest art fair, alongside a patchwork of pioneering galleries. Here, we call on eight artists who have made the city their home, and discover how they square its troubled past with future promise.
Ngobeni’s large-scale paintings, with their memorably grotesque figures, often invite comparisons to the work of Basquiat. Like the late American prodigy, the artist had a tumultuous youth. Raised in Limpopo, South Africa, by an abusive uncle, he ran away as a small boy, ending up on the streets of Alexandra Township in Johannesburg. At 15, he was arrested for his role in an armed robbery and sentenced to nine years in prison. Incarceration proved to be his salvation. He discovered he could draw and took some art courses. Once paroled, he enrolled on a printmaking programme and began to develop his distinctive visual style. Ngobeni’s work retains the violent undertones that reflect his past: a 2017 installation, Queen of the Scavengers, shows a parade of black dolls tethered to the titular queen, a masked puppeteer who seems to control their fates. And while Ngobeni does not consider himself a political artist, his work often exposes the ways in which South Africa continues to be mired in inequity, as seen in his recent ‘A Note from Error’ exhibition, shown in London and Johannesburg. On electrifyingly colourful canvases that belie their weighty subject, he asks why corruption is still rampant and the gap between rich and poor broadening in an age of democracy.