Archive: Issue No. 74, October 2003

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Mgcineni Pro Sobopha

Mgcineni Pro Sobopha
In my mother's house (detail) 2003

Mgcineni Pro Sobopha

Mgcineni Pro Sobopha
Mama 2003
Earth, textile

Mgcineni Pro Sobopha at the AVA
by Paul Edmunds

The press release accompanying Mgcineni Pro Sobopha's show 'Authentic' encourages the viewer to "discover for yourself as you journey with me on this road of discoveries". Sobopha denies knowledge of what constitutes 'authentic' art, proposing instead that different people in different circumstances produce work for a diversity of purposes.

Sobopha's last show at the AVA 'Skins, Scars and Blood' dealt specifically with Xhosa male circumcision. The works were made predominantly from the sort of blankets worn by initiates during this ritual introduction to manhood. Here he once again works with fabric, this time 'sis' or isishwewe (its Zulu name), known also as 'German print'. This fabric, which appears in most works, is apparently associated with an induction into womanhood amongst Xhosa people. The fabric itself is layered with identities.

Produced originally in Manchester, it found favour with Zulu and Xhosa people in the early 20th century. It is now only produced in KwaZulu-Natal. Most works, all on canvas, also include sections of cheap carpet into which Sobopha has drawn with a hot tool. Earth, ash and paint lend earthy colour and volume to the canvases. In Made in England Sobopha invokes the complexity which underscores his work by including the printed brandmark from a bolt of isishwewe, which reads 'Designed in England'. Claims to cultural authenticity and authority are questioned.

A standout work for me is Mama, which hangs alone in a corner of the gallery. Hinting at the figurative, a fabric cut-out invokes the silhouette of a woman and what is probably a pocket of contrasting fabric is placed appropriately. This possibility is negated by a short red horizontal band and patterned elements, which reaffirm the picture's surface.

In my mother's house utilises a similarly complex vocabulary. On the left a richly incised area of carpet is stained oxide red. Intruding on it is a promontory of rich, earthy scalloped markings. Two intense verticals divide the format vertically, on the right hand side of which is more incised carpet, left a creamy hue. The 'house' of the title seems less a physical space than a domain whose privileges are only available to the matriarch.

The road on which Sobopha invites viewers to journey is what he calls "a creative and imaginative process". At the same time as describing an open-ended path whose direction is determined by a traveller and whose destination is not fixed, he appears to have an unchanging vocabulary and cosmology of his own. The swathes of fabric, the hatched carpet and the use of earth is consistent throughout the show. Bright scarlet bands and stripes punctuate most works.

While one expects an artist to have their own voice and language, Sobopha apparently denies this, or perhaps he wants to keep his own narrative just out of a viewer's reach, but intriguing enough to hold their attention. As with his last show I felt let down by the time I reached In my mother's house III, when his patterned hatching configures itself into a face, and not a well drawn one at that. I find it more convincing as an abstract element.

September 22 - October 11