by Michael Smith (May, 2006)
Colbert Mashile is primarily known as a painter and a printmaker. His work deals with various issues and ideas around contested definitions of black masculinity, and increasingly with broader social issues. One of the central characteristics of his work is an awareness of the symbolic and spiritual contained in the everyday.
Mashile came to prominence both locally and internationally with his work that dealt with memories and emotions around male ritual initiation and circumcision. A member of the Mapulana clan of the Northern Sotho group, Mashile underwent traditional circumcision at the age of 10. His early mature work dealt with the subject of traditional circumcision in an indirect way, making use of symbolic shapes, forms and colours to reference an experience he has described as scarring and traumatic. This places him in contradistinction to artists like Thembinkosi Goniwe and Peet Pienaar, who have in recent years dealt with circumcision through far more confrontational images and practices. Mashile, rather than re-image the horror and violence of circumcision rituals, prefers to replace his traumatic memories with what he terms 'psychological images', which afford the viewer the latitude of more complex and nuanced interpretation.
Mashile readily acknowledges the influence of the Colourfield offshoot of Abstract Expressionism, particularly Mark Rothko, in his approach to layering colours. Like Rothko, his formats are often divided into horizontal bands; that is where the similarity ends, however, as Mashile eschews pure abstraction and populates his images with loosely-rendered structures and abodes, hybridised figures and accoutrements of rural life. A recurring motif in his work between 1999 and 2004 was the cowrie shell form, which Mashile used to reference ancestral presence, especially when these images appear at the top or bottom of the format, peripheral to the central zone which refers to the physical world populated by the living. As Moleleki Frank Ledimo said in his essay on Mashile's work in10 Years 100 Artists (Bell-Roberts Publishing, 2005): 'As with most of his works the landscape becomes both a metaphor and the psychological plane on which Mashile's experience of ritual takes place.'
'I come from a place that is shrouded by powerful cultural norms and customs. At the age of 10 I had to undergo initiation rituals with my peers of the same age... My immediate response to the horror and trauma of the event was suppressed until a later stage when I realised that I had difficulty in looking at gaping wounds of injured people, especially the wounds that were inflicted for ceremonial purposes. I then realised how traumatised I was. I decided to heal myself by dealing with these experiences in my artworks whereby I try to use psychological images which I feel comfortable with in an attempt to replace horrific scenes, sights and sounds of the initiation ritual...
'The work depicts shadowy images deriving from the emotional experiences of initiation... I try to be as truthful as possible such as the use of earthy colours and jagged edges... The work is attempting to understand a lingering perception widely acknowledged in my culture about the secretive ritual of initiation. I try to question and at times justify the ritual's attempt to continuously reposition the shifting male ego in our modern society.'
Mashile has just completed a commission for the First Chapter Series, a collaboration with Oak Tree Press launched in April this year at Boekehuis in Melville, Johannesburg. The First Chapter Series comprises limited edition reprints of the first chapters of Booker prize-winning novels, signed and dated by the authors (where possible). Mashile's work for this series is made for and in response to South African author J.M. Coetzee's masterpiece of sorrow and social withdrawal, Life and Times of Michael K. Mashile's interpretation of Coetzee's text has been called 'a powerful conversation between visual and literary texts'.
A powerful show of etchings and monoprints commissioned by David Krut Art Resource, and shown at the gallery in Johannesburg in March and April 2006 revealed Mashile's diversity and willingness to push into new territory, both visually and conceptually. Focusing on images of people around him, particularly maternal female figures, the works reveal a tender humour and an interest in moments of unguarded humanity hitherto not present in his work.
An important milestone in Mashile's career was the group show 'Circumcised/Circumscribed', held at the Axis Gallery, New York in 2003. The exhibition featured works by Thembinkosi Goniwe, Peet Pienaar, Steve Hilton-Barber and Mgcineni 'Pro' Sobopha, amongst others, and was reviewed by independent curator Tumelo Mosaka in Art South Africa, Vol. 1 No. 3 (Autumn 2003). Mosaka took issue with the predominance of works on the show which 'adhere[d] to a narrow definition of male identity'. This contrasted, he stated, with Mashile's works, which he called the 'most unpredictable' on the exhibition: 'These demand a more imaginative response to the psychological impact of circumcision than most of the works on show... they symbolise trauma experienced during initiation. The landscapes are therefore "wounded" sites, referring to the memory of pain and anxiety.' Mosaka held that this body of work 'transcends the local context and begins to address the nature of violence on a broader scale.'
Mashile states that he is currently working on a series that marks a departure from his initiation-related works. Working in oils, watercolour and mixed media, he is exploring issues around the struggle of women in rural areas. Having relocated to Bushbuckridge, Mpumalanga after many years in Gauteng, Mashile says he is interested in dealing with broader social issues, 'things I see on faces of the people around me'. He is preparing for a show at the Association of Visual Arts gallery in Cape Town, scheduled for October 2006. He is also proudly looking forward to representing South Africa at the Dakar Biennale in Senegal in May 2006.
Born in Bushbuckridge, Mpumalanga, 1972
Diploma in Fine Arts, Johannesburg Art Foundation, 1994
BA in Fine Arts, University of Witwatersrand, 2000
Lives and work in Bushbuckridge, Mpumalanga
SELECTED SOLO SHOWS
2006 David Krut Art Resource
2003 'Ts-a Ka Mafuri [Lurking Behind]', NSA Gallery
2003 'A New Collection', Gallery on the Square, Sandton, Johannesburg
'Circumcised/Circumscribed: Issues of Male Identity' Axis Gallery, New York
'New Works' Artspace, Johannesburg
'Show Me Home' Johannesburg Art Gallery
2002 'Insider/Outsider' Art on Paper Gallery, Johannesburg
'Nga Ya Fsa [The Land is Burning]' Gallery on the Square, Sandton, Johannesburg
2001 'Healing Through Time' MuseumAfrica Gallery, Johannesburg
2000 'ABSA l'Atelier' ABSA Gallery, Johannesburg
'Malangatana in South Africa'UNISA Art Gallery in Pretoria, and Sandton Civic Gallery, Johannesburg
2000 ABSA l'Atelier Merit Prize
1999 Martinssen Prize, University of the Witwatersrand
Certificate of First Class in Painting IV, University of Wiwatersrand
1998 Martinssen Prize, University of Witwatersrand