Bongi Bengu and Collen Maswanganyi at Kizo Gallery
by Carol Brown
Well established painter Bongi Bengu shares her first outing in KwaZulu-Natal, province of her birth, with sculptor Collen Maswanganyi who hails from Giyani in Limpopo. Despite the immediate differences in their work, the two evidence a shared interest in their commentary on contemporary life.
Bengu was born in Eshowe and followed her parents into exile in Geneva where she was brought up. She obtained her Bachelor of Arts Degree in Washington DC and her Master's at Michaelis Art School in Cape Town. She is clearly emotional about her exhibition at Kizo and when I asked her what the exhibition means to her she seemed choked up when she replied: 'This is like a homecoming to me. I feel I am rooted in KwaZulu-Natal... so it is like a return to the soil of my birth for me.' Bengu was included on 'A Decade of Democracy' which opened in New York in 2004 and her work was also featured on the recent Amsterdam exhibition 'Identities'.
The exhibition follows her development as an artist, beginning with her early work in 2000 where she worked mainly in collage, drawing upon images from popular media, playing with the pervasive representations. Dump Site shows a woman in a township room with the only view outside of the window being a pile of rubbish. Despite this she looks directly at us with a sense of her own identity which seems embattled by the environment. There is a challenge in her gaze.
The reciprocal gaze at the Other is a theme which threads its way through to a later work where the collage has now evolved into painting. In Woman we see the unmistakable profile of Sarah (Saartjie) Baartman, who was exhibited as a freak in Europe in the mid 1800s, where she was unable to look back at those who looked at her. The fact that her body diverged so radically from the European standard of beauty made her into a curiosity and she became a familiar figure as a nightclub and fairground dancer where she was usually dressed in animal skins.
Bengu's painting shows the profiles of men gawping at her, reminding us of how African women were exploited and sexualised through their display. The context of Africa and women is one which runs as a theme throughout Bengu's work which has recently become less specific, moving towards a more subtle form of expression. A painterly quality seems to have replaced the strong representational works of her earlier production, and this new direction could herald a more subtle form of expression where light, dark and texture have replaced the more literal expressions. One senses a freedom where the narrative can be submerged and the essence can now be explored.
Collen Maswanganyi, whose work was also featured on 'Identities', is the son of the famous sculptor Johannes Maswanganyi, whose beautifully carved figures are present in practically every major collection in the country. Maswanganyi the younger works in a similar style but with a contemporary twist. He says that he considers his artistic endeavours in the way that the chieftanship is considered - passed on in a lineage from father to son.
Maswanganyi's work is therefore recognisable as having been influenced by this heritage. However, he employs irony and a conscious na&ium;lvety which derives from a sense of the history of African carving. His more academic training (he studied painting and sculpture at Wits Technikon) allows him to subvert this history and use it for present social critiques, and nothing escapes his notice. On show is a small tableau of a priest blessing two congregants. Look closer and you will see that the pulpit is like a post box where one posts money. My Congregation, My Business's critique is framed with a sense of humour, but it creates an easily accessed narrative and its bright colours suggest comic book representations - these are not the colours of realism but rather of a pop type expression.
Then we have Jonah and the Whale where the latter has 'Lucky Star' (a ubiquitous tinned pilchard brand) carved onto his body and Jonah wears typical African tyre sandals. The smile which this first induces then changes as one considers the fate both of whales and men in our environment, and we see a bigger picture, realising the seriousness of the artist's work. Employing a similar strategy, Tycoon couple comprises a pair of carved and coloured life-size figures whose clothes and accessories comment on the intersection of cultures in the South African context.
The juxtaposition of these two artists is an unexpected one, although a linking factor could be the narratives they weave around contemporary life and media influence. The exhibition is a fresh view of two new artists for the KZN scene.
Opens: March 20
Closes: April 20
Kizo Art Gallery
The Gateway Theatre of Shopping, Shop G350, Palm Boulevard, Umhlanga
Tel: (031) 566 4324
Fax: (031) 566 2494
Hours: Mon - Sun 9am - 6pm