'Oracles of the Pink Universe' is magical exhibit at Denver Art Museum

Simphiewe Ndzube invents intriguing world through paintings, sculpture


A delightful small vacation is newly available at the Denver Art Museum through Oct. 10.

Simphiewe Ndzube's paintings and sculpture are shown in a colorful exhibit — “Oracles of the Pink Universe” — which offers a trip into the imaginary world of a young South African artist, born in 1990, who currently lives and works in Los Angeles.

He has invented an intriguing world and presents images from it that reflect an arts education which blends European imagery, including “The Garden of Earthly Delights” by Hieronymus Bosch (ca. 1504), with Xhosa tribal mythology and other segments from here and there that reflect colorful imagined worlds — and today's political realities.

The painting “Bloom of the Corpse Flower” from this exhibit is a recent acquisition by the Denver Art Museum, getting DAM in on the ground floor with a talented young artist who is just holding his first U.S. museum exhibit, but is expected to become a big name in future years.

This plant appears in several paintings in “Oracles of the Pink Universe” and DAM director Christoph Heinrich writes in an introduction to the show catalog: “Ndzube's work interrogates the legacies of apartheid based on his personal experiences, his Xhosa heritage and his knowledge of indigenous African and Eastern art.”

In addition to application of paints, the artist at times includes actual garments, bits of fabric and other objects in collage technique.

Colors are brilliant and sartorial styling is varied — we find a dude striding toward us in a pink suit and brown fedora, while in “A Visit to a Mine Moon,” a headless character with black and white checked gingham shirt and yellow glove approaches one who floats upside down, with a left leg that turns into a snake. Above them, a third fellow floats, rowing a boat with oars capped with yellow gloves.

On the next page, we find a fellow who looks as though he has a secret as he's surrounded by dripping mustard colored clouds.

In one painting stands the Djinguereber Mosque, located in Timbuktu, Mali, West Africa, with design attributed to Abu Es Haq es Saheli, built in 1327.

A pictured sculpture shows legendary figure, “Bhekizwe, Riding Through the Garden of Earthly Delights” — another reference to the famous Bosch painting.

A book about Simphewe records an interview with Plumelele Tsabalala, where he states “I have been making art from the moment I realized my consciousness, or rather, from the moment I realized I could do something with my hands … creativity has always been a kind of alternative space for me to understand the world. I make art to please myself and surprise myself. I have been able to turn my passion into a profession. Making art in these times in America, that can actually be seen by people beyond my studio, beyond my homeland, means so much to me because I am able to create something that has cultural capital. Further, I am able to support my family and younger artists around me.

“There is a deep voice that I want people to hear; there is a story that I'm trying to tell, one that is uniquely relevant to this time and this space. I am searching for an understanding of existence: why we're here, an understanding of the planet, understanding these bodies, and an understanding of these figures I create that are traversing these spaces looking for meaning, love, liberation and freedom. I am also poking fun at the comedy of life itself — the theatre of life.”

Ndzube later says, with regard to working as a Black artist: “Just being an artist from South Africa, I'm aware of a history of art that excluded black artists ... I want to expand options to bring so much more than identity and resistance to my work ... I see myself as a vessel ... I'm interested in expanding options for what Black and brown artists are able to create. I acknowledge that my identity and where I'm from grounds the work, but I want my art to go beyond just me: I want to explore the limits of magical realism and its relationship to Third World countries.”


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