Simphiwe Mbunyuza’s ceramic sculptures are an ode to African culture and iconology.
Compiled by: Thanduxolo “Thandz” Buti
All images supplied
The artist (born and raised in Mbendeni village, Butterworth, Eastern Cape) is one of the few young South African artists who use their work to commemorate and preserve African culture and customs. His functional and non-functional sculptures are poetry immortalising the grand beauty of Africanism – with a focus on the Xhosa tribe.
Simphiwe’s work combines stoneware, leather, fabric, clay, tree logs, and steel. He also incorporates bold colours that reference the Xhosa tribe’s use of colour for beauty, decoration, identity, communication and symbolism. The designs draw from day-to-day rural life and folklore.
His work has found deep appreciation locally and internationally and has been exhibited in countries like China, the United States (US) and France.
The artist has won numerous prizes, including the Red Clay Faction Award (Oklahoma), Oscar Jacobson Award (Oklahoma), John Steel Award for Excellence in Ceramics (Walter Sisulu University), and Outstanding Achievement in Ceramics (Walter Sisulu University).
Simphiwe is based in Oklahoma, studying towards his Master of Fine Arts (MFA) at Oklahoma University (OU).
Blacklight had a chat with the artist to find out more about his artistic journey and intentions with his art practice.
Blacklight: Who is Simphiwe Mbunyuza, and how did you discover that you are an artist?
Simphiwe Mbunyuza: I was born and raised in a village, in Eastern Cape. I studied my junior at Kanyisa JS in Butterworth. My English teacher was an artist by profession; I believe she studied fine art before teaching English. While in class, I would draw [doodle], and that is how she identified that we shared a love for art. She then formed an art group, and I was one of the students from that group who pursued an art career. After high school, I enrolled at Walter Sisulu University (WSU) for Fine Arts.
BL: How did your family react to you pursuing art as a career, especially considering that you are from a village?
SM: I wanted to pursue law, but my parents convinced me to pursue art because they knew how passionate I was about it. They had been monitoring my artistic skills from an early age. I displayed an interest in art at a young age and I even part-took in a lot of competitions, like the Love Life Games, and I used to come back with a lot of certificates that I won. I also won a Standard Bank prize which came with funds. Because of my good background in art, they believed that I could crack it in the industry.
BL: Was it an easy decision for you to pursue art full-time?
SM: At first, I was not convinced about pursuing art as a full-time career. I did not believe that it was something you go and study at the University level, I thought it was a talent that you innately have, and all you had to do was practice, and that was all the education you needed. However, I realised that the world of art is quite vast, and there are many disciplines within the practice – it’s not limited to drawing and painting. Even though we, as black people, from villages, lack knowledge about the industry; it’s a serious profession. Through studying art, I was introduced to other disciplines, like ceramics, which I developed a deep love for. I always loved playing with clay as a kid; at an amateur level. We only made cows and so on. In University, I learned about serious ceramic making, like making homeware and sculptures. I decided that it was the route I wanted to take, and it’s currently my medium of choice.
BL: Since you chose ceramics as your medium of choice, what have you uncovered about the medium, and what it is about it that connects you to it?
SM: Artists work with themes, and with ceramics, which dictates what journey the work takes you on, and you should be open to uncovering new things (new processes and methods) on that journey. I connect with ceramics because it allows me to [fully] express myself as a person and as an artist. It helps to reveal my artistic abilities and skills because it can be challenging – you have to communicate with the material, you have to understand it, and you have to learn to be patient. Ceramic-making forces you to be fully present in the moment.
For instance, if you are creating a sculpture, you have to listen and communicate with it. The piece tells you when you should stop (or continue) even though at times you may wish to go on and on. The work can sometimes overpower you, and sometimes you come back with nothing even though you spend hours in the studio. I feel like the process teaches patience and persistence. Those are lessons you can also implement in your day-to-day life.
View a gallery of some of Simphiwe’s sculptures:
BL: Talking about themes, is there a particular theme that you explore with your work?
SM: I am currently working towards my Masters in Fine Art (MFA) at OU. My thesis is on Ancestral Spiritualism and Godly Spiritualism. As Africans, we are born into a specific culture, and within that culture, there are traditions and customs, like ancestral spiritualism – in Xhosa we call it Izinyanya (ancestors). Our culture is centered on ancestral worshipping and communication, and it’s something deeply ingrained in us. So when you grow up and get introduced to other traditions and religions, like Christianity, you begin to learn more about God in a Christian or Western form.
Even though, as black people, we have learned to carry the two spiritual practices [for me] it was always hard because these worlds are opposites. It’s almost as if they are fighting with one another and forcing you to choose one path. There is even a psychological term, cognitive dissonance. It’s a theory about holding contradictory beliefs, ideas or values, and the psychological effects of participating in one that goes against the other. So I am presenting that dialogue in the context of my culture, using my work as a vessel. I am still finding ways to make the work fully depict that narrative. It’s a journey.
BL: Your ceramic work is deeply rooted in Africanism and culture; do Africans fully appreciate the history and narrative you bring forth through your work?
SM: Yes, people love it. They see the message, and it speaks volumes to many. I find that there is more support for our work internationally because international audiences have a deep love for African art. They are drawn to the spiritual aspects of our art. And it feels like they are connecting with African spirituality by collecting our art. For us, Africans, I will use Xhosas as an example because that’s my tribe, we know and admire the art but do not collect or buy it. We don’t see the value in buying art. There are a few who collect art, but it’s not a lot. There is still more education that needs to happen, especially around art and its value. If we can have more black collectors then our art would remain here at home. But now it’s collected in Europe and other countries, and we end up not having any of our art here at home.
BL: You are now pursuing your MFA in Oklahoma, but I am sure it must have been a difficult journey to get to where you are, especially as a black artist.
SM: It was a beautiful journey to get to where I am, and what made it so beautiful were the difficulties I faced along the way. I believe it was a smooth journey; then it would not be as beautiful. Like any other artist, I had to overcome many struggles. After graduating from WUS, I didn’t go home that festive season; I stayed and produced new pieces. The aim was to take the work and go and explore the art market in Cape Town. When I got to Cape Town I visited galleries to introduce myself and my work. It was tough because most of the galleries ignored me. They shut their doors in my face so many times. Someone else could have given up after so many rejections, but I didn’t.
The best thing I did was to show up at galleries and show them the work without talking too much, with the hopes that it would do all the talking. That approach started getting my attention because gallerists got to interact more with the work. Some galleries took my work for consignment and exhibited it. It was collected by Nomaza Nongqunga, a South collector and curator based in France. She invited me to an exhibition in France, in 2017, and after that, I got a residency in the country. I shared a studio with a professor from the OU, United States (US), Stuart Asprey. During our conversations, I shared my desire to study art further, and he advised me to apply to the Universities that interested me. In the end, I got accepted at OU.
In the beginning, I struggled, but as long as I had material, I kept working and producing work. I knew that the opportunities would come, but I had to be prepared. I believe an artist must always do the work for themselves, for the enjoyment, first, and not just to get paid or to sell. You have to do the work, whether someone buys it or not, and not be too preoccupied about galleries liking it or not. You have to do it because it’s how you communicate with the world.
BL: What are your plans after you graduate from OU?
SM: This is my last semester, which ends in May, and I will put on my show in May. After graduating, I will come back home. One of the reasons I chose to study abroad was that I had a dream of learning new ceramic-making methods with the hope of opening a ceramic factory in Butterworth. I also want to teach at some point. However, all of that won’t happen soon because I still want to live and achieve my goals as an artist first. I want to gain as much experience and knowledge as I can in the field as a solo artist before teaching or mentoring up-and-coming artists. I am still young, and I still need to explore the art space. I want to produce more work and have many exhibitions.
For more on Simphiwe, follow him: