Group of artists cast penetrating gaze on African identity

22 May 2017 - 02:00 By Shubnum Khan
Phindile Mkhize from the African Art Centre looks at a work by Ezequiel Mabote.
Phindile Mkhize from the African Art Centre looks at a work by Ezequiel Mabote.

The African Art Centre in Durban asks some serious questions about African identity this month. The theme for 2017 is 'OR Tambo: Building a Better Africa and a Better World'.

With this in mind, The African Art Centre asked selected artists to participate in an exhibition based on the premise "I am an African".

It's a big subject and the works on display at the little gallery in Florida Road strive to communicate the depth of this question with paintings, drawings and mixed media on topics that range from identity and xenophobia to the future of the continent.

Leaving the artists to interpret the topic as freely as possible, the exhibition becomes an exploratory world of doorways into understanding Africa.


Mbaliyethu Mabuza's charcoal and pastel piece shows African women moving forward. They are followed by indistinct figures who cover their faces, showing uncertainty and a sense of the ominous.

Keeping with his direct and clear style, Zakhele Hlabisa also focuses on women, with a simple piece in acrylic of a woman wheeling buckets across an arid landscape.

Sfiso ka-Mkame's African Goddess deals with African women in a more abstract way, emphasising their unique role in society by using bold colours and clear lines.

The pressing question of xenophobia is dealt with in a number of pieces, particularly in Nontobeko Jilajila's mixed media piece that depicts heads etched with symbols circling a call to unite.

A pastel piece of empty shoes by Lindani Nyandeni also points to a continent wrought with xenophobic violence.

Jabulani Cele's piece makes more direct reference to South Africa with a painting of Nelson Mandela watching a man burning on the South African flag.

The violence is never far away in these pieces. Lindokuhle Ngcobo's pastel piece of a child weeping over an empty miner's hat makes reference to old and new terrors.

But these are contrasted with hopeful pieces like Sabastien Pillay's ink drawing that seems to call for healing and peace, with his rendering of the African continent being rebuilt as a nest by a bird. Even an ominous piece like Major Ndlovu's Peace, which depicts a dark figure in muted tones, conveys a sense of optimism through a white dove tucked in the figure's hands.

Other works, like Welcome Danca's contribution, look at the impact of technology on African society - a man sits outside in a traditional rural setting with a television for a head.

Each piece asks its own questions of the continent and each is shaded with its own despairs and hopes for the future. It's an exhibition that reminds us that there are many, many stories to tell.

'I am an African' is on at the African Art Centre until June 11.

This article was originally published in the Times.