Wacky adventures of one of SA's most intrepid (imaginary) travellers

In his new exhibit, artist Peter Engblom has created a wonderful and crazy world for Dr Shezi, a mythical man of magical mystery, writes Shubnum Khan

07 November 2017 - 12:54
By Shubnum Khan
 'Dr Shezi' admires his work, which is on show at the Phansi museum in Glenwood, Durban.
Image: Jackie Clausen 'Dr Shezi' admires his work, which is on show at the Phansi museum in Glenwood, Durban.

Dr Mpunzi Shezi is an extraordinary fellow. He introduced pork vindaloo to the Japanese, he sells chilli sauce using mermaids on his bottles, and he single handedly saved the hysterical women of Eshowe by inventing the mahogany and brass vibrator.

The only problem is, he doesn't exist.

He's part of the imagination of artist Peter Engblom who is showing his new exhibition Dr M Shezi's Myths, Magic and Mermaids at Phansi Museum in Glenwood, Durban.

The little museum has been turned into a chamber of delightful curiosities filled with frames and fabrics that recount the journeys of Shezi as he travels through Japan, India and South Africa as businessman, chef and lover.

It features a series of three-dimensional memory boxes filled with photographs and other memorabilia that recount the weird, wonderful and crazy adventures of the doctor. There are also prints used to upholster restored furniture that capture his journeys, and material made from khaki cotton.

It's fantastical and ridiculous but most of all it's a shamelessly unapologetic walk into the imagination.

Engblom seems to bask in the confusion and talking to him doesn't make things clearer. I often have to stop him mid-story and ask if what he's explaining is fact or myth and eventually I realise the two are so merged it's impossible to distinguish between them.

And I suppose that's the point; in a crazy world where reality competes with fiction, where news is fake, and where the line between sanity and madness is fine, this exhibition draws attention to these issues of our time.

Details from Peter Engblom’s ‘Dr Shezi’ exhibition.
Image: Jackie Clausen Details from Peter Engblom’s ‘Dr Shezi’ exhibition.

And perhaps it also acknowledges our need to escape and immerse ourselves into the fantastical or, as curator Sharon Crampton said at the exhibition opening, "we need some magic in our lives".

It's a journey into Engblom's imagination and you can't help but admire his tenacity. It does, however, bring about questions of cultural appropriation and I ask Engblom if he doesn't feel any pressure or hesitation as a white man delving into and reinterpreting other cultures.

He says he has too much history with these cultures to think about keeping himself in check. Before I can wade into the murky waters of that answer, much like his work, he pulls me in another direction.

Politics aside, the sheer amount of work Engblom has done to recreate Shezi's life is impressive - the character even has a book recounting his experiences.

The art works are a delight to behold, from tiny knick-knacks and recipes to merged photographs and postcards; you know you are deep in the mind of an artist who doesn't hold back.

• 'Dr M Shezi's Myths, Magic and Mermaids' runs from October 18-19 November at Phansi Museum, 500 Esther Roberts Road, Glenwood, Durban.

• This article was originally published in The Times.