Zwelakhe Ngobese was 15 when he discovered his ability to create realistic images. Not expecting much, he attempted to draw a portrait of himself and was pleasantly surprised with the outcome.
Born in Duduza, a small town in eastern Gauteng, Ngobese was drawn to art from a young age. He has two older brothers and recalls doing artsy things with them and his peers, to the point of competing.
“Growing up in Duduza was really fun and safe because I grew in an environment where children were safe, and where every adult treated every child like their very own. During preschool, my friends and I would compete in drawing cartoons and I would always outshine. I think that’s where I fell in love with art, I just didn’t know how far I could actually take it.”
Now 26, Ngobese uses ballpoint pen to create his artworks, and his ability to narrate expressions and cultures has turned him into a kind of artistic anthropologist.
“My work symbolises impande, our roots, where we come from. We live in an era where we see our young African children fascinated by western culture or life and forgetting the beauty of being in black skin. So the intention of my work is to bring back the love of being proud to be an African to our young generation,” says Ngobese.
The artist channels the behaviour, expressions and symbols of black people into his work. One of his drawings is that of an old man, draped in beads, enjoying a tobacco pipe. Another is the image of a girl getting her hair braided, with the comb perfectly sheltered in her Afro.
Realism back in vogue
A depiction of objects as they appear or life as it seems, realism has been a feature of the art world for ages. Although realistic art has lost its leading status to modernism, in South Africa it is gaining in popularity again, especially online, with artists such as Cromwell Ngobeni setting the stage for Africa’s new age of realism.
“My work is inspired by African culture,” Ngobese explains, adding that he aims to display the beauty of Africa and its cultures in his work.
As an artist working in counter-culture, he joins many others who have defied oppressive systems and cultural constructs while seeking to create a new way of being. The use of photography and murals have been key mobilisation strategies globally and Ngobese similarly seeks to unearth the history of consciousness with his art. Using predominantly black and blue pen, he tells African stories with an exceptional eye and political purpose.
Ngobese also wants to recreate an art scene in Duduza. He hopes for a space that embraces African artists and art rooted in pan-Africanism. He is optimistic about the future of artists in South Africa and believes that art can be used for social and political narratives that break away from colonial constructs of African beauty. In his work, he advocates for Black Consciousness and black love is his first commandment.
With South Africa overwhelmed by the surge in Covid-19 cases, Ngobese has been busy creating work in his bedroom studio. Like many young black and self-taught artists, his work has not yet seen the inside of a gallery. Instead, he markets his pieces on social media.
“I am still trying to find my audience, the people interested in the type of art I produce. I use social media as a platform to showcase my talent and to reach my audience. None of my work has ever been featured in galleries. However, I am still working on it … My day will come,” he says.
The struggle of selling
Trying to sell work without the help of an intermediary comes with its own set of challenges.
“I have had quite a turbulent [time] when trying to put my work on sale,” says Ngobese. “Recently, I went to meet someone who wanted to buy my work, but they ended up trying to rob me instead. I lost my phone, but luckily they couldn’t get my artwork.”
A potential client posing as a government official contacted him and expressed interest in his work. He could barely contain his excitement when he told his family; they were thrilled that his hard work was finally about to pay off.
Ngobese arranged to meet the buyer at an office building in Braamfontein. “So we met at Loveday Street. He took me to some offices. He told me we will be meeting someone there, his manager, and I should give him my projects and he will present it to his manager. I refused to give him my work and let him go inside while I waited outside. When he saw that his plan was failing, he took my phone and my bank card.
“He told me he’s working for the government and they are interested in purchasing my artwork and exhibiting some of my art. I believed him, because I saw it as an opportunity. I’ve been working so hard for all these years.
“I was so shattered. Why would someone do this? Giving me false hope. When I told my family what happened … they were all so heartbroken because they, too, thought that this was an opportunity that could change my life,” he says.
But the incident made Ngobese realise the value of his work, he says. It increased his belief in what he is doing and has motivated him to work even harder.
Ngobese has also had numerous potential buyers try to devalue his work by telling him that he is “not yet professional”, and then attempt to buy his art at a lower price. These attempts at exploitation, he says, have given him extra validation. Negative comments about the “high price” of his work and attempts to get him to reduce his asking price only motivate him further.
“I sell my artwork for R8 000. It becomes a great challenge for someone like myself, a guy from the township, to actually get his work out there. Some people, when they learn that I am selling my artwork for that amount, they would say it’s expensive and that I should be a famous artist [first] to set a price that high. But they don’t understand the effort I put, the time that I invest to actually perfect my craft.
“I know that one day I will reach my audience. It’s only a matter of time and relentless hard work,” says Ngobese.
Comments on his Facebook page such as “Can you please give me a quote for this one here” and “Can’t wait for our commissions” suggest that time may be now.