We spoke with the South African creative about the freedom that comes with a young mind and becoming exactly who you think you are.
In our 'Spotlight' series, we highlight the work of photographers, visual artists, multimedia artists, and more who are producing vibrant, original work.
In our latest piece, we spotlight South African visual artist Cromwell Ngobeni. The artist is a beautiful example of mind trumping matter, as his humble beginnings in remote Limpopo, and five-year KFC residency did not trample the life that Ngobeni visualized for himself. After many years of honing his talents and relationships within the South African art world, Ngobeni opened up the Cromwell Ngobeni Art Studio -- a space dedicated to his wildest dreams and those of his community. The artist's work centers largely around the innocence, beauty, and vastness of the Black child and all their inner workings. "It's the freedom that comes with the young mind -- the freedom to do first and learn after. The freedom to do whatever your heart desires," as Ngobeni puts it.
We spoke with Ngobeni about the importance of telling your own story and the pure freedom of a child's mind.
Responses have been edited for length and clarity.
Describe your background as an artist and the journey you've taken to get it to where it is today.
I’m a self-taught artist who grew up in a small village in Limpopo, South Africa. There was no one to look up to and no one encouraging me to pursue art, so the beginning of my journey wasn't the easiest. I worked at KFC for five years while I was at school for printmaking to pay my way through my studies. Fortunately for that, I was never hungry. After graduation, I was offered and took a position at the school that I attended to work there, and that was when I was fully immersed in art.
Over the next few years, I had a small space to create at August House art studio, in Joburg, for a while. I then founded my own gallery space and studio, where I finally presented my first solo exhibition Ndlela (Journey). I've always believed and known who I would become, and now I have my own creative space that I also invite other creatives to use.
What are the central themes in your work?
My work is focused on expression, human emotions, and interactions -- it's influenced by my stories growing up and the stories that I see and experience in everyday life. I collect the stories and they manifest through me, on paper and canvas.
The subject matter of my work is mostly children because when I started on this art journey most of my stories were flashbacks of when I was young. Where I grew up and how I grew up, surrounded by many kids my age, influenced that quite a lot. I tell stories of a Black child because that is what I relate to. Another reason is that children are pure of intention and honest in expression. As a kid, you’re free to do whatever it is that you want to do and that speaks to how I want to express my art.
Can you talk about your use of colors?
I am careful with how I use color because the main color that I use is charcoal black -- I don't want the color to overpower the details of the images. When color is applied, it must pop as a complementary element to the use of black and the details. I am experimenting a little more with color and keeping the same intensity in terms of the detail in my work.
How has the pandemic affected you creatively?
The pandemic was interesting; it's when I started to notice my growth as an artist. I started to think about how I can make artwork in what seemed like a digital era. Art has always been an in-person activity. Seeing artwork in person is a completely different experience than seeing it in the metaverse. So, I learned how to use my social media platforms to bring art to people.
Creatively, I started to think about my survival, and what I needed to do to preserve it.
That is when I decided that I was going to open the Cromwell Ngobeni Art Studio. Not only a place where I can exhibit but a place where other artists can exhibit their work. Also, the intention of it is not merely to sell art, but to bring the experience of art to patriots and people who are learning about art, a place where people can come to discover art and artists.