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An Artist Who Doesn’t Want to Feed Western Fantasies About Africa


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An Artist Who Doesn’t Want to Feed Western Fantasies About Africa


In the South African artist Cinga Samson’s “Ivory” series of paintings — five lush, ethereal, figurative canvases made in 2018 — a young black man in jeans and an ornate gold-colored jacket stands in the middle of the 4-by-3 foot compositions, reveling amid tropical ferns, twisting vines and bird-of-paradise plants against a moody backdrop of rocks and sea. In each painting, the setting is surreal but the figure’s stance is coolly elegant; his eyes, pupil-less white orbs, suggest an inner reverie. Seemingly unconcerned with the viewer, he projects a strong presence, at once inviting and enigmatic, joyful and antagonistic. This is a world that belongs, unequivocally, to him.

That sense of quiet confidence suffuses many of Samson’s paintings, 28 of which will be on view at the Perrotin gallery in New York this month in the artist’s first United States solo show. “I want to create works that aren’t begging you to look at them,” he says. “Works that don’t need affirmation.” From his bright studio in a former industrial building in Cape Town’s cosmopolitan Woodstock neighborhood, Samson, 33, is refining an aesthetic sensibility that extols his identity as a young African, but also deliberately withholds something from the viewer. “The paintings hold their ground,” he says. “If ever you get too close, you start to approach danger.”

This restraint stems in part from Samson’s frustration with expectations, particularly in the West, that as a South African artist, his work must engage with issues of race, poverty and corruption in an explicit, easily digestible way. He is of course interested in reckoning with what’s important to him — spirituality, nature, sensuality, what it means to be a man — but on his own terms, in his own language and beyond a straightforwardly activist message. This perspective crystallized after Samson turned 30, he says, when he found himself confronting the fact of his limited time on earth. Rather than fight against structural problems he couldn’t fix, he decided instead to celebrate life and his own potential. “I want to push into the future, not be marginalized under the politics of this moment,” he says. “I don’t want to be an artist that feeds Western fantasies about what Africa is.”

Some of Samson’s newest pieces, large-format paintings of black men and women gathered as if for a ceremony by a rocky shoreline, play with notions of the supernatural while also subverting stereotypical portrayals of African spirituality. The works emerged from a family story about Samson’s aunt, who is said to have come back from the dead after drowning, as well as a Xhosa belief that long-departed forebears sometimes appear by rivers. But while the figures in the paintings are intended to evoke people “from another realm,” Samson says, rather than resorting to clichéd depictions of ancestors (wizened elders draped in skins, for example), he renders them as youthful visitors who wear jeans and play with inflatable pool toys. And while the scenes conjure an ancient, dreamlike ritual, their controlled palette of bright blue, brown and gray feels almost futuristic. In the background of one of the works, a stark cityscape calls to mind contemporary Cape Town and its ongoing water shortages.

Born in 1986 and raised in townships and villages in the Mthatha area of the Eastern Cape, a region of rolling hills and wide vistas, Samson identified a connection with art early on. “I realized I could draw Snoop Dogg, Tupac and Mandela better than my friends,” he recalls. In his early 20s, he joined Isibane, a collective of artists in Cape Town from whom he gleaned support, resources and what he describes as “a manual for being an artist.” Working for nearly four years at the group’s studio, under the guidance of older painters, he forged a vision of his own, as well as an unwavering devotion to the task of making art itself. “You can’t be drinking, buying good clothes, looking good,” he remembers his mentors counseling. “If you don’t have art materials, what kind of an artist are you?” Some 15 years later, that ethic continues to define Samson’s practice, which he approaches with an almost ascetic intensity. Though he keeps a house “as a formality,” he says, he rarely leaves the studio; his purpose, as he sees it, is to hone his “gift,” stretching his capabilities as far as he can. Indeed, having shown regularly in Cape Town galleries over the past decade, as well as in Berlin, Oaxaca, the Minneapolis Institute of Art and New York’s Armory Show, Samson is proving himself to be a vital emerging figure in contemporary painting.

Though he’s wary of shouldering the burden of politics, Samson’s commitment to excellence lends his work a powerful charge. “In all my art books, African artists are in the last chapter, if at all,” he says, and while he has been deeply influenced by a range of Western greats — Alberto Giacometti, Egon Schiele, Francis Bacon and Louise Bourgeois among them — he emphasizes the need for African artists to have their own masters to reference. Part of what animates his practice is a belief that sheer virtuosity is an antidote to pity and marginalization. “I want you to look at my work and think, ‘That’s exquisite, that’s incredible, I am blown away — and I know it is completely African,’ without feeling that it is lacking,” he says, adding, with a smile: “It’s that Serena Williams excellence, which, if you deny it, you know you’re just evil.”

“Amadoda Akafani, Afana Ngeentshebe Zodwa (men are different, though they look alike)” is on view from Feb. 22 to April 11 at Perrotin gallery, 130 Orchard Street, New York, perrotin.com.



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