Themba Khumalo sits with his artwork
Image: Supplied Themba Khumalo sits with his artwork

Few of our contemporary artists have grappled with the extreme poverty that haunts our country. How can artists depict poverty, loss and dispossession without undermining the dignity of their subjects? Artists can only authentically speak about themselves, it seems.  This has engendered an ego-driven form of artistic narcissism where the artist’s face has become the central motif of their work.  Or artists go the other route, losing themselves in art itself via an abstract language.

Themba Khumalo bucks all these art trends in his exhibition, The Place called Home, at the Red Room Gallery in Cape Town. His broody landscape drawings usher you into our rural heartlands. Think large rolling clouds sweeping across vacant flat fields interrupted by telephone lines.

His empty landscapes are not of the pleasing picturesque sort, celebrating the wonder of nature or art in rendering it, which the genre usually promises. The drawings may be poetic in the sense that there is a clear Kentridge-eque aesthetic (the charcoal medium applied to landscape) and we have a nostalgic link to the African veld.  However, the absence of colour, beauty, wonder, or even transcendence in these barren fields overshadowed by large brewing storms suggests impoverishment, hopelessness and a looming crisis.  This is the calm before the storm, so to speak.

A closed petrol station is enveloped in the darkness of night in a work titled Safe Zone. The interplay between safety and danger, are given expression not only through his deft use of chiaroscuro, the contrast between lightness and darkness, but in his implied subject-matter – a tussle between good and evil, hope and loss. A universal battle, but one inflected with current sociopolitical conditions.

The state of our nation is gleaned more readily when you travel through rural areas. Main streets are populated by unemployed people with little to do and nowhere to go.  Houses, streets and towns are dilapidated and empty. Khumalo captures this sense of barrenness and hopelessness through his vacant landscapes.  He avoids depicting subjects, barring silhouetted figures against a light in the work Umlindelo, referring to a funeral rite. They bring to mind Dickensian characters in the slums of Victorian London, who hover on the edges in darkness.

Khumalo’s works at the Red Room gallery aren’t all ‘quiet.’ Take the State of a Nation triptych, featuring a burning car, alluding to service delivery and #feesmustfall protests. Or what about the work hauntingly titled: Dead, Dead, Dead, which depicts the crying figure of a woman running towards what appears to be a dead person.

Loss, suffering and violence underpin Khumalo’s titular “home” – his country, the rural ‘home’ the heart of our national psyche perhaps. Khumalo seems to have settled on a vocabulary to tackle poverty in a real and figurative sense through this bleak landscape mode. The charcoal medium might have fitted Kentridge’s compulsion to dig back into history and outdated modes of filmmaking (reflected in the black and white silent film mode he echoes in his stop frame animations) but in Khumalo’s hands, and in this era, it functions as an apt tool to evoke a sense of devastation and bleakness.

Khumalo directs our attention to dysfunctionality or sense of imbalance in the way he ‘divides’ the visual plane, his depiction of the landscape – allowing the sky and clouds to dominate rather than the land.  In this way he draws our gaze towards those big rolling clouds that promise a storm. Dark flocks of birds also punctuate his skies, evoking migrant populations that leave when conditions are no longer habitable.

The electricity and telephone cables imply connectivity. We’re all in it together. The titular home belongs to all of us and we must reckon with it, suggests Khumalo in his very quiet way.  

The Place called Home by Themba Khumalo shows at the Red Room Gallery in Cape Town until the end of May. Sponsored Text. Corrigall is an art consultant. www.corrigall.org

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