Joburg blues and the art of Senzo Shabangu

In 2011 I collected my books into a two tiny boxes and put them on a train to Cape Town and left Joburg. The decision was as sudden as it was arbitrary. Thinking about it now, I cannot put into words the precise thoughts behind my departure except that it felt as though the city with all its baggage, was encroaching. A tightness, which was more violent than intimate, which punched the air out of one’s lungs. It was, I suppose, something to do with that madness with which Joburg so easily identifies that I felt the need to get out. It is the same madness that lured me back in. I moved to Cape Town and soon learned that I had jumped out of the proverbial frying pan and straight into the fire. Whereas I’d been living in Joburg from 2001 to 2010, it took only 2 years to realise that I had made a mistake by moving to Cape Town and two years of sizing up Joburg from a distance and meditating on exactly where I wished to land upon my return, and the rest I left to chance. And 3 months ago I came to visit and never returned to the Mother City.

Joburg is less a place than an idea. It is this idea of a place that Senzo Shabangu explores in his work. The idea of the work points to an external place or what it seeks to represent, and then it dives inwardly into what the idea is to itself, and, at a remove, to what idea might be held by the viewer about the place in comparison to the idea represented before you by the artist. The result is that the viewer becomes a participant (unwillingly, I might add) in this process of mythologizing and demystifying Joburg, the city. Senzo Shabangu’s pieces are mostly constructed of linocut, lithograph and monotype, mostly using black ink, which gives the artist’s despondency about the city an added cumulative dimness. However, in his last solo exhibition ‘My World’ at David Krut this lugubriousness was offset by bright blues, pinks, reds, yellows, orange and ochres. There is vitality in ‘My World’ even as it deals with the artist’s themes of claustrophobia with the buildings falling towards you, the spectator or to other characters in the drawn, chiselled and painted construct; or the restless anxiety of being in a place where the ideas of settling down or establishing home lose meaning as mirrored by the floating of homes into space, or homes tethered to the ground by the thinnest of strings. These conservative ideals about home or ‘settling down’ lose meaning precisely because Joburg is a city founded on money and suffering or the suffering to mine minerals that make other people rich. In the process of making other people rich by making others suffer unimaginably, forced removals begin to make absolute sense. In this city this democratic ideal of every man for himself is fully realised without pretensions. The weight that rests on the heads of the working men who gets by doing the most menial jobs while pocketing only the meagre of wages, but whose jobs nonetheless is to keep Joburg City lights on with the sweat of his brow is much a part of the city as the man whose lights are kept on because he does the least. This is the nature of the thing, eat or be eaten.

This, however, is only one perspective and one narrative of a city with more than plenty, entwining, complex, convoluted ways of being. A few months ago I returned to a city no less cluttered, no less taxing to the flesh and tiresome to the soul. But it had a newness to it or rather an oldness made new. This is true, Joburg is able to re-invent itself into new eras without losing its mining-town-ness, its excessive greed, and its brutality. It is this balance of virtue and vice, of doom and optimism, which gives Senzo Shabangu’s new work its precarious optimism.


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