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Vusamazulu | Awakening the Heavens

Nicodim Gallery, New York

October 21 – November 24, 2021


Press Release


Stimela sihamba ngamalahle.

Where to? Where does the train go, Johannes? Well, our travels return, again and again, to myth, to the folklore of yore. It is a fable from southern Africa, which still reaches for the universal—the expropriation of Africa—despite the specific scope.

This is the story, a story you find throughout Africa: There was once a time when the blue sky was invisible, when the whole world was covered with mist. When you could not see the sun as it is now, you only saw it as a splash of white light moving slowly across the sky. [1]

I see blue skies offset with a film of fiery levin. This scorched-orange gale also spouts out from water holes (mines?) that pepper the land. Hillsides are bathed in the mist. Cumulus clouds withhold psychedelic raindrops. They want to fall and feel felt. One could say the sky is invisible in that this cool inferno is all too common. It is a scene of paradox. It feels confusing, unclear of what’s to come. Yet familiar. We’ve been here before.

What if we were reptiles? Picture it—humans with forked tongues. I like this visual. Simphiwe Ndzube likes it too. I get the sense that our mutual love is an ode to Vusamazulu Credo Mutwa. His allegories are at once real and magical, for his breath has willed them, and hearts and minds hath felt their risky possibility. What is possible here, in this world, in this moment, are six paintings and two sculptures from Ndzube. That is our material reality. The immaterial, however, which is where Ndzube ventures with and for us, owes much to Baba Credo.

I’m thinking here of The Reptilian Agenda but in reverse. But first: in this pan-African tale, Credo Mutwa narrates how a reptilian extraterrestrial race condemn humans to forced labor, spiritual abuse, and the adoption of a foreign language. The result of this confluence of terror? Well, Credo Muta notes how gender violence quickly ensues. And then humanity loses their mentalizing faculties, the ability to understand the misunderstandings that might separate human and animal, human and human. Seeing as the Zulu regarded people as nugubili—beings of both male and female in one body—the arrival of gender differences hastened a descent into murder and chaos; people could no longer see one another, empathize.

When our people were given language they found to their horror that they had lost much of their mental power… [2]

The reverse thought above comes from Ndzube: “I think of myself as becoming a verso for them to articulate themselves, a portal that’s equally a surprise.”[3] Ndzube is in and out of step with Baba Credo. Again, what if we were reptiles? Look below Iimpundulu (2021) or the lightning bird. The tongue of a reptilian humanoid flails out in jest. And then survey the thunderclouds about the painting’s greenish blue skies that menace with a dirty, acidic haze. Are we witnessing an escape from the (enslaved) labor, the (capitalist) real?[4] Is that the other side of surprise? That equal echo of violence, of the past present of apartheid that still sags from the coal train? Born in 1990, Ndzube has seen the many sides of this portal. It is taciturn yet turns, ruining what is given via surprise, which is to say via a maddening thought of fantasy.

I get the feeling Ndzube wants us to go mad without losing our minds.[5] We must return to the mind, to that phenomenal madness—telepathy—that Baba Credo intoned. I look at the suite of paintings from Nal’ lthemba, Ode to Msakiand the Township African Queens to Stimela (The Coal Train) and ask: Madness? Ndzube humors me: “Madness has access to another realm that we sometimes need.”[6] We talk death and the museum of lost objects like mothers and okapi knives. We also talk about the sensitivities of the madness-as-protest metaphor, and how this mad turn risks obscuring the lived realities of madpersons.[7] Maybe this unruliness ruling Ndzube’s thoughts “is less a question of choosing [madness] than choosing what to do with the [madness] that has chosen us.”[8] Herein lies the maddening magic that awakens.

Take in the names of each artwork. They are all written in isiXhosa like Inqawe (2021). She looks cool, calm, and collected. Her composure is emblematic of ancestral wisdom. She smokes a pipe and all of these things begin to happen. For instance, paintings become sculptures and vice versa. Think Eva Hesse in 1965. Or Howardena Pindell in 1968. We start to dwell in the expanded field of painting. There, in this misty field, we might ask what is painting's relationship to objects, space, place, and various aspects of everyday culture?[9] Ndzube has been experimenting in this terrain for quite some time. As such, there’s a material imperative for Ndzube. Consider this from the artist:

“I’m not so much interested in what the work means, but driven by the fact that it has to exist. I both think and feel there’s an urgency of it needing to be looked at, felt, and maybe questioned.” [10]

There’s something about Ndzube’s paintings that undoes the poetry of language even as it enunciates a verbal magic. I (re)turn to the words of Oswald Mbuyiseni Mtshali. No sooner does Mtshali evoke a sense of place, than he cuts away at that imaginary with a question. Those cutaways, they are almost like surgical imagery. We see an eye in Iimpundulu. It is Ndzube’s regard for us. We see a clenched fist in Zabalaza (After Thandiswa) (2021). Also Ndzube. But it is also Dumile Feni feverishly sketching away during his exile. These poets, painters and sangomas­—i.e., Credo Mutwa—are Ndzube’s referents. They heal him, center him, keep him dreaming of home.

Vusamazulu. This all feels like an awakening.

I hope this is Ndzube’s farewell to English.

––Ikechúkwú Casmir Onyewuenyi


[1] David Icke, “Credo Mutwa on the Division between Men and Women,” Karel Donk, August 14, 2016, YouTube Video, 25:57,

[2] Ibid.

[3] Simphiwe Ndzube, conversation with author, September 28, 2021.

[4] Plan C, “Building Acid Communism,” transmediale/journal issue #1, August 10, 2018,

[5] See La Marr Jurelle Bruce, How to Go Mad without Losing Your Mind: Madness and Black Radical Creativity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2021).

[6] Simphiwe Ndzube, conversation with author, September 28, 2021.

[7] Merri Lisa Johnson, “Bad Romance: A Crip Feminist Critique of Queer Failure,” Hypatia 30, no. 1 (Winter 2015): 253.

[8] Tavia Nyong’o, “Let’s pretend that everyone is dead,” Bullybloggers, April 2, 2012.

[9] Anne Ring Petersen, “Introduction,” in Contemporary Painting in Context, eds. Anne Ring Petersen, Mikkel Bogh, Hans Dam Christensen, and Peter Nørgaard (Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, 2010), 125.

[10]  Simphiwe Ndzube, conversation with author, September 28, 2021.

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