National Arts Festival: Q&A with award winner Blessing Ngobeni

Elme Strydom, The South African, June 30, 2020

Through the use of painting, sculpture, video, audio installations and live performance Ngobeni speaks truth to power, continually highlighting and questioning corrupted systems of power in South Africa.


He conceived his virtual walk-through festival exhibition Chaotic Pleasure as a response to winning the Standard Bank Young Artist Award for Visual Arts in November 2019.



The paradoxical title of this work represents a quintessential feature of Blessing’s work. This is his ability to manipulate and conjugate seemingly incongruous words to flummox, challenge and inspire the viewer. This exhibition is an observation, and a form of confronting complex issues of power and abuse.


He held his first solo exhibition at Everard Read’s CIRCA gallery in 2016, titled Song of Chicotte. Since then Ngobeni has continued to strengthen his oeuvre by consistently delivering projects that, seemingly effortlessly, present a combination of aesthetic and socio-political critical dialogues.


He works skilfully in media such as collages on canvas, stainless-steel sculptures and animated videos.


The South African interviewed Ngobeni on various topics surrounding his diverse artistry, his admiration for Jean-Michel Basquiat and mentoring young artists along the way.


Q. Being a part of an event such as the Virtual National Arts Festival is an exceptional achievement. What was your process in preparing for this festival? 


A. I wouldn’t have managed to produce this body of work without spending some time with myself, complimenting myself and congratulating myself. 


The process turned on an exciting mood in me and allowed me to be myself in achieving the theme behind the body of work presented virtually on NAF.


The first day when I got the news about winning 2020 Standard Bank Young Artist of the Year, I told myself that this is it, and this is an opportunity for me to take advantage of this moment.


It wasn’t easy because challenges come with changes within the human’s journey, such as COVID-19. These opened me up to think creatively around presenting my ideas rather than following traditional ways of exhibiting my works.


Your work is filled with passion and emotion, how long does it take to complete a work? 


My energy determines the duration I spend in the studio, and it plays a role in how and when the work is finished. My process of creating is not only in the studio. Sometimes it is outside the studio, where I am in contact with people and researching certain subject matters, or just on the internet looking for inspirational ideas rather than painting.


Apart from that, a series of five pieces could take me three to four months to complete.


Has your artistic process has changed with time? 


Yes, my artistic practice and process has been changing throughout the years. Due to social and political issues unfolding, I have been exploring ways of reflecting that in my work and also how my work is shown or exhibited.


What has been the most memorable response or reaction to your work? 


It was during my exhibition in 2016, titled The Song Of Chocotte. An old German granny cried, saying my work touched her so much. A direct compliment was “Beautiful Nightmare” from [artist] Teresa Kutala Firmino.


Your work is dynamic and rich with meaning, be it political or social. What lasting impression would you like to leave behind? What would you like to change in the world? 


I want to leave the voice that would change the mindset of those who think blackness is cursed. A process to change how history paints us. To stop seeing black as a society to dump every blame on.


I wish my work of art would reinforce change towards my black skin, changing the world and people around it.


Simply seeing respect and unity manifest in our African landscape.


Being a part of the international art scene has brought on many opportunities for you, such as collaborating with other great artists. What role do artists play in communal life? 


Art is a mirror to a society, it attempts to open up the thinking. It is the fountain tool to assist society in deciding if they want to venture into it or not.


Which other artist/s would you like to collaborate with? What work, from any artist, resonates with you the most? 


Those artists who never stopped contributing with great ideas that are changing how the world sees us. Those who keep the culture of creativity alive, therefore it would not be fair to name individuals.


However, I would have wished to speak to Jean-Michel Basquiat [poet, musician, and graffiti prodigy in late-1970s New York] about his work. His work The Untitled Skull resonates.


You are not only a striking visual artist, but also a mentor to young artists. When did you realise you have the ability do something meaningful, such as influence young artists? 


The moment I discovered and realised that the art world sometimes delays opportunities for the fresh talent.


They should be invited to artistic dialogues early on so that they don’t waste much of their early artistic practice searching for a place to belong. That’s how the Blessing Ngobeni Art Prize was born.


What was the best piece of advice you’ve ever received? What advice would you give to young artists today? 


The best piece of advice was from my son’s godfather, back in 2012 when I won the Reinhold Cassirer award. He said to me “this is reality! Expect the worse if not the best but you should be strong and take future ride. All the best to you my friend.” 


My advice to all who want to pursue this art career is: Keep thinking positively and realise that you can be the key player to save our artistic landscapes tomorrow.