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Investec Cape Town Art Far | 2023 | Solo - Simphiwe Buthelezi

Solo Presentation

Fair Portfolio


Cape Town, South Africa

“Izwe liyaphenduka”: Encountering Simphiwe Buthelezi’s unreturnable poise.

Like self-discovery, Simphiwe Buthelezi’s (b.1996) artistic practice unfolds with an interminable process of journeying, path-making, in-ward looking-outward gesturing, and undoubtable truth-seeking. Without much effort, her work evokes what bell hooks might call “aesthetics in the ordinary” and yet, it still blossoms with a strong inclination to continuously discern how she inhabits the world – one which, as we are alerted by the title of the exhibition, is wrought by constant change. The resonance that this title has with the overarching theme of this year’s art fair, which zones in on temporality, is unmistakable. If in its broad and varied postulations this year’s art fair prompts reflections on the nature of the ‘times’ we are surviving through – characterized by all kinds of political, social, economic, and ecological crises – Buthelezi’s title, loosely translated “the world is changing”, is thus an important adage to channel us into reckoning with the instabilities of the current troubled times. To be sure, it is through this title that her work unravels with unrestrained mystery and poise.

Assuming different forms in the individual pieces, this body of work is composed of a variety of materials: icansi (reed mats), glass beads, tankrali (ancient Zulu seed beads), sea sand, seashells, metal, and canvas. As if hers is an existential if not poetic undertaking of “ukubuyela e masisweni”, returning to the source, most of these materials are carefully considered to retrieve their ethereal relationship with where they come from – the earth. The exhibition is a unique verse that follows her previous statements in Lala La (2019) and Freedom Domain (2020): these are exhibitions where she introduced important conceptual threads of her work that have to do with cultural dynamics and African Spirituality, as Nolan Stevens informs us, while fully immersing herself in a relentless exploration of materiality and form. Often understated, let alone interrogated, the latter is particularly important. In a sense, it makes Sean O’ Toole’s observation that “Buthelezi’s work mines a seam of practice that has a rich tradition” ever so palpable in how it reiterates the noteworthiness Buthelezi’s work attains through upholding a delicate relationship between idea, material and colour.

Buthelezi’s attention to these aspects and how they intersect with one another in the whole ensemble ensures that through its narrative arc, colour and material languages, the work obtains some kind of coherence while not closing itself off to the possibility of attaining opacity and/or irresoluteness. As such, the work unravels with an improvisational attitude that would make free-jazz cognoscenti swoon if not wonder how harmony and discordance – tension if you will – can find full expression in it. Though not immediately apparent in the work, this conjecture is not entirely absurd for we can say with certainty that Buthelezi’s pieces alert us to the fact that she searching – she is journeying towards an elsewhere and multiple trajectories by partly letting the material perform its liveliness and contrasting this with her multivalent thematic explorations. This relationship is partly given credence through the suggestive titles of her work.

In a piece that broadly thematises ideas of land(s), belonging and nations, Amazwe, the attempt to relocate oneself to a familiar place/space, an elsewhere, finds sufficient expression. Buthelezi, however, seems unsatisfied with merely recoiling her genealogy as a cathartic process of inner-knowing. On the contrary, by this title, with its almost declarative attitude, the gesture is to transpose herself to a physical and celestial terrain that lies betwixt and between different realms of existence. She is more attuned towards expressing a metaphysical landscape whose contours – at once whimsical but important – perform a necessary function of enabling the power of imagination to guide how she assumes and performs life as a Black woman.

Seemingly, this is one of the dominant conceptual threads throughout the body of work. And while we note that the work has a palpable spiritual disposition, what is further hidden but needs to be made apparent is time and the affect it elicits. In her own words, “time goes hand in hand with the work” and by so saying, Buthelezi impresses upon the viewer the importance time has on different facets of her work: the times in which she labours on the individual pieces, the times in which the pieces themselves assume their own lives – particularly when nature gives back like when the reed mats encounter heat from the sun, rain, or wind and ends up producing mounds of fungi. In this, it is revealed how the work relates to nature, and how time is so central to this relation. Time, however, also assumes a more reflective bent in the works.

In Zungeza, for instance, which Buthelezi understands as a form of immersion or being surrounded by presences, shifts the narrative from inhabiting place/space to thinking about who one exists alongside. This proves generative not only for Buthelezi’s process cum journey of self-knowing but for reflecting on the significance of human relations. Accordingly, what we encounter in the work Into Me See – deliberately titled to be misconstrued with the term “intimacy” – is Buthelezi’s solemn reflection on the heaviness of an “event”: a collapse so formidable that it disrupts our human capacity to relate to others in salient and ways. The covid-19 pandemic resonates here: in the wake of its destructiveness, the inability to relate to oneself and others amidst the ever-present spectre of death is at once debilitating and tyrannical. When Buthelezi invites the viewer/observer to go beyond the external layer when relating to her, she conjures a way of re-knowing herself and each other through an intimate process – thus Into Me See.

If the work steers us towards recalling the personal as political and extrinsic, then when does it become historical? In Tanki Tanki, Buthelezi’s ongoing fascination with beads finds expression in how she studies ancient Zulu that precede the dissemination of beads in Africa. On the one hand, there is an attempt to revisit this history, while on the other, there is also an equal attempt to make apparent their cultural significance which – just like the reed mats that are associated with a range of cultural practices and life stages such as the birth, death, mourning, spiritual channelling – is essential for her own self-understanding as a Being in the world.

In salient ways, Buthelezi’s Izwe Liyaphenduka is an exhibition that enunciates its own overtures materially and thematically and yet it still unfurls with enough room to, necessarily, prompt more questions, and gesture towards new formations of Being and inhabiting different worlds. Her artistic vernacular, at once untamed, ambitious, and possessing a mytho-poetic bent rendered with sufficient guile, is illuminating in how it shows us the extent to which this artist labours and agonizes over their journey of becoming.


Buthelezi, S. 2023, Artist, Interview by author, 31 January 2023, Cape Town.

Stevens, N.2019. Simphiwe Buthelezi’s Lala La. [O]. Accessed 6 February 2023

O’Toole, S. 2020. Missing Galleries Amid Covid-19? Check Out these Exhibitions Behind Closed Doors. [O]. Accessed 06 February 2023
hooks, b.1995. Art On My Mind: Visual Politics. New York: The New York Press.

Text by: Thabang Monoa

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