Nzulu yemfihlakalo makes room for the divine and distant
with Cinga Samson
Known for his large-scale figurative paintings, Cinga Samson’s paintings bring the ethereal into our everyday scenes. Secret, holy and distant, Samson’s figurations are in this world but not of it. A means to investigate the spiritual nodes of desire, power, mortality and transience, the works offer a nuanced picture of contemporary life. Some months ago, on a windy Cape Town weekday, FNB Art Joburg honoured an invitation to spend an in-studio afternoon with Cinga Samson. Following the visit, this week’s Re:View considers the act of transferring sensitivities as a means to observe his tangible approach to the intangible, as will be seen in his upcoming solo exhibition Nzulu yemfihlakalo.
Industrial, in style and scale, it takes a while to appreciate the cavernous expanse of Cinga Samson’s open concept studio. Holding seven (or eight) large scale (almost floor to high ceiling length) canvases, the right side of the studio is devoted to process. To reach the paintings’ high points, beside each painting is scaffolding. On the floor, tubes of paint are organised into small heaps. Close by, a choir of aisles (varying in size) hold smaller scale works. Although seemingly finished, Samson’s studio manager, Jonathan Goschen refers to them as works in progress.
From one of the rooms on the studio’s left, Samson emerges wearing a pair of loose black sweatpants and a white t-shirt under an open robe. Playing with the flame of a gold lighter, his greetings are warm and familiar.
A while after settling in, there is a throw away line that hides inside the way Samson describes the relationship he has with his practice. “It’s more poetic than factual.” Speculative: the approach acknowledges accepted realities without conforming to them. “I’ve come to a point, after previous shows, where I understand that there are things we are not meant to understand.” Responding to the realisation, Samson began building on a new body of work. He called it iNzulu yemfihlakalo.
Now a solo exhibition, set to debut at White Cube in just a week, Nzulu yemfihlakalo is a devoted portrait, acknowledging and enduring the divine mysteries of the worlds we occupy. “What are we? And if we are from somewhere else, where are we coming from to be here? These things are hidden from us,” explains Samson. “So this show is slightly exploring that. Without being emotional, without choosing, without suggesting, without trying to say it’s a teaching.”
A thread that comes up when a handful of people start to make their way into the studio space, it becomes clear that Samson’s studio practice requires him to relinquish the control that comes with working in isolation. Leading a core team of nine artists alongside his studio manager, Samson’s approach involves the delicate process of transferring (or projecting) his sensitivities onto his team when preparing for an exhibition like Nzulu yemfihlakalo.
After a moment of busy noise, the small crowd dispersed to the wall of canvases and onto the scaffolding to paint quietly. “I’m not sure, I think there’s just under twenty people working with me right now,” explains Samson. Although his core team comprises nine upcoming artists, he has had to call on more hands for the project he is currently working on. Right now, there are about eight large scale and a handful of small scale works being attended to because the artist has always worked on bodies of work in their entirety instead of on one work at a time. “As time went by I could see that I needed help based on how ambitious I was becoming. But my ambition isn’t a good excuse to delay deadlines. It’s important that I honour the conversations that I have with curators, gallerists and museums so the works need to be finished at a specific time,” is his justification.
Emphasising the importance of being able to work with a team, the artist says this has brought him the gift of increased security in his practice. “I need to trust what I want to put on surfaces and out in the world in order to ask people to help me make it happen.”
Hyperrealistic, layered, and hauntingly intricate, Samson’s use of time, scale, detail and a muted dark colour palette demands a pause that becomes a revering, almost repenting, acknowledgement of the neglected parts of Black life. No different in the case of Nzulu yemfihlakalo, it becomes an invitation, not to pry, interrogate and excavate the secrets of this world but to appreciate their magnitude.