September - October 2022
Born in 1989 in Butterworth, Eastern Cape, South Africa, Mbunyuza grew up in a village called Mambendeni, where his father had grown up. Frequently visiting his mother’s parents in Idutywa in Chizele, a more traditional Xhosa village, he regularly observed religious ceremonies and helped his grandfather with plowing the fields. Accordingly, Mbunyuza’s lavish and grand scale ceramic artworks are rooted in the agricultural landscape of his childhood and are nourished by the traditions of Xhosa-speaking people and their metaphysical outlook.
As among many other African peoples whose very existence is bound up with animals, such as herders, hunters, and farmers, the Xhosa’s cosmos is perceived as a “boundary-less” universe or indeterminate space, in which the distinction between humans, plants, animals, and other beings, and between the sacred and the profane, matter and spirit, is a slim and flexible one.
These fluid ontological boundaries, between human and non-human, has long been a subject of exploration for Mbunyuza. In his hybrid forms and richly textured surfaces, he recalls generic physical characteristics of goats, sheep and other domesticated species and endless textures of soil, such as furrows, mud, or the especially fine earth of the mole hill used among the Xhosa to cover hay huts. However, the most common sculptural presence in Mbunyuza’s artworks is of Nguni cattle. Characterized by their multicolored skin, which can present many different patterns and black nose, the Nguni cattle are traditionally associated with the Zulu, Xhosa, and Swazi – whose languages are part of the ‘Nguni’ linguistic cluster – an act of semantic metonymy in which spatial and cultural contiguity blur the human-animal divide. In traditional Nguni societies, cattle embody wealth and social status, provide nutrition and hides, are part of the practice of paying bride price, and are slaughtered as intermediaries with the ancestors during important life events, transitions and times of uncertainty. Care and ownership of, and interaction with, cattle is very much part of the shaping of masculine identity: cattle are looked after by young boys, form part of the rituals that attend the major milestones of male maturity, and contribute to economic independence and social standing. Many of the traditional valences and uses of cattle persist; however, in post-apartheid South Africa their meaning is also constantly refigured, in its various relations to minority recognition and identity. In apartheid-era South Africa, interbreeding of livestock was associated with racial purity in general and therefore with physical and moral social degeneration. Since Nguni cattle originated from a combination of different indigenous and European cattle, breeds were believed to endanger the genetic purity and health of imported European breeds, as well as the quality of grazing land. However, since the advent of a democratic dispensation in South Africa in 1994, Nguni cattle have been recast in the public imaginary as embodied symbols of indigenous knowledge, environmental sustainability, and ethnic pride, gaining extensive currency in the cultural heritage economy.
In drawing attention to the taxonomy of breeds, agricultural landscape and his ongoing traditions, Mbunyuza offers the viewer a different reading of the animal/human/spirit relationship and calls for an increasing attention to the way in which fluid ontological boundaries aid in the construction of human identity in post-apartheid South Africa.
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Ife – Benin – Nigeria
There are few places in the world where one can find continuities in three millenniums of history. Nigeria is one such place, where the deities and heroes honored in modern life trace their origins to forbearers from thousands of years ago. Moreover, from Nok culture (around 500 B.C.E. to 200 C.E.) the art legacies of the various Nigerian cultures are evident far beyond the country’s borders. However, since the Western art world tends to assume that the sources of influence for contemporary African art are the canonical narratives of Western art history, it inclined to recognize not only the plurality of African cultures and their diverse artistic expressions, but also the fact that African artists are in constant dialogue with their own past. As this exhibition clearly makes evident, the roots for Nigeria’s flourishing art scene today lay in the country’s rich traditions. Amongst these traditions are an incredible body of artworks in stone, terracotta, copper, and brass which was made in the Yoruba city of Ife from the latter part of the first millennium to the 15th century, and the more renowned art tradition of the Kingdom of Benin dated from the late 12th century up to today. Both artistic traditions are unique in Africa for the degree of naturalism that they portray. Therefore, although art historians occasionally studied Nigeria’s Modern art styles, the artistic trajectory of Nigerian contemporary figural realism should be seen, not only as a product of negotiation with Western techniques and styles, but as an upshot of Nigerian artists’ deep connection with local artistic traditions and stylistic sophistication.
The exhibition Infinite realism presents a glimpse of the extraordinary corpus of Nigerian art traditions past and present. We are greatly thankful to Shoher family, Corridor Contemporary art gallery and Rosenfeld Gallery for making it possible to present, for the first time in Israel, the marvelous artistic traditions of Nigeria.