Suburbia, the Barcelona based art gallery with a strong commercial footprint in South Africa and Northern Europe, has selected Tumelo Mtimkhulu as its representative at Art Nou, the ‘emerging art festival in Barcelona and Hospitalet that offers young national and international creators to establish their first professional relationship with the art market’. The fit is a good one – an outlier gallery for an outlier artist – besides, Suburbia’s director, Francesco Ozzola, has a canny grasp of the mood of the times. His recent sold-out show at Latitudes Art Fair in Johannesburg, featuring the abstract art of Jacob van Schalkwyk, attests to his keen grasp of the signs of the times – in this case, van Schalkwyk’s delicate yet bold gestural paintings, in a soft palette that speaks poignantly to fragility and latent despair, and a longing for freedom of thought and feeling in an over-encoded and divisive world.

Jacob van schalkwyk Humdingers Exhibition view


Jacob van schalkwyk Humdingers Exhibition view

As Paul Klee remarked, in times of fear we turn to abstraction. Why? Because it is consolatory? Because it redeems us from a conflictual burden? It was Henri Matisse who described his paintings as gentle consolations for a tired businessman and woman, who, returning home, unbuckle the worries of the day, and, a drink of choice in hand, settle into a comfortable armchair to appraise a painting delicate, reassuring, easeful. In this regard, van Schalkwyk’s soulful colour-fields fit the bill, though in his regard it is not the light in the South of France which proved inspirational, but rugged Scotland, a landscape not as bleak as it is mistakenly imagined to be. Van Schalkwyk’s paintings, and Matisse’s vision of art as a consolation for the white-collar professional, sit well with the cleverly named dealership – Suburbia. Immediately, the novels of John Updike spring to mind, as do high-walled green zones caught ever so elegantly in some quiet desperation. In Rabbit, Run, Updike’s protagonist, returning home from work, studies the houses he sees from the train. ‘Why does anyone live here? Why was he set down here, why is this town, a dull suburb of a third-rate city, for him the center and index of a universe that contains immense prairies, mountains, deserts, forests, cities, seas? This childish mystery – the mystery of “any place”, the prelude to the ultimate, “Why am I me?” – ignites panic in his heart’.

It is a suburban fear which Updike compelling evokes, a fear, or unease, that dogs those trapped between the pragmatic and utopian, who hold fast to the tenuous fabric of family and class, for whom art – the pinnacle of civilization – assumes an almost mystical role in otherwise humdrum lives. When meeting and speaking with Francesco Ozzola, one can sense a wry chuckle. He is the post-existentialist, acutely aware of suburban nausea, but far more concerned with the therapeutic power of art to still the panic in the heart. The relative ease with which Ozzola’s gallery has found a home in Cape Town and Johannesburg’s art fairs – his next outing is FNB Art Joburg – reaffirms his synergetic grasp of the moment. It is a quietly tender pleasure which he affords the viewer and consumer. His artist’s stable includes the moodily alluring Jake Aikman, whose green-blue-grey seascapes have proved compellingly bankable. As for the fact that Aikman is a surfer, someone who daily braves the ocean, alone? This backstory tugs at the heart of the paintings – the sea a sullen tempest, the man, the painter, a human splinter in its great immensity.

In Your Own Time, 2023, Oil on linen, 76.5 x 89 cm by Jake Aikman


LEFT: Do I dare by Tumelo Mtimkhulu
RIGHT: Every place we visited will remember us by Tumelo Mtimkhulu

Each artist who exhibits with Suburbia has been selected because of the singularity of their story. In the works, when seen collectively, there is no aggression, no ideological heckling or baiting. An air-gap exists between the artist’s solitary quest and the noise all about. Instead, it is that Matisse-like consolatory mood that gently passes over one, when appraising the works exhibited.

For Art Nou, a platform for emergent artists, Ozzola has selected the recent graduate from the University of Johannesburg, Tumelo Mtimkhulu, a poet and performance and visual artist. Again, one encounters a muted understatement, a feel for sensuous context, a mood, struck in greys and blues, the dominant hues and tones in Mtimkhulu’s works. The overall effect is both laconic and effortless, yet strikingly calculated. One can hear the murmurings sounding in the artist’s skull, his art a mirror of a deeply private yet collective human churn, for what is immediately apparent when looking at Mtimkhulu’s art is the desire for connection, which, in Sub-Saharan lore we know as Ubuntu. In one work, a portrait of the artist’s mother, I am reminded of a Francis Bacon composition, though Mtimkhulu carries none of the British artist’s angst. The mother is seated in the foreground, overhead, oddly attached to the ceiling, we see an inverted metal bucket. To the figure’s right there is an open doorway through which we see a distant figure engulfed in smoke which, perhaps, has been discharged from what could be a spaceship hovering above. It is the overall oddity of the scene that compels, the magnetic minimality in the peculiarly arranged details. The work, whose intimacy is unwavering, is titled ‘O seipone saka / My mirror’. A mixed media work, it is made with Plaster of Paris bandages, black spray paint, black chalkboard paint, soft pastels on wood. The son is the mirror of the mother, ‘a human being is a palimpsest’. This insight is telling, for what Mtimkhulu reveals is the inescapability of a blood inheritance. The DNA of the father and mother determines ’the person I would become’. Of course, culture plays a crucial part, as do chance and accident. But, for Mtimkhulu, it is the depth of the layering of history-meaning-feeling that is most precious. One senses this in the artist’s striking portrait. Part drawing, part painting, it speaks to a slippage, a drain, the unlikelihood of a fullness of being. Nevertheless, the artist draws one inward. I’m also reminded of Giorgio de Chirico’s vacant inner-cityscapes, of some impending or recent event, something unsettling yet indecipherable. As Buffalo Springfield sings – ‘There’s something happening here, what it is ain’t exactly clear’. Mtimkhulu has the canny knack of capturing these enigmatic and in-between moments, moments which inhabit his subjects, and which lends them some inscrutable dignity. In the case of this particular painting, the mysterious components are framed within white blank sharply diagonal walls which makes the odd grouping of elements all the stranger. A quality of the absurd, but also a normalcy, pervades this enigmatic painting. It is irrefutably magnetic. As to what it is telling us? We cannot know for certain. We can only intuit.

The mystery that clings to Mtimkhulu’s paintings may not be the ‘mystery’ which Updike’s protagonist senses, but it remains mysterious nevertheless. And this, perhaps, is why Ozzola finds this young Black South African artist so intriguing, and why he has been selected for Art Nou. It is the pointedness of Ozzola’s choice, its canniness, especially given that the Northern European artworld, his core supporters, remains irresistibly drawn to the enigma of the ‘South’ – a Southern European dealer in South African Art. For in this hyped Contemporary African Art moment, Ozzola has deliberately chosen to present the quiet unease in Mtimkhulu’s art, or, in the case of Jake Aikman’s seascapes, an ecological and existential funk, or again, in van Schalkwyk’s abstractions, a bruised pastel delicacy.

If Mtimkhulu is particularly notable, it is because of his relative youth. His jagged blackboard word-works are equally intimate. ‘DO I DARE OFFEND THESE SCARS? DO I DARE CONSPIRE WITH THE TOOLS THAT TORE FLESH’ … ‘DO I CRADLE THE EYES’ … here the lines blur … but one senses the poet-artist’s desire to shield us from what is ‘UNBEAUTIFUL’. The questions posed, the protective need expressed, speaks of an artist who will not confront, let alone embrace, cruelty. In this regard, Ozzola has once again encountered an artist with a delicate yet probing touch, who, in the context of Art Nou in Southern Europe, promises to cradle and protect. Here, Ozzola’s choice in art and artist speaks counter-intuitively to the mood and signs of the times – the latent despair and hurt, the aggression yearning to be triggered by petty and vengeful ideologues. It is against this neo-fascistic temperament that Ozzola has positioned his brand and his culture, for his is a subtle, gracious, and elegantly obtuse aesthetic intelligence.

In this regard, one can only wish the Suburbia Gallery well. With this new venture, it is taking a young man born in Germiston, raised in Johannesburg, to a world as keenly in need of Mtimkhulu’s inscapes. Akin to synesthesia, one can almost hear the muttered yearnings of Mtimkhulu’s subjects. Is he perhaps one of Wim Wender’s angels, in Wings of Desire, privy to human suffering, yet infinitely gentle in their ministration and embrace? I wonder. Doubtless, Mtimkhulu is a tender rarity who will surely work well with a dealership as tender, as rare. Amidst the showbiz that is contemporary art everywhere in the world, Suburbia strikes the right note – sonorous, quietly resilient, honest, empathic. The artists in Suburbia’s stable clearly convey this sensibility, a curious 18th century term, which captures a felt intelligence – the greater truth of a singular ordinary heart.

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