I first came across Simphiwe Mbunyuza’s captivating work on Instagram when he was awarded the Red Clay Faction Award and Oscar Jacobson Award during his MFA graduating show at The University of Oklahoma in 2019. I couldn’t quite explain why, but I knew then I would collect him and try to engage with him directly on a project. Fast forward some 18 months and Simphiwe made it to Israel with his wife Linda as the first artist of the Africa First residency, following the two-and-a-half-year Covid-related hiatus of the program.
It wasn’t a soft landing though. Upon arrival, border control questioned the couple and decided they couldn’t enter the country on a tourist Visa, despite this being the case for South African residents. In addition to the invitation from Africa First, Simphiwe was invited by Israel’s leading art school Bezalel for a residency at their Ceramics and Glass Design department and had a second invitation from Shenkar College for a summer residency there. After a nerve-wracking day, during which Simphiwe and Linda kept an indelible cool, we finally obtained the help of Israel Ambassador to South Africa, Mr. Eli Belotserkovsky, and they were allowed in.
Fortunately, the residency was worth it all. Simphiwe made many new friends and garnered quite a reputation in the short time he was here. He produced some of his best work ever, breaking new ground with a “splash sculpting” technique and making beautiful works on paper in addition to his masterful ceramic sculptures.
We held 2 exhibitions of his works. Emasimini I opened on September 9th, 2022 with an immersive installation at the Gallery for African Studies.
The exhibition was accompanied by curatorial texts by Idit Toledano and Simphiwe himself. We organised a wonderful opening and dinner for 2 dozen guests and a catalogue of the exhibition is in preparation. Emasimini II opened at Gordon Gallery on October 27th, 2022 in a more traditional gallery format. Both exhibitions were beautiful and complemented each other, highlighting very different aspects of the works. Please see some images in the gallery below.
There is something about Simphiwe’s work that strikes you when you behold it. It can’t quite be placed. The works transport your mind in different directions, but his language and skill of production are grounded and firm. One may think of Picasso and Miro or sculptures of Hepworth and Moore, but those are far-fetched associations. There are more obvious connections, particularly in the spiritual role of the works and their reliance on communicating with and through ancestors, to traditional African sculptures and ceremonial masks.
That said, Simphiwe Mbunyuza is for me one of the greatest and most original sculptors living today. It’s a huge honor and real pleasure to have had him and Linda in Israel. Having gotten to know the man, and the woman behind him, I am confident his career is only commencing. Thank you Simphiwe and Linda for spending time with us.
We are immensely thankful to all our amazing partners without whom this project would not have been possible: Gordon Gallery, the Gallery for African studies, my family and team, and my numerous friends from Bezalel, Shenkar, and in government.