Simphiwe Mbunyuza (South Africa) June - September 2022

Updated: Sep 22

Simphiwe Mbunyuza at Bezalel Academy, Jerusalem, Aug 2022 © Africa First

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 to collaborate on. 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 coming to Israel, because in their judgment, Simphiwe was in Israel for ‘work’ and required a work permit. In addition to the invitation from Africa First, he was invited officially 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.

Simphiwe and Linda were placed in an airport detention facility awaiting the next flight back to South Africa. During that entire nerve-wracking day – during which I was running calls to various ministries and government officials, engaging lawyers to contest the decision, and stressing out that the entire project, which took months of planning, was going to be undermined by an overzealous border control officer – Simphiwe and Linda kept an indelible cool, full of serenity and patience.

Our long saga that day ended when I got through to the Israeli Ambassador in South Africa, Mr. Eli Belotserkovsky, who managed to change the verdict. They were allowed in … a huge sigh of relief. That day I learned another valuable Xhosa lesson, trust the universe to do its thing.

Fortunately, the residency has been going smoothly since then, Simphiwe made many new friends and has garnered quite a reputation in the short time he’s been here. He has also made 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.

There is something about Simphiwe’s work that strikes you when you behold it. It can’t quite be placed anywhere. The works transport you in many different directions, but the language and skill of production are so unique that the work looks like nothing else. One can think of Picasso and Miro as painters or Hepworth and Moore as sculptors, 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 him in Israel and to have served as an assistant to him in the completion of the ambitious installation he’s planning for the exhibition at the African Studies Gallery.

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. I am also immensely thankful to all my 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 government, that are always there for you when you need them.

Serge Tiroche

Africa First, founder