Ashes to Life
John Vusi Mfupi at work in his studio.

Artist John Vusi Mfupi has established a unique space for himself in the contemporary South African art space with his new collection of burnt paper collages in a solo exhibition, Ashes to Life: Telling Stories Through the Eye at the Candice Berman Gallery.

John Vusi Mfupi’s work stands out from a distance with its bright colours and interesting narratives of South African life – particularly that of the youth. It is, however, on close viewing of his upcycled collage technique that one truly understands how incredibly intricate and time consuming each piece is. The exhibition Ashes to Life: Telling Stories Through the Eye sees Mfupi take his signature style in a new direction.

It’s this process of creation, what he undergoes as an artist to create the final piece, that drives Mfupi. He compares his love for minute design and attention to detail to his love for mathematics at school – where others would avoid it, he embraced the challenge.

A miniature wall of magazines designates a cordoned-off workspace where Mfupi tears them up into the little pieces that he pastes, one by one, onto the canvas or cardboard he is currently working on. ‘I am not in control,’ he says, talking about his colour palette. If he were working with paint, he would be in control ‘because I can mix whatever colour I want to. But with this, I struggle, looking around, and if it’s not there, I utilise what is there.’

John Vusi Mfupi is Telling Stories Through the Eye
John Vusi Mfupi in his studio.

His 2016 collection of works sees Mfupi take his signature style in a new direction. The colourful bits of magazine paper are being replaced with white paper, burnt to various degrees, creating sepia-like portraits. The focus of each portrait has also altered slightly, with the eyes, literally, telling the story, as the title of the exhibition suggests. The series was ‘inspired’ by the burning of schools in Vuwani, Limpopo and the incredible selfishness that he saw in those acts. He felt the need to protect those children, whose education had now been endangered, while celebrating their youth at the same time.

Celebrating youth has always played a central role in Mfupi’s art, as well as in his teaching. ‘I’m just telling stories,’ he says. ‘It’s a daily life experience. Whenever I’m driving between home and the studio, I capture these images. I used to work with schools on a full-time basis and normally when I would pass there, I would capture all those kids playing football. I don’t struggle with subject matter because it’s whatever I experience, my daily experiences. Going to the beach and seeing kids play, especially kids. I don’t know, even when I’m teaching art, I always work with children and it’s a fulfilment for me. Rather than teaching someone who is 50-something because I don’t think that they’ll take it further.’

This need to educate the youth that art (and the creative sector in general) is a career to take seriously, has its roots in his own youth. It was only after matriculating and struggling to find employment that he joined a youth club, started exploring his talents and went to college. ‘If it could have happened to me at high school level, I feel like my talents could have been nurtured long before, you know?’ Ashes to Life: Telling Stories Through the Eye also sees Mfupi experimenting with a technique that he hasn’t used before.

Ashes to Life
John Vusi Mfupi in his studio.

He ‘discovered’ the technique of painting with a candle and smoke, which he uses to colour the backgrounds of the portraits, when he was looking at properties in Dobsonville. He saw a pattern on a ceiling that interested him, was told that it was done with a candle and went back home to try it.

Ashes to Life: Telling Stories Through the Eye is an exceptional next step in the career of a very exciting artist

Mfupi has partaken in a number of international exhibitions to date and Candice Berman Gallery will be representing Mfupi at the START Art Fair in London, to be held at the Saatchi Gallery from 15 to 18 September 2016. Back in SA, Prof Jeromy Loveland will be hosting a black tie Art Auction in September in which Mfupi’s work will be featured. Mfupi and Candice Berman Fine Art Gallery have donated an artwork for auction to raise funds for the Surgeons for Little Lives Foundation headed by Prof Loveland.

The medical movement for ‘little lives’ is vigorous, and fundamentally run by the fresh and still inspired surgeons who merely will not stand by and let Chris Hani Baragwanath Academic (CHBAH) and Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Academic Hospitals (CMJAH) collapse. What the auction raises will in due course be quantifiable on the ground in practical means. FirstRand has agreed to donate a minimum of 300 artworks to the two hospitals from their basement of excess for use in the common areas and wards.

Ashes to Life
John Vusi Mfupi. Showers of wealth. 2300mmx1130mm. Collage on canvas, 2016.

Most of these works are decorative signed prints of botanical and wildlife subject matter. Mfupi was also recently commissioned by Lunch Bar via Plato Communications to create an artwork utilising their ‘upcycled’ Lunch Bar wrappers. Much of Mfupi’s work and message is about utilising that which is accessible and the process of recycling/upcycling materials in his media. He firmly believes that artworks do not necessarily have to be defined by traditional fine art materials.

Mfupi created a beautiful Johannesburg skyline with the sun setting over the city. The final outcome of the work encompassed a stunning scene capturing the hustle of the great city of Johannesburg, with the iconic sun setting on the skyline over a busy day as it quietens down – all of this conveyed by the use of Lunch Bar wrappers.

For more information on Ashes to Life: Telling Stories Through the Eye or John Vusi Mfupi’s artworks, please visit the Candice Berman Gallery website here: www.candicebermangallery.com

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