Colbert Mashile: a cacophony of layers and meaning

Words: Mark Attwood, The Artist’s Press

Colbert Mashile
Colbert Mashile | The Baboons Monotypes

During TAF17, The Artist’s Press, located near White River in Mpumalanga, is showing some works recently produced by Colbert Mashile in their studio. Both the monotype series Baboons and the lithograph series Harvesters show what he calls the ‘truth about the land and its people and thus my existence in South Africa.’ The Artists’ Press is dedicated to creating the finest limited edition original prints available in southern Africa. Their focus is on hand printed lithographs that are printed by master printers in collaboration with artists. The artists that they represent are among the finest in South Africa and have exhibited locally and internationally. Lithography is a method of printing based on the principle that oil and water do not mix. Printing is done from a stone (lithographic limestone) or a metal plate with a grained surface; using oil based inks. The artist works on a separate stone or plate for each colour. A hand printed lithograph print is an original work of art and is an image that does not exist in any other form. Colbert Mashile was born in 1972 in Bushbuckridge in the Mpumalanga Province of South Africa. Mashile says, ‘I come from a place that is shrouded by powerful cultural norms and customs.’ These customs, such as the ritual of circumcision (which both he and his wife have undergone), informed his earliest work, and he sought refuge and healing through art. 

Mashile’s work is infused with the natural and mystical elements that are part of his physical and psychological environment

Colbert Mashile
Colbert Mashile | The Anthropologist III

Colbert Mashile explores the psychological impact of traditional circumcision and initiation rituals on initiates. He also explores the often problematic narratives of collective cultural determinants within these communities. As Mashile has matured, the psychological underpinnings are still evident, but his imagery has transgressed these limitations to begin addressing issues such as home, language and the natural landscape. Mashile comes from a family of teachers and was expected to join the family trend on completion of high school. While studying in Pretoria he became curious about the art that he saw in gallery windows on the streets of Pretoria. This led him to the Johannesburg Art Foundation and then to a degree in Fine Arts from the University of the WitwatersrandColbert Mashile has risen to prominence on both national and international levels. His work is infused with the natural and mystical elements that are part of his physical and psychological environment. In nearly every work, what emerges is a subtle tension between an invasive nature and a sense of serenity. It is this dichotomy that is so engaging.

Mashile has an uncanny ability to ‘tune into’ universal psychological archetypes in his work

Colbert Mashile
Colbert Mashile

Mashile has an uncanny ability to ‘tune into’ universal psychological archetypes in his work. These images are completely based on his African identity and yet they link up with the universal. His horned figures that loom over men, coffin-like vehicles and vast landscapes fill his prints. Mashile’s fine sense of colour compliments his forms, which seem to celebrate a connection to the earth. Mystical figures, phallic images, pods, huts and organic shapes are but some of the visual stimuli, which abound in Mashile’s recent work. Minuscule figures stand unobtrusively atop high structures surrounded by open fields. Mashile, a quiet individual, reflects on his use of symbols and icons. He comments that it simply shows the ‘truth about the land and its people and thus my existence in South Africa.’ This poignant statement reflects someone who has a clear understanding of the prevalent issues in South Africa. Mashile has found an individual way in which to communicate his own concerns and those of society as a whole, and he does so in a remarkable manner. His work references various elements of more traditional art-production techniques (printmaking and painting). But, within this production, he isolates the personal narrative as the loudest voice in a cacophony of layers of meaning and reference. 

The images focus on waste pickers, who inadvertently take care of the environment by recycling what the wealthy discard

The Baboons Monotypes

Colbert Mashile believes animals have human traits. He says that in African culture animals are allocated various characteristics but he chooses to focus on their personalities. ‘For example, in African culture baboons are associated with bad things, including witchcraft. But its personality is that it has a good memory and a strong character.’ The focus in these monotypes are baboons, topical given the current national discourse on race. These prints comment on current realities in a darkly humorous manner. The titles say it all.

The Harvester Lithographs

Mashile is clear in his views on what South Africa has and has not achieved since 1994 and despairs at the sociopolitical and socioeconomic realities of the country. He is keenly aware of the hypocrisy of the country’s current leadership and is troubled by the continued poverty and inequality that is still so much in evidence. In these prints, Mashile examines the relationship between media, aspiration and consumption and those who struggle to survive on the edges of urban life. The images focus on waste pickers, who inadvertently take care of the environment by recycling what the wealthy discard. The animal shadows suggest alter egos.

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