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IS IT an anthill or is it a penis, the uninitiated might inquire on first encountering COLBERT MASHILE’smystifying meditations on manhood, ritual and custom.


IS IT an anthill or is it a penis, the uninitiated might inquire on first encountering COLBERT MASHILE’s mystifying meditations on manhood, ritual and custom. The answer lies somewhere between a rock and a hard place, for it is neither, both and more. Perhaps only in the realms of art and faith are such contradictory states possible.
In Mashile’s works horned beasts, totemic figures, shadows, weapons, feet, hats and moons inhabit his dream life, etched and inked on to paper.
Along with 2006 Standard Bank Young Artist Churchill Madikida, Mashile is one of the few black male artists who have had the courage to explore the much-contested realm of circumcision. “I was born in 1972 in Bushbuckridge (Northern Province),” says the young artist, who began collaborating with printers at the David Krut Art Workshop in 2003.
“I come from a place that is shrouded by powerful cultural norms and customs. At the age of 10 I had to undergo initiation rituals with my peers of the same age … My immediate response to the horror and trauma of the experience was suppressed until a later stage when I realised that I had difficulty looking at gaping wounds of injured people, especially the wounds that were inflicted for ceremonial purposes … I decided to heal myself by dealing with these experiences in my artworks.”
But Mashile is not necessarily advocating the demise of the practice.
There is nothing didactic about his work, and you don’t have to have been through the ritual to appreciate the dark emotive power that he has transferred into visual code.
In fact, his latest series of monotypes, currently on show at David Krut Art Resource on Jan Smuts Avenue, is a departure from the initiation theme and an attempt to capture the personal feelings and perceptions at play in intimate relationships.
Although Mashile’s use of colour has always been gifted, in earlier series it’s been far more restrained and deliberate. These quite joyous, peaceful portraits in rich earthy oranges, burnt siennas, reds and browns, seem almost to hum or vibrate with colour.
The closed eyes of “Granny Mokoena” in her tall regal hat and “Mama Diva” with her elongated nose and hunched shoulders,recall the whimsical marks of
Paul Klee. And there is a new humour at play in a piece entitled “Cocky”, which features a character with mohican-style hair and fishy little speech bubbles emerging from his mouth.
The current show gives viewers the opportunity to see older and newer series, and in particular a series of Iinocuts which forms part of a groundbreaking new art publishing venture. David Krut Publishing is collaborating with the small UKbased publishing house, Oaktree Press (headed by South African Laurence Cramer) to produce a collectable limited edition series of first chapters of Booker Prize-winning novels.
The cover of each volume will feature a specially commissioned original artwork by a South African artist and will be signed by both the author and the artist. Thirty-five luxury editions of each volume will also include an original artist’s print.
Mashile has created the cover of the first volume, to be launched in April none other than JM Coetzee’s Life and Times of Michael K. The artist created a series of Iinocuts inspired by Coetzee’s award-winning text and the Nobel Prizewinning author selected one work for the cover.
The other works in the series are included in the current show.
There is a suitably alienated Kafkaesque quality to Mashile’s Iinocuts which recall Coetzee’s words: “No papers, no money; no family, no friends, no sense of who you are. The obscurest of the obscure, so obscure as to be a prodigy.” And indeed Mashile might be just that rare thing.

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