Norval Foundation, the Cape Town-based private art museum, is bringing the first SA museum solo exhibition for Cinga Samson to local art enthusiasts and international visitors to the Cape.
Samson is still, at 37, something of a prodigy on the local scene. Now Cape Town-based, he trained originally in painting and photography, a combination still to be seen in his realist and hyper-detailed virtuoso oil painting style. Several solo shows at Cape Town’s left-field and experimental gallery blank projects in Woodstock led to prestigious and successful international exhibitions in London and New York. These placed Samson squarely in the current of the resurgence of interest in oil painting in those markets.
The current Norval show focuses on a selection of 20 works from between 2015 and 2023 that showcase the artist’s singular oil painting style. Titled Ukhe Nje Wasondela, Ndakuphosa Kulo Mlambo in isiXhosa, the artist’s native language, the exhibition title translates to ‘If you come close, I’ll throw you into the river…’’ — a provocation to spend some time looking closely and digesting his intricate work. It forms the latest in the Norval Foundation’s support and promotion of artists from Africa and from the African diaspora. The museum has annual exhibitions in this vein, in a variety of mediums, and started the programme in 2018.
Immediately apparent in the show is the relationship between genre and concept. That is, Samson has for some time worked with some traditional painting genres and tropes — in particular landscape and still life — and brought to them a ritual sensibility often drawn from his native country and his Xhosa roots.
The selection of work is organised around two large landscapes, Ukuphikothwa kwento xa ingaziwa and Umkhusana, peopled by large groups engaged in some communal activity that seems ritualised but unclear. These are interspersed with smaller portraits of single figures, mostly in a head-and-shoulders aspect, and presented in a dark, ominous palette, highlighted only by subtle, superbly executed details such as jewellery or the subjects holding emblematic local flora like strelitzias or canna flowers.
The intricacy and technical ability demonstrated across the show is heightened by Samson’s signature decision to paint all his subjects without pupils in their eyes — lending the human subjects a vaguely sinister and threatening air, reminiscent of the alien children in John Wyndham’s sci-fi horror classic Village of the Damned.
The uncanny atmosphere is heightened by curator Heba El Kayal’s decision to light each individual work with single, very muted spotlights. This not entirely successful decision sacrifices the delicacy of the overall detail on individual works, and the ability to see them in relation to each other, to the invitation to approach each work closely and scrutinise them.
Samson’s stylistic stamp often works brilliantly in the overall context of the show, with the notion of an African subversion of traditional art, historical tropes of landscape and still life painting to the fore. The exhibition in total and individual works in relation to each other are more difficult to decipher. The intriguing and virtuoso group portrait/landscapes tend to be isolated in this regard, separated out from more straightforward individual portraits with no real visual context. But the superb execution and enigmas dramatised by Samson in each work do make this show worthwhile on its own — and certainly it is as an opportunity to see a more comprehensive body of work by one of SA’s most promising younger painters.
Cinga Samson at Norval Foundation
Until September 2024