White Cube Mason’s Yard presents a new group of oil paintings by South African artist Cinga Samson. The exhibition title, Nzulu yemfihlakalo, is borrowed from an isiXhosa phrase which loosely translates to the depth of mystery, and is used to express devotion while also serving as a description of God. The complex nature of this phrase informs each one of the works in Samson’s exhibition. Hyperreal, and possessing a hallucinatory quality, in these paintings Samson provokes an encounter with the unknown and gives form to the intangible metaphysical realms that impact our mortal existence.
Completed in his studio in Cape Town, the artist’s dreamlike large-scale tableaux and portraits draw from his immediate environment as well as addressing wider concerns. Presenting mysterious figures engaging in seemingly secret ceremonies, Samson’s work prompts the viewer to confront the epistemological boundaries of our material understanding. Situated against the backdrop of an urban environment and surrounding natural landscape, the paintings register as familiar, though several anomalies set Samson’s world apart from the quotidian. Shrouded in a Cimmerian darkness, the figures frequently appear with objects or memento mori, such as white lace, raw meat, animal innards and skulls. Adopting graceful, funereal movements, the figures’ blank white eyes seem to dismiss the viewer’s gaze.
In the painting Abantu Basemzini (2023), as in many of Samson’s ensemble compositions, the near absence of light is offset by luminous areas of raw canvas. Here, these passages are delineated by swathes of translucent material, encasing lifeless human forms carried by Samson’s solemn protagonists. Taken together with the title of the artwork, which loosely translates as visitor or guest, the mournful atmosphere suggests a sacrifice or offering by which Samson seeks to capture the space between the ephemeral life and the eternal unknown.
There are certain motifs, present throughout the series, which define the character of this inflected world. The enigmatic figures that inhabit Samson’s shadowy mise-en-scènes elude specific representation, despite their contemporary attire – a uniform primarily comprising white shirts, brown jackets and denim jeans. Locating the paintings is an assemblage of landmarks and features native to Cape Town. Uqobo Lwakhe (2023), for instance, takes the imposing left-hand slope of Table Mountain as its backdrop, whilst uDondolo (2023) acquires an even greater topographical specificity through the central presence of Lion’s Head and Devil’s Peak. Other works, like Ebembe ya Nioka, Esilaka Somote (2023) include figures clasping bouquets of proteas – the national flower of South Africa. These scenes, together with the mysterious nature of the actions being performed and the indeterminate time of day, propose that perhaps another world exists within the identifiable and physical, corporeal plane.
Ukuphicothwa Kwento Xa Ingaziwa (2023) uses a monumental sisal plant as its central motif. Several figures gather around the plant, some appearing to listen to a sound emanating from deep within its form, while others trace their fingers across its leaves, examining the smooth fronds with an almost forensic attention, as if auditing the object for its unique and unknown qualities. In Nzulu yemfihlakalo, the human form stands equal to nature, neither diminished by it nor elevated above it as a higher ideal, but part of the same eternal driving force.
In Samson’s solo portraits, these same, pupil-less figures face square on, exhibiting a quiet assuredness of presence that could be unsettling. Dressed in modern attire, the portraits strike a balance between timelessness and contemporaneity, capturing a poised candour that evokes the grandeur of classical portraiture while also reflecting the artist’s complex impressions of masculinity, status and spirituality. Expressionless, these authorities of the spirit command the viewer with the directness of their gaze.