Blessing Ngobeni

At the beginning of 2013, Samuel L Jackson walked into Blessing Ngobeni’s art studio and asked him to finish the painting he was working on so he could buy it. This would have been a big deal for any 28-year-old artist, especially one with no formal training save a printmaking course at the Artist Proof Studio in Newtown. But to understand how far Ngobeni has come you have to understand what he’s had to overcome — a broken home and an abusive uncle in Tzaneen that forced him to flee to Johannesburg and survive on the streets when he was barely 10. What he endured living under a bridge in Alex is something we can only imagine and he can only bring to life through his art — a cathartic process that helps him to marry the personal with the political, found objects and waste materials with intricate details and oils. “Painting my feelings down relieves me from thinking about these things. It’s hard because I am sharing my soul with the world, but I hope that my paintings can also contribute by promoting peace in our society,” he says. Listening to Ngobeni’s life philosophy you forget that he was once considered a “juvenile delinquent” and sentenced to nine years in prison for robbery. Seeking refuge from the gangs inside, Ngobeni chose to take up drawing and discovered what other inmates recognised as his true gift and calling. Back outside he struggled to turn his vocation into a fulltime occupation, all the while acquiring the skills to find his authentic artistic voice. Years later, with several group exhibitions under his belt and the prestigious Reinhold Cassirer Award for 2012 next to his name, Ngobeni finds himself in a different reality, with his artistic style compared with that of Miró and his work destined for the home of a Hollywood royal. Just another chapter in a remarkable true story. — Cat Pritchard