Cinga Samson: Iyabanda Intsimbi / The metal is cold
On ViewFLAG Art Foundation
October 16, 2021 – January 15, 2022
In his mid-30s and based in Cape Town, South Africa, Cinga Samson is offering 26 paintings, most of them single portraits of men, but a few group scenes, often suggesting violence. The show’s name, Iyabanda Intsimbi/The metal is cold, suggests menace, too. The paintings, their backgrounds especially, are very dark in hue, although distantly. The portraits are direct representations of young men, likely intimating if not actually depicting Samson himself; usually the sitters wear a gold chain around their neck, and often their shirts are open. The larger portraits are enigmatic scenes in which something untoward seems about to happen or to have just taken place. They feel allegorical in nature. The general atmosphere of the show is understated but troubled, and troubling, being oriented, in the artist’s words, toward “the nature of violence: its laws, its flair, and its finality.” While the scene is locally situated in Cape Town, one of the major accomplishments of this very good show is Samson’s ability to express a much larger view, universal in its portrayal of the tragic but often powerfully attractive nature of violence, its nearly erotic allure.
In the portraits of the young men, Samson pushes their personae in the direction of intimidation by painting the eyes blank, as if the person came from another world. In the work Okwe Nkunzana 5 (2021), we are met by the image of a young man, with a shaved head, a white T-shirt, and an unzippered jacket. Behind him we can see some trees and part of a house, but these are minor lyric suggestions overtaken by the morbid gaze of eyes without any distinguishing features. What is Samson intimating in this painting? It is certainly straightforward enough, except for the eyes. This is where the violence the painter speaks of comes in; the subject feels like a ghost, or zombie, as much as he seems real. Thus, the blank eyes become, on a regular basis, the vehicle for a distress that could easily turn aggressive. In Okwe Nkunzana 6 (2021), we see the same person, his head hardly distinguishable from the darkness surrounding him, in an intricately woven white sweater, whose pattern becomes the occasion of excellent painting. Again, though, the eyes are blank, lending an edge to what otherwise would be an entirely traditional work of art.
The larger paintings tend to suggest narratives with a symbolic purpose. In Umkhusana 2 (2021), we see a group of younger South Africans sitting and standing in what seems to be thick vegetation, although if one looks closely at the upper part of the painting, it is possible to see a partial view of the front of a car. The two people sitting in the middle of the composition wear black outer clothing and white shirts, while the man standing off to the left of the photo is wearing a brown coat. He holds in his hand a partial skull and the horns of an antelope. There is no clue as to what the scene means—it is arbitrary, even abstract, in its promise of an event that would inevitably disturb a strange, almost random grouping that is waiting for something unknown. The antelope skull shifts the painting toward a savagery that is disturbing without showing actual violence. We are in the midst of a situation that resonates with the evocation of ferocity but does not actually present it.
How can a painting like Umkhusana 2 be read with an eye for its implications? If even the single-person portraits in this show take on a greater meaning than the simple sum of what we see, how do we make sense of the larger works, in which groups of people seem to be gathering without purpose? There are no real acts of violence in The metal is cold, but that does not mean Samson is evading his stated theme. Instead, the aura of the works, the impenetrability of their backgrounds, advances the notion that the atmosphere of a work (and by extension, the general spirit of the time) can convey a chilling ambiguity of motive in apparently innocent circumstances. This double intention is not without its “flair,” to use Samson’s word. We must remember that the context out of which the paintings come is much more specific than simple allegory; yet allegorical meaning hovers over the artist’s endeavor, even as the description of the work denies any easy symbolic meaning. This is the strength of Samson’s paintings: his imagery is what it is, but it is also more than that. When, as happens here, a work of art can be both a direct description and a template suggesting violence, it becomes an effort of distinction.