The article below owes a great debt to Malcolm Christian, as much of the information is drawn from an informal, taped conversation held between Malcolm, Mandy Conidaris and Kevin Sneider on 11 April 2013.
Exploring a connection between the works of Gabi Nkosi and Tony Bingham
Malcolm met Gabi and Tony when they attended residencies at The Caversham Centre for Artists and Writers, Gabi in 2001 and Tony in 2009.
The residency that Gabi came to was focused on the concept of Baggage.
A young woman who had just completed her formal education in visual arts, Gabi was a participant alongside three seasoned artists and printmakers. Gabi’s concerns at that time centred around the way that HIV/AIDS was decimating her community, and she felt this to be the ‘baggage’ she was carrying. Part of the ethos of the Caversham residencies is collaboration, the sharing of experience and experiences. After many conversations with the other participants about the issue of making didactic artwork, Gabi became encouraged to draw deeply from her own life to create imagery that, because of its specificity, would have the ability to evoke universal qualities.
At that point Gabi had not done much printmaking, but had brought along some linos she had cut as a schoolchild, and Malcolm and the group recognised in these a certain power. They motivated her to consider linocut for her residency work.
In Malcolm’s words, “[we said] use that medium, develop it as your primary source of expression, don’t get seduced by the technical thing, but use it to talk about your own history and your own experience, insights, wisdom.” This released her into a safe space of technical exploration.
He continued “and in some ways when you look at Gabi’s work subsequent to that, that ability metaphorically to ‘write’ without being conscious of the letters you are forming, in terms of printmaking, is that her prints are so lyrical, so powerful, because it was a direct emotional response, intellectual response, from heart and head down to the hand, that some of them have a crassness, a crudity, yet others have this lightness of being, of mark.” From her collaborative beginnings in linocut, Gabi’s style evolved into one of great spontaneity.
In 2007 Gabi produced the Healing portfolio in celebration of the bicentennial of the abolition of the laws of slavery in England. Gabi commented on the content of her prints for the exhibition (‘in conversation’). But of her imagery, Malcolm said “the cutting, the kind of image making, all of these things are just pure Gabi, the lyricism, the hand of authority.”
When Tony attended a Caversham residency in 2009, it was 8 months after Gabi had been killed. He had no knowledge of this young artist, but independently had been thinking about the slavery issue, in particular aspects of the diaspora, and was exploring notions of empathy. At that point, as an artist/photographer, he had been looking at the potential qualities inherent in pinhole camera photography.
During the Caversham residencies, Malcolm had interacted with many creative people – writers and artists – and discovered that they shared similar responses to powerful issues, whether historical, such as slavery, or social, such as HIV/AIDS. Based on that gathering of conversations and shared experiences, Malcolm commented “when you are involved with something like that, and dealing with it directly, then you are dealing in some ways with impotency because you are not able to change anything, but you still have the motivation to face it at such a fundamental emotional level, though without the ability or the necessity to react instinctively.”
As well, Tony had been interacting with traces and evidence of slavery, and had been moved by his visit to San paintings in the Drakensberg, and the strong sense he began to absorb of the presence of the timespan of Africa that he felt influenced young African writers and artists.
Malcolm said: “[often] in America there seems to be the longing to go back to Africa, but without really knowing what Africa is or what you were removed from. And what is the potential that allows us to connect? Really we connect through the banality of the everyday, such sitting here at Caversham and drinking a cup of tea.”
During Gabi’s first visit to Caversham, she realised that to engage powerfully with an issue, only by drawing on one’s individual experience as source could truly universal imagery be created. Once Tony heard of Gabi’s story, he took his concept of traces and went to her home and environs in Lidgetton to look for ‘traces and evidence of Gabi’, her spirit. While Tony was looking for ‘traces of Gabi’, Malcolm encouraged him to look at the everyday objects in her space – a mieliemeal bag, clothes on the washing line.
Tony’s process became intuitive like Gabi’s, but also multi-layered and collaborative. He photographed Gabi’s objects with a pinhole camera and brought these photographs to Caversham, transforming them on Photoshop into grainy black and white images. By printing them on acetate, he could scratch into and further manipulate the surface. He made prints from grasses, he drew, he wrote automatically, he reworked his pinhole paper negatives, and finally brought all these experiments together to create with Malcolm the positives for screenprinting. He also found a schoolbook with blue ruled lines, which he decided to use with singed borders, to reference some previous work he had made. He asked residency participant, writer Mxolisi Nyezwa to look at the images and suggest simple words.
Tony said he reached a breakthrough as the printmaking process provided context and content. This 3-week energetic process resulted in prints that appear deceptively simple, but in fact are complex and dense. The Lidgetton Portal series carries a sense of poignancy based in the artist’s intimate knowledge of another young artist he had never met.
Individual lived experiences, the intensity of printmaking processes, and the full engagement of the artists – these are the elements linking Gabi and Tony. And it is about the subject matter of these two portfolios, as Malcolm says “sometimes banal, humble in scale, intimate.”