Source: South African Contemporary Art
For Laurent Devèze, 'the fight is everywhere in Sandile Zulu. To spend all his life to burn things in a continuous tortuous way, to destroy with meticulousness all the support of your work, is something very strong.' Devèze is director of the French Institute in Johannesburg, a supporter of the Amakhono Art Centre where Zulu has his studio, and his observation points to a crucial shift in the reception and making of art in South Africa. On its way out is the fascination with documentary realism, the literal conception of art as a window onto the world. In Sandile Zulu's burned works and collaged constructions, the township or the fight may not be visible and yet it is 'everywhere'. The struggle has shifted away from surface representations to the support itself. The medium - found objects and fire on paper and board - has become the message.
'To me the framework of addressing issues is metaphorical rather than direct or obvious,' says Zulu, 'so you see in my work details which have reference to histories of religion, to revolutionary politics, art making, psychological relationships. There are many forces within myself as an individual and as an artist in South Africa,' he says; 'external forces around me and international forces. I am aware that the question of self-identity is very much determined by one's cultural heritage.'
Commenting on the old art-market pressures on South African artists to reflect their society, Zulu says, 'This robs the artist of his intention and conception of art,' adding that his own work is wholly inner-directed.
Shibui is a Japanese term which refers to the greater beauty an object acquires
through age and marks of use. It is a concept which comes to mind when considering the work of Zulu. Two pieces of the old hide-top of a drum - so old that the middle has worn through and only the stiffened edges remain with their slashes where the top was pegged onto the sides - have been thonged together and hung on the wall under a netting of thin card. The piece is untitled, non-specific, but powerfully evocative, eliciting images of a barely veiled, exposed human rib-cage.
'I do my work to enjoy what I'm doing,' says Zulu, 'and to make beautiful work even if it doesn't talk about beauty.' Zulu's aim, then, is not to soften the struggle, but to give it his own interpretation. Fire is his paint.
The first time I saw Sandile Zulu work in Amakhono,' writes Devèze, 'he made me think of a researcher. Laying them on his desk, he was meticulously manipulating matches, touching them with heavy brown paper and setting fire to them like magic. Following with extreme caution the biting of the flame on the cardboard, Sandile makes incredible discoveries: what turns the burning into a track, and what makes the consumed become an incandescence.'
'Fire is a difficult medium to control,' says Zulu. 'Once paper gets on fire it is very fascinating to me. I can control fire to create ordered designs.' It is an exacting discipline. The precise moment when the burning board or canvas has been burnt sufficiently must be judged, and the flame instantly quelled with the judicious use of water. On large pieces, this procedure must he followed hundreds of times. It is this interplay of immediacy and distance that holds him. 'I use flame as an alternative approach to normal methods,' says Zulu. 'I want to feel the relationship between the material and me.' Of a work entitled Landscape with Spheres: Study in Spaces and Structures, Zulu explores the question of land. 'Boundaries could be read as that which existed before,' says Zulu, 'but they are made of a burnt mark which suggests destruction of barriers' or 'the bandaging of a body after being hurt.' For Zulu, fire has a dual import - burning can cleanse as well as destroy. However, irrespective of the reading one gives to Zulu's fire-works, the artist's abiding concern is the 'imaging of order' - 'the idea of ordered surfaces using geometric forms that are always taken further' - but still 'appeal to all senses ... touch, feeling and sound.' Zulu's choice of materials is focused yet variable - hard board, canvas, leather, plaster, perspex, drum hide. Given Zulu's refusal to be obvious in his expression of unrest and struggle, his paradoxical embrace of the immediate and the distant, the textural and the scientific, Nietzsche's aphorism is a salient one: 'When dealing with the abstract, all the more the need to be sensuous.'
For more information on this artist see Afronova | www.afronova.com