“Landscape can inform our sense of identity, of cultural identity, and how this also plays into our conceptions of national identity.”

Inga Somdyala, Artist

In his work Somdyala explores aspects of the cultural, political and social negotiations of the post-apartheid generation through the very land itself.

“I don't want to arrive as a painter or arrive as a sculptor. If it can be something that I am sensitive to and receptive to, wherever I am, and wherever I find myself, I think for me, that usually makes something a bit more potent and alive.”

Inga Somdyala’s exhibition will be up at Krone x WHATIFTHEWORLD on Twee Jonge Gezellen until the 7th of January 2023.

“There’s something that creative output records, that history cannot, that other modes of history making and recording cannot…”

How would you describe your work to someone who's never seen it before?

It’s hard to describe, because I wouldn't really describe it as painting necessarily, although I do use brushes, and I do use canvas. I do work with natural pigments. The process of application and of staining could be called painting. And sometimes, if I'm using found objects and various other things, and placing them in a space, it could be called sculptural. The simplest and most straightforward way to describe it is: I'm someone who is sensitive to and likes to respond specifically to space. It varies as to what’s on my mind, and what kind of space it might be showing in. I like to be honest to whatever the experience is.


I don't want to arrive as a painter or arrive as a sculptor. If it can be something that I am sensitive to and receptive to, wherever I am, and wherever I find myself, I think for me, that usually makes something a bit more potent and alive.

What experience do you want a viewer to have?

There was a moment for me in first seeing contemporary South African art. It was something really profound where I was looking at someone else who had had maybe similar experiences to myself, black, male, South African, whatever various things that maybe I can relate to. There was something there that their personal journey revealed to me about my own, and my own identity and sense of self. 

One of the most valuable things about making any kind of artwork and putting it out there is that engagement. The best case scenario is when people respond, and they can offer something back to you that you can then take back to the studio. That's been one of the most enriching and motivating things. 

How important is the process of reflection in your practice? And how does it impact your work moving from concept to completion?

It's very central for me to have time to reflect, because for the most part, in maintaining that honesty of the work on a material and conceptual level, there are experiences that I am having, or have had, and those are the things that in the reflection period, subconsciously even, can make their way into the work. 

A recent example was a road trip from KZN to Cape Town. An old friend of mine helped me make something. Working together in KZN, we drove down together to Cape Town, and he is a very interesting person. He refused to take the national roads, as it were. We were taking mountain passes and back routes, and that was really eye-opening. As someone who's interested in the South African landscape, this kind of memory and history is very much embedded in it and sometimes quite obscure and unreadable. Driving through mountain passes, driving through old roads. That was a really important experience for me to have. That kind of, quite, directly made its way back into a series of panels, paintings that I made soon after. 

What role does land on site specificity play in communicating the broader societal and political themes of your work?

Big question. Huge question. Especially here, it's been such a feature. Maybe I can call the landscape the theatre for all of those things, within which all of those societal or political things play out. There's a lot of contestation about land and landscape in the South African context, in particular. There's a lot of history that goes along with looking at landscape and thinking about landscape. When looking at maps, things like place names, certain landmarks, all of those things, become cues to accessing those ideas about the cultural character of a landscape or a place or the people in that place. 

Again, it takes on this quality of an arena and a witness to historical events. Especially in a place like this, there’s this ancient feeling about it, where you're looking into the face of something that can only be formed with millions of years, and heat and cold and there’s a whole lot of energy in that kind of thing. I like to think about the ways in which landscape can inform our sense of identity, of cultural identity, and how that also plays into our conceptions of national identity.

Your interest in geography and maps, tell us more?

One of the things that's really interesting to me is language and text. I'm a bilingual person, isiXhosa and English, and I'm often interested in the interaction between the two, just in terms of meaning-making in the world. I'm often very interested in words and language and how we codify the thing or experience as a way of communicating it. So, from that, I’m also thinking about maps as a text, as something that you read. In a sense, a map is another kind of imposition onto the landscape. Another kind of distortion in and of itself.

How do you begin to process and conceptualise new work?

I'm very in the immediate environment more than anything. I always conceptualise from where I actually am physically. I look around me and what's available, and so on. This is also what has pushed me a lot in different situations out of making the same thing: to encounter new space every time I go, wherever I am, and to allow myself to be responsive to that. I think more than anything, that's what generates new work. 

Could you describe your residency experience at Twee Jonge Gezellen in Tulbagh and how the spaces and landscape influenced your process?

It's been very different to any of the other residency experiences that I have had. Like most of them, it's been an inspiring kind of natural environment. It's been materially a very rich place for me just in terms of collecting ochres and clays and soils. There's a tonne of variety. I have been able to source various colours, and it's also been one of real wonder. 

In the context of the year that I've had, which has felt very fast. The space and the mountains, and being here, has forced me to slow down. Even though I've been quite busy here and trying to meet deadlines and get things done, there is an unavoidable force of slowness that has enveloped me in very particular moments. It’s been really important to just take a breath every now and again and just pause.

‘The Deep History, the Long Past VII’

What drew you to the Tulbagh mountains so strongly?

I've been trying to maintain a complicated relationship with mountains in general. I’m a Xhosa person, I had my rite of passage experience and went to the mountain. I think that's something that has stuck with me up until now and something that I carried with me. That experience, and also encountering a lot of other sort of symbolic ideas surrounding mountains as spaces of solitude and reflection, and particularly the vantage point that they grant you as a person, you climb up and you get a view of the greater landscape. 

I am very much attracted to that sense of solitude. I am also attracted to feeling as though I can, aesthetically, artistically creatively access that particular personal experience of having been to the mountain and all those cultural associations that come with that. I think it was a very big experience for me, and something that shifted something in my sense of self, my sense of identity and orientation in the world.

These mountains are of particular interest as well, because of what they represent historically. So, in thinking about those early maps of Southern Africa and thinking about those early settlers, and people who moved from the Cape, and broke into the interior gradually, and so, those old roads and those old mountain passes are of particular interest, because I'm looking into that history. 

What does creative freedom mean to you?

I've been reading a lot about South African exiles, and particularly musicians, artists, authors, people who left in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s. As the apartheid government intensified, restrictions were being put on people's creative output in general. There was this mass exodus of South African creatives.

I want to make an example in particular with the jazz musicians who left. I've been looking at Johnny Dyani, and Mongezi Feza, who left with The Blue Notes in ‘64. I follow them in particular, because they're from where I'm from. Johnny Dyani from King Williamstown, and Mongezi Feza from Queenstown, now eKomani. They were such a central part of the development of avant garde jazz and free jazz music in Europe. Which is, I would say, radically different from the sound that would be considered South African or even African in general.

It’s been really interesting to think about that in an historical context, and what that creative freedom is, and how that survives now. How those kinds of impositions and expectations on an artist from Africa, or an artist from South Africa, how those things are manifested now. 

Creative freedom is directly related to living in that complicated, difficult place with oneself and not being this or that, but really engaging with the complex nature of whatever, in my case, being black, Xhosa, South African. Those kinds of impositions on my identity and sense of self are about understanding them and acting outside of them and challenging them, to find oneself at a place of pure expression.

What is the significance or symbolism on the ochre and natural soils?

The ochres and soil are a way of maintaining a kind of honesty to myself about my sense of self identity on a cultural level. My experience of the rite of passage into manhood, once you have graduated, so to speak, you, I'm sure you've seen the Navada checkered (or tartan) outfit, but what also goes with that is the application of ochre. Marking that transition as a new man, or having a new identity within society. It comes from the ground, but is also something that is applied on the skin. It becomes this thing that allows me to think about both landscape and the body at the same time.

What resources do these site-specific residencies give you in terms of materiality and the contrast to urban spaces?

When I started working with soil I was at home and I could collect some from my mother's backyard. It was only much later that I realised how complicated this might be to maintain the material. As you know, things are scaling up and I need more of the pigment or more of the soil. It's not just the fact of the distance, but being in an urban space, like Cape Town means that I can't just walk into the nearest veld that I see and start digging, that might get me in trouble. That also just plays back into this the sense of the contestation of land and landscape. All land is owned, it seems, and one cannot, you know, freely meander and interact with the landscape. It's been tricky in the cityscape, but it's been enriching to be in these kinds of residencies and in the natural environment where I can much more easily break ground.

What other materials do you work with in your practice?

I work with sea salt. I work with chalk. I work with compost. I work with fabric, specifically Umbhaco, which is another sort of cultural association. But it's also paper, print media, all kinds of video performance.

‘The Deep History, the Long Past VII’

What is the significance of cowhide pieces?

Cowhide is another cultural reference. It’s also rooted in these interests in South African history and early colonial encounters. In the Xhosa cultural context, cattle are a big deal. They're not just wealth and riches, but cattle also are central to our ability to access the ancestral realm. Through sacrifice and slaughter cattle become this kind of key as it were. The turn to hide and cowhide specifically, it also has to do with learning about the Cattle Killing Movement and history of 1856/57, which was a big, big episode in isiXhosa history that is, again, a lot of historical moments, kind of buried. There's shame around this particular cultural episode among Xhosa people.

My vision has been to extend this idea of cowhide or expanded spatially, and to really get that sense of mass and scale of really what was happening at that time, because there's a lot about it that's very mystical that's also wrapped up in early encounters with the Christian religion.

The cowhide for me is a symbol of loss. 

‘Chronicle of a Death Foretold IV & V’

Can you explain the significance of the flags in your work?

I've been interested in flags for as long as I've been questioning this idea of nationhood and nationality and national identity. There's a story I love to tell, which is that I used to be a flag boy in primary school.  

I'm born in ‘94. April 26, actually, which is like, you know, it was such a boiling and melting sort of moment in South African history.

As I grow, and as I learn, and as I encounter, in particular, in university, things like Fees MustFall and Rhodes Must Fall, and starting to think about the failure of those promises that I grew up around. The flag becomes an appropriate place to sort of question that on the symbolic level. As a symbol, it's quite difficult here.

What role does time play in your work? Do you believe that art making can crystallise a moment and place in time? 

There's something that creative output records that history cannot, that whatever other modes of history making and recording cannot. I even think sometimes public monuments are, over time, great failures, to capture something grand and collective and larger. I think the best work that I find interesting and challenging, has that capacity to be new, every single time. 

I'm listening to music from the 60s and reading work from the 70s, and so on, and how that relates to my experience. There's something important that is unspeakable, indescribable. You can't really write it or capture it in any other way. But to have challenging and valuable artwork is precisely what that does, over time, we can look back at it. 

Even now it has bearing on our being here and our sense of how we're seeing the world. I'm looking at people's work that came before me. It has much greater bearing on me than some history books, or monuments that I've seen across South Africa. 

What does 2024 look like for you in regards to shows and residencies?

I’m in residence at Cité International des Arts in France for the first three months of the year, aiming to settle into a reflective writing period. Following ILIZWE LIFILE (2019), I’ve been ideating another publication of research writing on my practice. 

The rest of ‘24 I’ll be focusing on a new body of work alongside smaller presentations locally and internationally.

Find out more about the KRONE X WITW Artist Residency Programme here

Photo and Video: 

Jonathan Kope

video editing:
mishal fortune



Inga somdyala

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