Understanding a winning artwork

Unpacking Sthenjwa Luthuli’s Umbango (Conflict) by Cate Terblanche

The question “what makes a winning artwork” is often asked of the judges in any competition, and while the judging process is a very complex one, the work itself needs to speak to the judges on several levels.  Besides the innovative thinking required, judges would also consider craftsmanship and content.  Cate Terblanche, Curator of the Sasol Collection is part of the national judging panel this year and here she shares her thoughts below on Umbango, by Sthenjwa Luthuli , which was the runner up in last year’s competition. Sasol acquired this work which now forms part of the Sasol Collection under Cate’s stewardship.

The process of layering content in an artwork is sometimes quite co-incidental, but in most cases, it is a systematic, carefully considered construction of meaning by the artist.  The most successful artworks are often the ones which entice the viewer to explore the work from various perspectives.

Adding content to artworks is often difficult for inexperienced artists, and in the following example, the work by the 2017 Sasol New Signatures runner up Sthenjwa Luthuli entitled Umbango (Conflict), I will discuss how content can be layered into a work.

Looking at the work, one is firstly captivated by the overwhelming precision with which the carving was executed. Sthenjwa, no doubt, is a master of his craft.  Hordes of coloured dots dance across the panel, surrounding three graceful but headless figures.  The mesmerising background of dots swimming before your eyes creates a battlefield of colour which simultaneously disturbs and satisfies the viewer on an aesthetic level.

While the work for the artist is a comment on the conflict generated from the tension between his own Zulu culture, its traditional rituals and customs, and on the other hand the demands of contemporary society, the work does in fact speak to issues of conflict in general.  This open ended understanding allows the viewer to associate their own circumstances and experiences with the thematic content of the artwork. 

Interestingly in this work, the act of carving becomes a metaphor for conflict. The physical act of forcefully digging a sharp tool into a piece of wood echoes the violence often associated with conflict. There is a physical act required by the artist to forcefully create a mark in the wood, as well as an active decision to scar the surface.  While the violence of conflict may be manifest as either physical or psychological, conflict if not managed properly, will result in physical scars and emotional damage.  Sadly, often once the incident has been resolved, the ‘scar’ still remains, sensitive to touch and easily reopened.  The fact that paint covers the incisions, also speaks to how conflict is sometimes hidden rather than being allowed to heal through open debate.  The act of excavating and removing unwanted pieces of wood from the support again echoes the process of conflict, and ultimately healing.

Further the work references several historical artworks, most obviously the dancing figures associated with the French artist Henri Matisse and the Ben-Day dots in the American artist Roy Lichtenstein’s Pop Art paintings. Matisse was associated with Fauvism (and by implication Modernism) in the early 1900s, while Lichtenstein was linked to Pop Art of the 1960s.  Both of these art movements were radical and rather controversial at the time, and the resulting conflict has affected the production and understanding of art ever since.

The depiction of three figures has always had metaphorical meaning in art, from the three figures signifying the Christian Holy Trinity to the three muses associated with creativity. In Greek mythology the muses were inspirational goddesses associated with literature, science and the arts.  If we view the three figures as representing the Christian faith, we can easily deduce the source of conflict for the artist, where Christianity often clashes with traditional rituals and customs.  If we view the figures as the three muses, we could also speculate that the source of conflict is also the source of inspiration for the artist. However, most crucial to the understanding of the work, is the Zulu custom of mediation where two fighting parties are kept apart by a mediator, inviting a ‘dance’ between the conflicting ideas represented by the two antagonists. In a way, conflict resolution becomes a dance of sorts where both parties alter their behaviour to accommodate to the other party, rather than it becoming a contest with only one winner.

The work invites further contemplation, I have not discussed the significance of the headless figures, the colours chosen, and several other aspects. The reader is free to explore these and dance between the ideas sprouting from this musing.  Essentially, it is the complex layers of meanings and references, combined with the superior craftsmanship that ultimately resulted in a highly successful artwork.