Meet Simphiwe Ndzube
Simphiwe Ndzube is a visual artist who grew up outside of Cape Town, South Africa in the 1990s. As a child, he made art from found materials, from building objects with mud and sticks to fashioning cars and trucks out of wire and matchboxes. After taking Studio Art classes as a teenager, he attended a prestigious art school at the University of Cape Town. He graduated with a degree in sculpture, but his artworks combine drawing, painting, and collage with 3-D elements like clothing and found objects. Simphiwe now works in Los Angeles, but his early life experiences shape what he creates as an artist.
The artworks in this exhibition are set in the Pink Universe, a world shaped from Simphiwe’s own imagination and memories, but inspired by his native South Africa: its people, history, stories, and landscapes.
Simphiwe was born at the end of apartheid, an era of legalized segregation in South Africa. Apartheid (which means “apartness” in the Afrikaans language) called for the separation of racial groups, not unlike the decades of legal segregation in the United States. The South African apartheid system disproportionately disadvantaged Black South Africans, and its ripple effects are still felt today. While Simphiwe’s Pink Universe hints at social struggles, conflict, and hostility tied to South Africa’s history of colonialism and apartheid, there are also glimpses of playfulness, beauty, and hope.
Simphiwe’s Pink Universe might seem complicated and mysterious, but details in his artworks can help us better understand this imagined world. It may be challenging to talk about these artworks, and that’s okay! This guide can help. It includes:
- Details to look for
- Additional information about the artworks and artist
- Simple prompting questions to help you look closely and start a conversation
We recognize that you know your child best and understand what they may be curious about and/or best equipped to discuss.
Turn your phone to horizontal view for the best experience.
Simphiwe imagined the Pink Universe as a fantastical garden, where humans interact with nature. He uses unusual colors in the landscape—like orange and blue striped hills—to hint that this isn’t a real place. Keep an eye out for other details that let us know we are in a different universe, like a magenta sun, dripping brown-gold clouds, and oversized flowers.
Talk about it: Pick one of Simphiwe’s artworks. What things seem familiar to you? What things seem a little strange or unreal?
Listen closely, and you can almost hear the water running in Simphiwe’s paintings. A man in a boat floats down a rippling, dark blue river and, in another artwork, a bird of paradise flowers in an aqua blue puddle. But, while there is fresh water flowing in the Pink Universe, liquid can also be toxic. In one painting, bright orange, lava-like sludge pours out of a tap, appearing unnatural and unhealthy.
Talk about it: Look closely at the artworks. What tells you the water is clean and nature is thriving. What tells you that it’s not?
Hands and Eyes
The people in Simphiwe’s artworks are hard to miss! Take a closer look at one of the figures. Do you notice how lifelike the eyes are? They aren’t painted—they're photographs of the artist’s eyes (and some of his friends’ eyes) printed and pasted on the canvas. Now look at the hands. You’ll notice they are also collaged photographs and seem to be in the middle of moving or
gesturing. Why would the artist add the photographs to his painting? The real hands and eyes are a way to connect us with something familiar and real in this imaginary world.
Talk about it: What do you think the gestures mean? What are these people trying to tell us? Each other?
Ever since he was a child, Simphiwe has had an interest in repurposing found objects. Second-hand clothes are given a new life in his artworks as he folds, stitches, and knots each piece. He chooses clothing that reminds him of people from his childhood. As Simphiwe said, “They are like my uncles ... They are that gentleman singing. … It’s a way of collecting all of these memories into imagined, fantastical worlds.
Talk about it: What stands out to you about the clothes the people are wearing? Do they tell us anything about them? Remind you of anyone you know?
Humans and Animals
Humans and animals coexist in the garden-like environment of the Pink Universe and interact in interesting ways. You may have already noticed that some of the humans have a very animal characteristic: hooves instead of feet! These hybrid human-animals are mythical beings in the Pink Universe.
Take look at the snake-like creature curled around a tree. Many people fear or dislike snakes, but in South Africa, a snake can signify a welcome visitor, a friend and protector. Maybe that’s why the people around the tree don’t seem to be afraid of it!
Talk about it: If you could have any animal characteristic, what would it be and why?