“Introspect”: Thonton Kabeya’s introspective visual art passage through material


By Tebogo Boikanyo

Visual art has often been sought as a medium for introspection, and as a tool through which visual artists are able to explore their innermost contemplations while simultaneously reflecting on universal human experiences. Thonton Kabeya’s exhibition titled Introspect, currently on show at the Wits Art Museum from 15 August – 14 October 2023, offers audiences the opportunity to journey into the artist’s examination of selfhood in relation to place. Unlike a retrospective, Introspect presents a selection of Kabeya’s work stemming from his ten-year residence in Johannesburg, providing a glimpse into his explorations of identity and place.

Born in 1983 in Lubumbashi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Kabeya is an artist who captures and expresses African cosmopolitanism in his contemporary collage paintings. His artistic practice has taken him both across the continent as well as the globe; Kabeya lived and worked in Paris before settling in Johannesburg. Kabeya extends the boundaries of traditional painting, particularly by incorporating the use of material in order to create textures, depth, three-dimensionality, as well as tonality in his work. His process involves layering and sculpting canvas, adding elements of varying materials in order to enhance the visual harmony throughout his collection of large-scale sculptural paintings. In an artist walkabout, Kabeya described his process as laboured and iterative, involving the layering of multiple scenes one on top of the other.

Introspect presents audiences with larger-than-life sculptural paintings showcasing elements of collage through found objects. Measuring 300m x 800m, the artwork titled Kasala Inner City Blues is constructed of multiple materials including fragments of glass, mirror, newsprint ink, fabric and walnut powder. Thematically, the works on display grapple with the key concern of place. Kabeya has described this particular  work as a narrative, sectioned into varying visual chapters.

The large-scale works offer impressive displays and present audiences with epic canvases revealing material details upon closer inspection. Kabeya’s work transcends aesthetics, offering viewers an intimate connection with material as a medium. His work explores the manner in which meaning is inherent in the material. In doing so, Kabeya exemplifies the value of introspection in visual art, foregrounding the dual role of creativity as a form of self as well as social reflection. 

The exhibition delves into Kabeya’s personal introspection but also highlights the broader concerns around the specifics of place. By exploring his own subjectivity, Kabeya creates a bridge between his personal narrative and the collective human story. Moreover, Kabeya’s unique perspective as an African artist of Congolese descent who lives in Johannesburg, adds a layer of cultural richness to his work. Introspect serves as a testament to his exploration of his African identity and the complex interplay between his Congolese roots and his experiences in South Africa.

Kabeya’s visual art practice is rooted in the African context, as he draws inspiration from the vibrant cultures, colours, histories, landscapes and materials specific to place on the continent. The works on display offer a nuanced and multifaceted portrayal of the continent and its people. Introspect celebrates the diversity of African experiences while highlighting the common threads that connect its people.

Thonton Kabeya’s exhibition, Introspect, exemplifies the value of art as a tool for introspection. It is both a reflection and an exploration of African identity through material. Through the exhibition, Kabeya invites viewers on a passage into a narrative where personal introspection meets universal themes of humanity explored through materiality. Kabeya’s art acts as a bridge between his individual narrative and the broader human story, transcending cultural and geographical boundaries. The exhibition Introspect serves as a mirror that reflects our shared humanity and the diverse tapestry of the African experience.

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