Art In Conversation
Cinga Samson with Amanda Gluibizzi
“I start with the conversation, which leads to the painting. And sometimes even without me consciously thinking, it feels as if the painting is carrying on that conversation.”
New York CityFLAG Art Foundation
Iyabanda Intsimbi / The metal is cold
October 16, 2021 – January 15, 2022
Photographs alone cannot convey the subtlety of Cinga Samson’s paint handling and surfaces. The artist paints in a technique that visually suggests the quick-drying nature of tempera, but his fineness of detail and the glossiness of his finishing glazes tell us otherwise. Samson’s palette is also subdued: his most recent paintings, on display at the FLAG Art Foundation in an exhibit titled Iyabanda Intsimbi / The metal is cold, explore the deeper, darker ranges of greens, browns, greys, and oxblood.
Deeper and darker could easily describe his subject matter, as well. Twenty-three torso-length portraits (possibly of the artist himself, though possibly not) and three large history paintings intimate stories of potential danger and even dread. The portraits are studies in melancholy or defiance, the male figure sporting printed brocade bomber jackets or heavy knit sweaters and often delicately holding flowers, herbs, or branches in front of him. The bigger paintings are populated by figures seemingly caught in the middle of we can’t say what. They might be performing a ritual or conducting a dance; they could be slaughtering an animal or just distributing food to each other. Whatever their actions, we seem to have caught them unawares, the illumination from our phones or the brightness of car headlights glancing off the not-quite-whites of their eyes. Surrounding them is the jungle in all its vegetation—allowing for truly wonderful Great Patch of Turf moments—or the built environment of Capetown and its surrounds, an urban setting that could read as an everywhere except for the people who know it and can feel the specificity of Samson’s locations.
Cinga Samson was born in South Africa and spent his early life traveling back and forth between the Eastern and Western Capes. He received his art education from fellow artists, moving into a studio shared by the artists Gerald Tabata, Xolile Mtakatya, and Luthando Laphuwano who helped him to develop and hone his craft. He was the recipient of the 2017 Tollman Award for the Visual Arts, administered by the TreadRight Foundation. His first solo show in the United States, Amadoda Akafani, Afana Ngeentshebe zodwa (Men are different though they look alike) at Perrotin New York in 2020, explored notions of desire and art’s role in such emotions. Samson’s current exhibition is on display until January 15, 2022.
Amanda Gluibizzi (Rail): Have you lived in Cape Town your entire life?
Cinga Samson: No, I was born in Cape Town, this was in 1986, and around six months later my mother moved us back to the Eastern Cape. I spent some time there, probably until I was about 11, then moved back to Cape Town. Before I turned 15 I moved back to the Eastern Cape again, and came back when I was 19 to Cape Town. So, I’ve been living and moving between the two provinces, Eastern Cape and Western Cape, which is Cape Town.
Rail: And when you moved back when you were 19 was that your decision? Or did you move back with your family again?
Samson: After I finished high school, I decided to leave the Eastern Cape and come and live in Cape Town where a few of my older siblings were staying.
Rail: And then it was shortly after that that you approached this artist’s studio and were accepted into it a few years later. Is that correct?
Samson: Yes, actually the very same year. My house was just around the corner; it didn’t take too long before I walked in and introduced myself.
Rail: Oh, okay. So very soon after.
Samson: It was a couple of months after I arrived that I started working in that studio with three artists: Gerald Tabata, Xolile Mtakatya, and Luthando Laphuwano.
Rail: And are they much older than you are? How established were they?
Samson: I mean, to me, they seemed at that time to be well known. But when I look at it now, it was more like the local scene was totally aware of them, they were popular in the country. But at that time, I really felt they were established.
Rail: And what do you feel you learned from them about being an artist?
Samson: A lot of things, you know, because it was my first time working in an environment where other people were painting seriously: it’s not a thing that you do in your room, it’s a special space, and people do this from early in the morning until the afternoon. I had no idea about oil medium, or the difference between different types and different ranges of all mediums. So, all of those basic understandings I learned from them. Also, I learned strong values in terms of what is an artist, and how an artist should be, and what is a real artist, what is not a real artist, and how to be in the studio. Sometimes they would say, “You can’t have money and buy yourself fancy things if you don’t have paint, you need to have material first. When you’ve sold an artwork, one of the first things you go and get is material. Make your studio right.” And then it comes to you: this was paint before bread, this was paint before anything else. And everything was thrifty at that time. But when I think about it, I was very strict, and painting needs a lot of discipline to be able to do it. So they were incredible in teaching me that, and also just freeing my mind in terms of how to think—especially Bra Xolila Mtakatya who had already travelled at that time. He spoke about meditation; I didn’t know anything about meditation, but he was like, I need to meditate, and he would do this in his own way, sometimes he would do these Tai Chi moves, and this was all new for me and so slightly bizarre. And then he would paint afterwards, and the studio was an open space so I was really curious about it, and it was all slightly dramatic for me and fascinating. And I think I learned a lot from just being there in terms of values and the culture of being an artist.
Rail: Can you tell us a little bit about your process? You’ve said that you make a drawing to start, and I believe I’ve read that you then set up a scene and photograph it and then make a drawing again, and then paint, is that correct?
Samson: Well, before I start a project, I have a sensation that leads me—something that I seem to have noticed through my life experiences or things that I’m observing. This feeling gives me something that I end up investigating more in thought. I use my own experiences, but I also look at how other people are having conversations about it. What I am saying in the show is the result of these long conversations to get to the center of what I want to say.
From there, I move to looking for areas or states where I think this thing could play out, or this picture I want to create could make sense in that environment. Once I’ve selected that, I organize a models shoot, and after that I take those images, transfer them to a drawing on canvas, and then paint from those images. The image and the painting are different, but you can see how I got to the painting through looking at those photographs.
Rail: Do you keep your initial source and reference images, or do you destroy them afterwards?
Samson: I’ve kept them for years.
Rail: And do you intend to display them at some point? Or are they just for yourself?
Samson: I don’t know, maybe at some point; I often have thoughts of revisiting them, so I like to keep the references.
Rail: You said two different things that I would like to ask you a little bit more about. You said that you had long conversations with yourself. When you say conversations, do you mean—are you sketching? Or are you going for a run and talking things out with yourself? What do you mean by “having a conversation”?
Samson: Sometimes I’m writing. Sometimes I’m experiencing, you know, and that pushes me to consider what I was experiencing, what is happening where. Most of the time I end up in my journals, so I’m having these thoughts and somehow, it seems as if my mind is slowly working towards a point or an understanding. But this happens organically; I just allow it to happen. I don’t force it. It’s more like a spontaneous thought, if that makes sense. I’ll write it or go and tell somebody, most of the time I tell it to Jonathan, my studio manager. And so this keeps on happening simultaneously with the development of the artworks. By the time I’m done with the paintings, I have reached a lot of understanding of what I’m trying to talk about, what conversation the work is trying to have.
Rail: That’s a perfect way for me to ask the second question that I had, which was, you talk about happening upon sensations that you want to investigate more, and I’m curious about that. Do you mean a mood or an emotion? Or do you mean a story or a narrative?
Samson: No, I don’t mean a mood or a story or narrative. It depends on what I’m talking about at that time, but let me frame it by just giving you a background of how the FLAG exhibition came about.
Samson: For a long time, I’ve wanted to do works that will have a conversation about violence, but the reason why I wanted to do that show was because I felt as if I’ve experienced violence, or being violated, you know, by life for a long time. I want you to understand these are just thoughts. This is me talking to myself. And this is me trying to get to a point where I could have the conversation, if that makes sense. So I’m asking myself, how can I have this conversation? And one thing that came into my mind was an experience that I had when I was five and I saw two men stabbing each other. A man stabbed another man to death. He bled where we were playing outside, and we passed that road every day.
The blood in that place, I saw it changing from one form to another, from bright red to dark maroonish to crystallizing because no one cleaned the blood. At the same time, I seem to have had other moments that were similar—they just happen in life like that. And I was wondering, as the thought was progressing, why is life attached to so much brutality and so much violence? So, I asked some of my team members and some of my friends, as we’re talking just casually, about the moments where they’ve experienced a sort of violence and violation from life. And they told me different stories that were almost all as brutal as mine, in a very rough way, not necessarily happening to them, but sometimes happening to others around them. And so I thought, I can create an exhibition out of this.
At the same time, I wasn’t so confident that I have what it takes inside to create such an exhibition; inside, I felt slightly shallow to talk about such a very strong subject that has been touched so many times. What is there for me to say? I was doubting myself in this. I was looking at other artists who have sort of dealt with this in their own different ways. And, of course, Goya was one of the artists who turned out to be important. I was looking at him and I was thinking, how did he reach into himself to be able to create this? And the answer was the world: there was war, there were things he was observing, but for me, I’m living in a different time. I don’t have those sorts of experiences directly happening around me right now. So how do I reach inside?
This conversation happened until I did the show at Perrotin in New York. It was open a week when I arrived, and the show and everything in New York soon closed due to the coronavirus. This was slightly disappointing to me, and I thought, “Okay, I don’t understand what’s happening.” Or sorry, I understood what’s happening, but I was like, okay, I would have loved the show to be seen because I really felt proud of what I’ve done. So I came back to South Africa and I went to the Eastern Cape to see my parents, and then I had this huge fight with my siblings. It was very violent, and it was very hurtful because of what it was a fight about: I’m a stepchild. So, it was more of a blood type of fight, and I really felt like I didn’t choose it, I didn’t choose to be born in that setup. I came back to Cape Town feeling so disappointed, and just at that time I got the coronavirus. After that, after I healed from the coronavirus some months later, my father passed away. I started having all these things that I felt—I didn’t do anything to motivate these things, I felt like I didn’t deserve this, so I felt quite violated.
I was very hurt and disappointed in all of this, but a new thought now started to come out of that: actually, this is what happens, you know, this is how life seems to be set up. Not necessarily the bad experiences, but bad things happen. If life chooses, it can dispose of you; you’re just disposable. That’s why we have houses with strong walls, padlocked doors, secured spaces, because we are afraid of this thing, that life can just come if it wants to take you. And we’re not safe, we don’t know how to make ourselves safe, safe from this. I was looking at this, and I was thinking that, actually, this is something that is not even personal. You know, it’s not about making my life miserable or making anyone’s life miserable. This is a setup we’re in, and it seems like a contract that is there. The ultimate point of us is death. We understand it, and we’re clear about it; it doesn't bother us that much. But we will live our lives trying to avoid it as much as we can. Not to die. So we run away from it. But it’s there. And we know, we cannot escape it. And I was thinking, this is so funny. This is very funny. If I was God, I wouldn’t necessarily allow this part. You know, I think life could still carry on without that contract and just be maintained in other magical ways.
And this show is very much dominated by this thing that we cannot escape in life. But this thing, it’s not clumsy. It’s very elegant, because we are still alive. We’re still talking—you and I are right now, and we’re having a conversation about it, and we feel safe, but when it comes, and it does come, it doesn’t take everyone else in the house. Or sometimes it does. Sometimes it’s my friend’s mother, or grandmother, or sometimes a young person, or someone you used to know. It’s a system or a pattern the way this thing is happening. And I didn’t want to call it violence because violence is something that you can quantify; it happened here and at this time, but this thing is something I cannot even quantify. I don’t know what to call it. It’s not just a moment.
And then my thoughts stretched even slightly more. And I was thinking, actually, everything that exists seems to be suffering from this. The mountains, every day, as time goes by they have moved, the soil erosion, sea life, plants, animals, even dark holes in space—they eat, they can swallow each other. Stars collide, and they explode, and they form new stars. This is the thing that I wanted to create or paint or give it something physical. You know, give it an image that is tangible to us, so that we can understand it as humans. I can only do it in a certain way, as a painter, a figurative painter, creating a mood, a sense, or a picture that is whispering it.
This is what I wanted to paint. I didn’t know what to call it; I didn’t have the right terminology, the right language for it. I don’t remember someone addressing it to me directly, so that I could know how to talk about it, to say what it is. So, I wanted to give a picture to it, some sort of picture to it, just let you look at it for a few minutes, because it’s a reality that feels so brutal when you think about it. But even as I’m saying it’s brutal, I’m just thinking about this thing I said, this contract of death we have, that we’ll die, and we accept it so easily. It’s natural, we call it natural. And I find that very strange. I wanted to do these works that can capture that. I want to give the viewer not just a picture but some sort of poetry, that sort of a poem or poetry that fills the room, and just kind of whisper it or say it in a way that we can accept it through looking at it.
Rail: It’s interesting that you say these things because as I walked through the show, I felt that it was fascinating to me that so many of the figures stared out at me forthrightly, although of course, because their eyes are blank, I can’t know that they’re staring at me. But they didn’t seem fearful or even necessarily confrontational. They seemed present. And what I was really struck by was almost a sense of menace.
Samson: Sorry to sort of catch you up. Could you please just say what is “menace” again so that I can be with you?
Rail: Oh, yes. It’s a sense that something is looming. And perhaps something is happening to these figures in your paintings that I can’t possibly know about, and possibly that they can’t know about. And so, they are possibly reacting to it or are trying to be proactive and to ward something off.
What struck me, though, reading about the Perrotin show, was that you mentioned that you were trying to describe a sense of curiosity. Perhaps I feel menace or risk, but you are approaching it from this more open-ended point of view. Your description of how you came to these paintings was fascinating to me because I was feeling this sense of peril, or a certain amount of danger. And I’m not sure if I felt it for myself, or if I felt it for the figures in your paintings.
Samson: These are the conversations. Even when I did the Perrotin show, I was having a conversation with myself, and my mind was curious to investigate that question. I enjoy the sense of the figures. They’re present, they are there. You are starting to move towards them, and they are aware of your presence. Even the ones that are not even looking at you, it’s as if they are aware you are approaching. I can see myself approach with a slightly cautious feeling; I must be more cautious. As if, if I take a wrong step and if I step on something that creates a sound, some people just might jump. But if I’m respectful, I might just get away. They seem to be saying that you need to be cautious, don’t get any closer. There seems to be some energy about the figures and about the paintings. It’s just in the presence. It is there. You know, it’s around the whole painting. Maybe it’s the dark, maybe it’s the quietness, maybe the silence. Maybe it’s just a strange mood that the works convey, but it’s hard for me to say.
Rail: In an earlier interview, you described it sort of as knowing that there’s a snake in an aloe. And so you’re approaching it carefully, because you’re curious, and you want to see it, but also you want to make sure that you’re safe.
Samson: Yes, I wanted to do that, that’s the sense I wanted the audience to have. I think it also comes from another sense that I don’t like when someone is approaching a painting, and they just put almost their whole face into it. I want to create works that keep that distance, but also the conversation and the subjects that I’m talking about are very sensitive; I don’t think someone moving too quickly would necessarily hear them. But we need to slow down a little bit. If you slow your pace down, I think that could help.
Rail: I think one of the ways that you achieve that is by painting with a fairly dark palette and then also putting this really high gloss over your work. When I was at the FLAG installation, I was really struck by the fact that you can’t stand in front of a painting just from one spot and see everything. You have to move back and forth and up and down and in and out. And so, to read your paintings does, in fact, take time because of the way that you’re building them.
Samson: Yeah, I can see that. And the medium itself, oil paint, is reflective. But I think it’s slightly more complex than that. Because, depending what time it is, the lighting, and especially the light of the day, the works seem to react and respond to that. At one hour, you know, the work would allow you to see it completely. Even the paint itself, the way it’s placed, is luminous. This creates a reaction with light.
Rail: Why do you choose to work in oil paint? Some of the moments in your work seemed fairly linear and reminded me almost of tempera.
Samson: I started working with oil paint because it was the paint that was mostly used in the studio where I started to work as a professional artist. At that time, I could not afford oil paint. But the artists around me were buying paint tubes. And, to me, that was exciting, and I wanted to work with it; it made me want to begin. It was more like a status thing, you know, the right brand. But later on, it became a medium where I felt that I could do my own research. I got fascinated about how to apply paint, different methods of applying paint, and how much you could use, and how much illusion you can create with this medium, and how it has been used before. When I look at a painting, I really look at how the paint is applied. I think maybe the average viewer can just love the painting, but I really look for whether the application is brilliant. It’s just oil paint, you know, but there’s something really satisfying about that texture, it can be almost like butter.
Then later, I started to realize, actually, it’s a thing to be an oil painter; it’s a medium that has a lot of history in it. It has produced great masters, you know? It’s something that needs to be handled with care, with love. You can be really ambitious in it, if that makes sense.
Rail: It absolutely makes sense. I felt that I was seeing a history of oil painting in your exhibition. In the painting with the group of people around a barrel of meat, there’s a crouching figure. He reminded me very much of a figure from Caravaggio, for example, or the first wall as you enter the FLAG Foundation. We see these smaller paintings of a man from the torso up, holding flowers, herbs, or different plants. And, of course, there’s a wonderful tradition of oil painters painting themselves holding flowers, you know, so thinking about Albrecht Dürer, thinking about Otto Dix, and then even, even photographers, too, right? Like, say, Seydou Keïta does his wonderful ’59 self-portrait, and I felt that history … I get a sense of the tradition into which you’re placing yourself.
Samson: Yes. That is something that I really recognize and that is that oil painting continues. Painting continues, you know? It’s not something that I could separate or isolate myself from. But I desire more than just to continue with this long tradition of oil painting. I try to use the medium really to reflect and work in a very sensitive, respectful way; respectful to the audience and also to myself as a poet or as an artist, to take seriously my role as painter.
Rail: I wanted to ask you about these single figure paintings that you’ve included in this exhibition. They feel to me like they could reference a self-portrait because they hold the flowers in front of them; the flower-holding gesture could be replaced by a paintbrush, right? You hold this stem very delicately, and it’s a similar gesture to holding a paintbrush. But as I was walking through the show, I kept also thinking about them as still lifes. There was just something about the stillness of these figures, whether they’re self-portraits or the portraits of another man. They seem like they could be alive, but also they seem like they could be another element in a painting. And so, they could then be still-life paintings, almost.
Samson: I can also see it … in the sensitivity of the skin, you know? How tender, how soft, and how much it feels … when you look at it, it can give the illusion of this life. And flowers, you also want to give it this illusion that it’s alive: it’s standing, it’s alive. If it was fresh, there’s that strong inner pressure to keep it fresh, you know, to keep it more alive. I think still lifes should be painted in a very gentle way. There’s something very fragile about it. And I can feel some of those elements in the work, you know? This one figure, alone, quiet, not sure whether it’s night or day. You know, there’s something very … there is something very sensitive, I think that’s the word I'm looking for, you also find in still lifes and especially in flower still lifes. I can see that coming through.
Rail: So many of your paintings have these details in them: the vegetation, the suggestion of cars in the background, highways, the buildings of Cape Town. These are building up a topography but also building up something that feels very claustrophobic, almost. So we don’t necessarily get a sense of the landscape, entirely. We feel, instead, like the setting is pressing on us.
Samson: There’s something very dense about the atmosphere of the painting, and everything in it is there to support that. I don’t think it is individual elements which make the painting claustrophobic but rather the whole atmosphere. Everything is where it is supposed to be in terms of distance and spacing. The set up in the painting is also very recognizable to the people who know the locations; these are real places that are not made up.
But I think that it is the tenseness and thickness in the painting which creates that feeling that this is not entirely a normal space. Even in the way the paintings are created there is a lot of detail which seems to be luminous, and I think that means that almost everything in the painting seems to be on the verge of saying something. Maybe it is this denseness of information which can feel like you are in a tight corner. Perhaps also it is the authority that the figure seems to possess that is pressing, and the energy that is coming from the surrounding atmosphere. I didn’t want to create works that are about satisfying the audience, but I want to create works that are complete on their own. I’m hoping maybe the audience will find satisfaction from that.
Rail: The works are interesting because they build a world for themselves. But it’s not a world that we can occupy.
Rail: I agree with you: even though they have this amazing articulation and attention to detail, that is a distancing motif, and it is something that allows us to know that this is a different world from the one that we live in.
Samson: Absolutely. Because, no, it doesn’t resemble real life, life that we are used to, like a bright day. Or, you know, if it’s bright, then it’s as if the light is almost scorching, you know, it’s desert-like. When I was doing the slightly silhouetted figures, sometimes I’d put them on a dry background or landscape and give you that feel of the sun that turns the figures slightly darkish. You can’t see, or you can’t see exactly, or feel their facial features, you know? It’s a strange world, it’s a strange space that the figures would be in.
Rail: Yes, I like this word “scorched” that you use; I think it’s completely appropriate. And it’s true: they seem dark, but perhaps they’re dark because it’s too bright.
Samson: And the sun is not like the bright sun, like the bright, bright, bright sun, like a heavy sun. Not like, how some Impressionist artists would interpret the light, you know? It’s not that, it’s not candy. It’s something very strange. Something that suffocates.
Rail: Where do you take these images now? Do you move to an entirely new series? Or do you build on what you’ve already made?
Samson: You mean, in terms of the conversation? There’s no breakage, Amanda, in this process. Because it spills, in different forms, from one point to another. People will talk about it as if it stops, or it breaks, but it doesn’t. We still carry a lot of knowledge and information from this process to the next one, all of the works are controlled by that, but they are also controlled by time and the development of my technique, which is to say my relationship with oil paint. But there’s no breakage, and what I like to do is to paint or investigate things that I’m consistently curious about, that are lingering in my mind, you know? I’m also thinking, when I create works, that I really want them to feel more like a movie.
I start with the conversation, which leads to the painting. And sometimes even without me consciously thinking, it feels as if the painting is carrying on that conversation, and I then respond to what has been happening automatically. As soon as I exhaust a particular kind of thinking, or idea, then a new pattern seems to appear in my mind that I’m curious about, or find strange, and that I think I want to explore more, and leads to my new artworks. So in that way, the artworks kind of follow what it is that is occupying my mind at that time. I want the poetry to just sit exactly where my heart was, when I was creating the works. That is important to me.