Colbert Mashile was born in 1972 in Bushbuckridge in the Mpumalanga Province of South Africa. Mashile says, 'I come from a place that is shrouded by powerful cultural norms and customs.' These customs, such as the ritual of circumcision (which both he and his wife have undergone), informed his earliest work, and he sought refuge and healing through art.
Mashile explores the psychological impact of traditional circumcision and initiation rituals on initiates. He also explores the often-problematic narratives of collective cultural determinants within these communities. As Mashile has matured, the psychological underpinnings are still evident, but his imagery has transgressed these limitations to begin addressing issues such as home, language and the natural landscape. Mashile comes from a family of teachers and was expected to join the family trend on completion of high school. While studying in Pretoria he became curious about the art that he saw in gallery windows on the streets of Pretoria. This led him to the Johannesburg Art Foundation and then to a degree in Fine Arts from the University of the Witwatersrand.
Colbert Mashile has risen to prominence on both national and international level. His recent work is infused with the natural and mystical elements that have become part of his environment since moving back to rural Mpumalanga. Unable to handle the stress of Johannesburg, Mashile has found refuge for himself and his wife and daughters in the quiet of Mpumalanga where he can 'feel and experience my Africanness, let emotions come through and discover the truth about myself.' In nearly every work, what emerges is a subtle tension between an invasive nature and a sense of serenity. It is this dichotomy that is so engaging.
This artist has an uncanny ability to "tune into" universal psychological archetypes in his work. These images are completely based in his African identity and yet they link up with the universal. His horned figures that loom over men, coffin-like vehicles and vast landscapes fill his prints. Mashile's fine sense of colour compliments his forms, which seem to celebrate a connection to the earth.
Mystical figures, phallic images, pods, huts and organic shapes are but some of the visual stimuli, which abound in Mashile's recent work. The commentary on the relation of humans to the environment is unquestionable. Minuscule figures stand unobtrusively atop high structures surrounded by open fields. Some of the paintings depict a clear concern with masculinity. Horns dominate the structures, conveying male aggression.
Mashile, a quiet individual, reflects on his use of symbols and icons. He comments that it simply shows the 'truth about the land and its people and thus my existence in South Africa'. This poignant statement reflects someone who has a clear understanding of the prevalent issues in South Africa. Mashile has found an individual way in which to artistically communicate his own concerns and those of society as a whole, and he does so in a remarkable manner. His work references various elements of more traditional art-production techniques (printmaking and painting). But, within this production, he isolates the personal narrative as the loudest voice within a cacophony of layers of meaning and reference.
Text: The Artists' Press, and photos by KBM and The Artists' Press