Devendra Banhart and Simphiwe Ndzube: Kindred Spirits Connect at an L.A. Gallery

The Venezuelan-American musician-painter and the South African multimedia artist talk about their upbringings, inspirations, and making art with a sense of humor

To an outsider it might not be apparent that the Venezuelan-American folk musician and painter Devendra Banhart and the South African multimedia artist Simphiwe Ndzube would have a “cosmic connection” that spans both life and art. It might not even be apparent to those visiting their respective solo shows—The Grief I Have Caused You and Like the Snake that Fed the Chameleonthat opened at Nicodim Gallery this past weekend. But the similarities in their upbringings, artistic approach, and inspirations are uncanny despite any differences in their aesthetic, conceptual, or material concerns. Even their names share a kinship: Devendra means “King of Gods” in Hindi; Simphiwe translates to “given from God” in Xhosa. Still, these similarities may never have been exposed were it not for the isolation of the pandemic and the watchful eye of Nicodim’s global director Ben Lee Ritchie Handler.

Banhart, who briefly studied on a scholarship at the San Francisco Art Institute while busking around the Castro before releasing his first album at the age of 21, has been steadily making pencil-and-ink drawings and watercolors over the past two decades. Many have graced his album covers, including 2011’s What Will It Be, which earned him a Grammy nod for Best Recording Package. Along the way he’s also nabbed performance, pop-up, and exhibition slots at top art world venues including Hauser & Wirth, the Hammer Museum, and SFMOMA (where his drawings were shown against the works of Paul Klee in 2008). Still, the 39-year-old singer-songwriter never felt he had the full attention of the art world until Ritchie Handler saw his “Lockdown Paintings” in November and offered him his first L.A.-set solo painting show.

“They’re two of the most charismatic people I’ve ever met, like you can feel them when they’re in the room even if you can’t see them,” Ritchie Handler says of the two artists. “And that energy comes through in both of their work. They have this similar feel for deconstructed appendages and share a readily apparent yet elusive narrative.”

For Banhart, a Chöd Buddhist who is influenced as much by Picasso and Helen Frankenthaler as Das Ram and Judy Chicago, that narrative is inwardly focused through a series of discreet (in some cases petite) ink and spray-painted works on paper and modestly scaled oil paintings on panel and canvas ranging from early color field drawings and floral still lifes (including the one on the cover of his 2018 album Ma) to a broad swath of pandemic paintings that dismantle the body in the form of neo-Cubist figures offering up hybridized body parts to the gods or turning centuries-old Ukiyo-e prints into tantric demons. “It’s all about this destruction of ego that all comes down to dicks and pussies and eyes and flowers,” Ritchie Handler observes. “Where Simphiwe is mythologizing these forms, Devendra is going for this ultimate socialism where we are all nothing and all everything.”

The 30-year-old Ndzube has a distinctly South African angle of approach—filled with all the attendant postcolonial trauma—that he throws into a surrealist blender with a little Boschian excess by way of Skid Row. His epic gold and neon-hued paintings are often embellished with spray paint, lace, image transferred eyes, duct tape animal skins, and three-dimensional figures dressed in thrift store clothes, weaves, synthetic braids, and all manner of glittery frills from Maple & Craft Trimming in the Fashion District, where he keeps a sprawling studio. What began with magical realist depictions of his fictionalized “Mine Moon” (a Cape Town shanty realm inhabited by the swenka, who work in the diamond mines and then compete in legendary peacocking pageants on Sundays) have spun into a networked fable of bubble cultures that might seem foreign or exoticized to outsiders, but are really just depictions of besieged kings and queens. Those multimedia bubbles transformed local complexities into global curiosities and have quickly turned the 30 year-old Ndzube, who arrived in L.A. in 2016, into an art market darling with a CV packed with gallery, institutional, and biennial shows around the world; this show is already sold out. Still, for Ndzube, this moment is one for further transformation. In addition to his portraits and landscapes occupying the expanded Mine Moon milieu, he’s constructed an ascendant angel figure floating above the reception desk, a bricolage beast machine hewn from sculpted hands, teeth, and secondhand clothes and a bicycle from Goodwill; a field of clay and steel corn stalks topped with gazing balls sourced from the Garment District; and Rainbow Nation of God, Cities on the Sky, a sheetmetal and Plexiglas shanty resembling the one his mother built and he lived in as a child.

“After she passed he built one for himself this exact size in high school. His professor told him it was his first sculpture,” says Ritchie Handler, noting, “During the World Cup the government built walls around the townships so tourists couldn’t see them. So now he’s putting his first artwork in a gallery for the people from whom it was being hidden to celebrate as high art.” As such, the structure floats above a patch of earth and mulch and emits a 20-minute sonic installation by Thabo K. Makgolo and Zimbini Makweth that invokes earth, wind, witch-hunting, and nocturnal creatures.

As Ritchie Handler explains, “Devendra deconstructs the tangible into the esoteric; Simphiwe builds the esoteric into the tangible.”

Here, the two multihyphenates walk us through their solo efforts with some introspection and humor.

When did you two meet?

DB: At the beginning of the lockdown we met briefly

SN: Actually, you came to my show in 2017. Ben Lee is always gathering people together and for me being new here, I need to have a photographic memory.

DB: But I feel like we’ve always known each other. I felt this immediate familiarity. And that’s a vibrational thing, but in terms of backstory, he grew up in Cape Town and came here and I grew up in Venezuela and then came here. There’s so much in common in these two places that we love that are very problematic. And that feeling of being an outsider. I feel like I’m an American when I’m in Venezuela and I’m more Venezuelan when I’m in America.

Do you feel that?

SN: Not really.

DB: Yesterday I asked him where does he go in L.A. when he misses South Africa.

SN: And my answer to that was that stuck in COVID working on this show so much of it is about nostalgia, because even though I can’t go home for this moment to just stop and be in one place is really incredible and I wanted to savor that a little more, so I’m playing a lot of music that’s hitting home, that’s really emotional. I’m playing a lot of music my mom would play, like Miriam Makeba, Brenda Fassie, and newer artists. I haven’t been home to witness, but I feel like I’m part of that space because these are my contemporaries. Music, the old school and new school, is that altar that centers me in one place. It’s problematic but filled with love and appreciation of the everyday.

When were you last in South Africa?

SN: I was last there in 2018 for a show at Stevenson Gallery and left in January 2019 and I’m going next month for a month.

When was the last time you were in Venezuela?

DB: In 2016 I went back to Caracas. It was that feeling of coming home and being happy to see people that I love, but the oppression of a dictatorship is so tangible. You can really feel it in the air and see it on the buildings which are painted with giant portraits of the dictator and in between commercials they show the eyes of Chavez and they dissolve; it’s this literal Big Brother thing. They appear after the last commercial and dissolve before the show begins and it’s so spooky. It’s a sense of a military, political oppression and people are very used to it. You still make art, still try to start a band, make a buck, but it’s an experience that’s hard to communicate because you’re not really free to express yourself or your own inner world in any way. But I thought your answer was so beautiful. I thought you might pick a South African restaurant but the answer was music. I can relate to that. I listen to Venezuelan music and it takes me back to Venezuela but also those artists’ dreams of a better Venezuela. The biggest waterfall in the world is Angel Falls. Can you go to Angel Falls? Yes, but you run the risk of being kidnapped. They killed Miss Universe. But we’re digressing.

Well, let’s get back to music then. A lot of your paintings are old album covers and relate to albums. And then for you, Simphiwe, the music is filling the space where figures appear to be dancing and flying.

 SN: Yeah, for me it started with growing up in the townships of Cape Town. The one thing that unifies a lot of the people experiencing oppression is music. They want to unify and express and release these tensions of this backbreaking work on the weekend. The music, from jazz to house to Afropop to traditional folk music, becomes this space where people connect. Music is felt at the heart. I liked what you said about Venezuelan musicians expressing these aspirations of a better place and imagining ahead. In South Africa a lot of that early music was fighting. It was a lot of jazz musicians who told the world what was happening in South Africa in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Connecting to that and understanding we have a black majority and a black-run country—not in economics but appearance—but it seems like people are still worse off in terms of personal mobility, so music is still this one space. Everyone dances. These experiences lead up to the piece downstairs and explore how I’m changing and how do I not let the condition of my place not dictate who I continue to be. It’s a proposal of metamorphosis and change. It’s a collaboration between a friend I went to art school with, Thabo K. Makgolo. He studied classical music and opera. He came to my show in 2018 at Stevenson Gallery and he said, “I saw your show but I felt like there was one dimension left to explore,” which was music so I said, “I’m going to take you up on that comment and we expand on it.” So then Zimbini Makweth, she is making soundscape and traditional folkloric, almost religious, music for people back home. She’s also an academic. I wanted to combine that with Thabo’s study of opera and classical music and then let’s put them together and explore and see how far we go. I wanted this feeling, texture, aesthetic that feels like it begins with wind blowing the night and then sets off on this spacious journey that travels through water—not fire—but travels through the different elements.

DB: How long is the piece?

SN: It’s 19 minutes.

Patrick Kellycooper

So now the structure floats at about the same height as the barrier walls that hid the townships during the World Cup.

SN: Yeah, that was the proposal from the government because after 20 years we haven’t been able to fix the problem of the squatter camps and urban sprawl of people who were removed from their places. People got used to it, but when the whole world is looking we’re embarrassed like we haven’t been cleaning our underwear and socks. We didn’t want to do anything about the problem just create a structure that hides, so this is floating it’s hypervisible and it’s got this sound that gives so much weight to the lightness of its floating.

A view of Simphiwe Ndzube’s installation at Nicodim Gallery

Patrick Kellycooper

There’s always been trauma associated with your work, but in this moment of mass trauma there seems to be a lightness to it that goes beyond the magical realist elements. It seems like you’re also having a liberating moment in these new lockdown paintings, Devendra. What is this moment doing for your work?

DB: We were just talking about how this is the first time I could work in oil because I’m not on tour. I’ve been on tour for ten years straight and then was either on tour or living somewhere else for the ten years before that. I’ve basically been on tour for 20 years, so this is really the first time I could paint like this. I call some of them Lockdown Portraits because the day was made up of talking on the phone to everyone I know about this mixture of I need to be strong, I need to find hope attitude and then I’m submerged in despair. This was hours of talking to friends at the beginning so these portraits were born of me basically painting this play on drama. The symbol is two faces: one smiling; one happy. A tragic comedy. It could also be a portrait of myself and this person I’m speaking to so it’s this portrait of despair but then finding somehow…I’m painting this until I laugh, until I crack up. Once the painting cracks me up, I’m done.

devendra banhart
Chod Offering at Jongsong Peak, 2021 by Devendra Banhart

SN: I like that.

DB: I just want to see somebody having a good time, because I’m not. The other side is the Chöd aspect. We were talking about leprosy. That’s some serious Chöd karma where you body is literally falling off but the Chöd practice in Tibetan Buddhism, which is what I practice, is this ceremony of mentally offering every part of your body, you basically take your head off, your mind, your skull, and in your skull you place all your body parts and offer it to the deities. And then that’s very cleansing, detaching. It’s this fruit cocktail of body parts you’re offering. I’m kind of painting to process a form psychic transcendence.

At this moment when our bodies are so vulnerable maybe that’s all you can offer up?  

DB: Exactly, because the more I identify with my body the more frightened I become because even if there wasn’t a pandemic I’d be aging, my body is changing, so aging is a way to create suffering or liberation through suffering. What’s the name of that building in your show?

SN: It can be called a squatter camp, shack, or IHoki. Mandela’s proposal for transition was very much about reconciliation and offering peace and hope, and I feel like I channel these two worlds of trauma, but you have to find a way to be together and live and forge a new path and a new world and that’s my generation. The language even changed from Afrikaans to English. My parents cannot participate because the language of power is different. We speak 11 languages interchangeably.

That sounds like one of his albums.

DB: (Laughs) Do you speak 11 languages?

SN: No, but my mom spoke like eight. I speak English but understand Xhosa, Zulu, Sutu, Afrikaans. You kind of take the broken or seemingly broken parts together and put them into a unifying whole.

Growing up in these spaces what were your first experiences of art? Devendra, you were born in Houston, right?

DB: Yeah, I was born in Texas but immediately moved to Venezuela. My parents divorced. My biological father went to jail. He was arrested when I was born and went to jail for six years, and I immediately moved to Venezuela. [My mother is] from Caracas. I never met anyone from my biological father’s side. We lived there until she met her new husband who I call my father. He’s the first person I ever called Dad. So the art in Venezuela is mostly architectural or sculptural like Carlos Cruz Diez. You’re walking down the street and you’ll find a faded Carlos Cruz Diez. That’s why I get so nostalgic the first time I walked from the Broad to Disney Hall. I know these colors. But there’s not really a gallery culture there. A show is a really underground thing. A show is at someone’s party. There were no venues when I was growing up and definitely not today.

When did you move there?

DB: It was in the ’90s. I was born in 1981 so probably three or four I moved to Caracas and I was there for the first coup attempt that Chavez staged. It was already extreme chaos. All I heard was that you got to bang your pots and pans out the window singing “Get the President out!” Carlos Andrés Pérez was the president Chavez was trying to overthrow. The TV was all people with AK-47s, Chavez telling the people to stay home and then at 8 p.m. everyone banging pots and chanting. That’s how you buy into propaganda as a kid because you get to bang a pot and pan and not go to school.

They make it fun.

DB: I was already interested in art because everyone made fun of me. I had a weird name. I like to skateboard and draw. What’s your first?

SN: So my first five years was Johannesburg, then after my younger sister was born in 1995 I went to be with my grandma. I have an older brother who has a different father. We only met late in life, like in the past ten years.

DB: Me, too. We’re just starting to become friends.

SN: Art was not anything I thought of, but from the time I was six to nine it was a lot of play because I didn’t go to kindergarten. But my introduction to art was through play. All the older kids were making wire cars. We all created our own toys. My mom would send stuff for us to play with and create our own toys that were much tougher than we were. The stuff from China breaks easily so we would make our own recycled dishwashing bottle wheels. Sculpture was introduced and we would also dig up architectural excavations and make these ruins that would be like a dollhouse we dug through the ground.

DB: This is blowing my mind.

SN: This relationship between miniatures and our homes was very important. From the wire we’d make the furniture and make TV sets and people watching them. We were doing that in the villages because that’s what you do there.

DB: With that IHoki it doesn’t even have to relate so much to the painting because it’s magical realism. Your work has the hallucinatory normality, these landscapes. These people, some of them are having sex, some are just hanging out in these fields of flowers, so it has that surrealist element. The architectural piece completely relates to what’s happening, it’s a shanty, but the shanty is levitating. I’m so jealous: we got the shitty toys, too, but he went and made his own toys. What did I do? I developed this deep fetish for toys from the United States, because those were the good toys. Our toys would melt into blobs. I remember the Ninja Turtles had these veins and bulging muscles.

I’m glad you said that because another connection in these shows is the emphasis on the body, on figuration. And it seems to be an evolution for you both. Devendra, your paintings seem to be liberating the body, and Simphiwe, your bodies are literally liberating themselves from the canvases, with some figures walking or standing on the ground below them.  

SN: What would you say drives your impulse to paint?

DB: I started when I was 16. I saw a screening of Pull My Daisy and it just fucked my mind. I recently rewatched it and don’t understand why it affected me that way, but originally I wanted to paint (and make music) because of poetry. My mom asked me if I was on drugs because I came home and said, “You don’t understand, I just saw this film and this person said, ‘Are cockroaches holy? Is grilled cheese holy?’” Something about that totally blew my mind open. Both of these disciplines can be platforms for poems. Painting is basically poetry without text, you’re using symbols as a language, and for me painting can be more of a working through of an emotional obstacle because in music there’s this architecture with the tone and it’s referential to this genre and song. Some songs I need to express something as pure as I can. Maybe it’s the same. There’s a referential thing trying to work something out.

It’s a lot of the same territory. They’re both dealing with mysticism and eroticism and travel and literature. Painting is the inward language and music is the outward.

DB: They’re two parallel disciplines and there’s this occasional isthmus and that isthmus is when I have to make an album because I have to make the album cover, but it’s when I’m done with writing and done with touring that I focus on the visual.

You’re taking the faces apart, taking the bodies apart, what’s the process?

DB: I’ve been able to draw and make watercolors since I started making albums. Those are easy things to travel with but you can’t oil paint when you’re on tour almost constantly. So this is the first chance to oil paint from some of the sketches I’ve been making for 20 years. Some of them are old because they’re from different albums. This is from this 2013 album Ape in Pink Marble but the themes are similar, the codes, the language. There’s a little more sense of humor in the newer pieces.

SN: They are funny. They’re definitely anti-constipation.

DB: Ooh, that’s amazing. If anything, your show is this beautiful song is being sung, and if anything, I’m the colonic.

SN: I don’t know exactly what my show is about but this show has been important in opening a psychology of sexual repression, sort of Carl Jung, Freudian glimpses to dreams of sex, trauma, and everything blooming. Flowers, the golden clouds, the colors coming out. It’s this moment of jubilation.

DB: I read this interview on The Botanist that said we should think of plants as humans with their heads upside down and their genitalia exposed. You see these flowers as symbols of sex and celebration but it’s very vulnerable but open. The body is a big thing.

Your shows reference Meister Eckhart, this 13th century Franciscan mystic, and Audre Lord, this Black lesbian feminist from Harlem who said, “Women are powerful and dangerous.”

DB: I think that Meister Eckhart line (“Nothing is more gall-​bitter than suffering, nothing more honey-sweet than having suffered”) felt quite topical because we’re in this moment of suffering and this light in the distance is what can keep you going. Suffering has a purpose and in some sense a reward.

Meister Eckhart also said, “If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.”

SN: That’s trauma.

DB: Thank you is not about you, but suffering is taking everything personal. This is hell.

That’s the resting place for these shows, the moment after the suffering. The moment after this big election, where there’s possibility, but it’s not clear what that possibility holds. Venezuela and South Africa have learned these lessons the hard way.

DB: There’s no arguing there. Your work has so much more hope, I’m not sure if I have anything beautiful to share, but hopefully it can just crack you up.

SN: Humor is very important. That stanza from Audre Lord’s Solstice I reference is exactly what is happening for me right now. I’m getting prouder because of the nostalgia. Four years of being in the U.S. I’m not only feeling more at home here, but at the same time the works are going home [to South Africa] in their articulation, in their clarity. They’re moving from zombie, scarecrow space to people I know from home. They’re announcing themselves and they are very clear who they are. They’re not shying away, they’re asserting.

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