Cleveland Print Room Blessing Ngobeni, South Africa
“We Have To Confront Apathy”
Blessing Ngobeni arrived to Cleveland this past winter during one of the coldest months of the year. He had seen snow before, a few snowflakes here and there on his many travels outside native Johannesburg, South Africa, but the Cleveland weather was a different kind of challenge. The usual strategies – art residency life in a foreign country – seemed to him more spectacular than before. Nonetheless, it was an exciting moment to be doing work in a city on the rise. He took note of two of the region’s dominant social issues – the great East/West divide and police brutality – quickly, in the first weeks of his three-month stay. Even if only a fraction of his work confronted the schism that is Cleveland, there seemed to be a chance for discovery.
Blessing had a studio on the 6th floor of the ArtCraft Building on Superior Ave. In a large open space he shared with several artists, he painted and collaged every day, sometimes ten hours a day. By the time I visited him in early April, his studio was stuffed with rolled canvas, and the floor covered in pages torn from old Life, Veranda, and art magazines.
Blessing’s public outreach was nothing short of impressive. He worked with eighth-grade students from Scranton Road School, Fourth- and Fifth-graders from Walton School, and students from Lake Erie Inc. and St. Martin De Porres. He made facial masks with high school students that were later exhibited. Blessing lectured at the Cleveland Institute of Art and Cleveland State University where he gave individual critiques to second-year undergraduate painting and print students. He visited the BAYarts campus and took part in the Figure Drawing class. He also collaborated with artist John Carlson and got to see his first Jean Michel Basquiat when he traveled to MOMA and CMA. This is significant because Warhol and Basquait inspired some of the collaboration he did with Carlson.
But Blessing, who has a knack for talking, is marvelously social. Students everywhere smiled at his proclivity for bringing the conversation back to socially engaged art, as if checking up on whether they were listening to him or not. “My work is about making choices,” he said. When asked about this, Blessing said that it was the legacy of decades of uncontrollable political power to be corrupt. These relationships, in turn, foster other relationships, far more than artists have been able to understand. “We have to confront apathy,” he added. “That’s why I’m an artist.”
Blessing Ngobeni: In Unknown Space
Preview at the Cleveland Print Room in conjunction with Hedge Gallery 6 – 8 pm Wednesday, May 18. Free for CPR members, $5 at the door for non-members
Opening Reception 5 – 8 pm Friday, May 20