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​The work of artist Njabulo Senzo Shabangu is doing what he has always dreamed of – flying overseas. His art is being snapped up beyond our borders.
THIS is the story of how a rural boy who dreamed of becoming a pilot took flight – in a different direction – to become an internationally known artist.

Working on the Series Endless JourniesWorking on the series Endless JourneyLike many youngsters, Njabulo Senzo Shabangu, from Driefontein in Mpumalanga, looked beyond his village into the skies and pictured a world where he could spread his wings and travel over the horizon.

Sitting in his classroom, he would translate those dreams on to paper, but these were not the doodles of a bored schoolboy. “I used to draw a lot of things in class during each lesson and I remember this one time where one of my teachers caught me red-handed drawing [a portrait of the teacher].” Instead of being angry with his young charge, the teacher liked what he saw and “decided to keep it”.

Later that year, the teacher died and the portrait was used at the memorial service as a remembrance. After matric, in 2006, Shabangu moved to Johannesburg to pursue his dream of becoming a pilot. “I always dreamt and still do dream of someday being a pilot, which is a childhood dream.”

However, that mission turned out to be a lot more difficult than he thought, and he had to find a way of surviving in the tough city, keeping his head up high and helping his family back home. While getting to know the city, he met a group of artists who work near the Johannesburg Central Library, where they create “master pieces”.

The Artist Proof Studio
This led him to join art classes at the library. He later joined the printmakers at the Artist Proof Studio in Newtown. During his years of study, to earn rent money and continue with his work, he would take “same time photos” at Zoo Lake and other places.

Arriving home one evening from work, he found his room had been locked by the landlord, who demanded the rent Shabangu owed. His artwork for his finals was locked inside his room. This is the event that changed his attitude to his art, which he had to sell to make ends meet.

Morning Prayer by Senzo ShabanguMorning Prayer, Linocut with Hand-Painting, 2011He was left feeling alone in the big city, floating like a feather with no direction. And Shabangu began to take his art more seriously. One of his pieces, The Scavengers, tells about a part of his life when he saw vultures surrounding him, leaving him unsure of who to trust.

Through this he learnt how to choose his friends wisely and select a pack with which he could fly. “A suit does not mean they’re good people. And the hidden faces that say you can never tell who’s who,” he says. His art is filled with the sense of not knowing who to trust “in a world where everyone pretends to be something they’re not”.

He depicts how people live and the politics around finding yourself. His work has a feeling of entrapment – it’s like being a prisoner in the city, with nowhere to go, surrounded by all the buildings and new faces, left alone, while the rest of the world passes you by.

Shabangu was fortunate to be mentored by two significant figures – artists David Koloane and Pat Mautloa, both of whom are successful artists who have inspired youngsters to greater things. “Mr Koloane and Mr Pat inspired me to take my art career seriously. Their advice helped realise that I could become a fulltime artist and dedicate all my time and energy to my art.”

In 2008, when he was still starting out as an artist, and believing in giving back, Shabangu started a non-profit organisation called Makhekhe Mshini Youth Facility Management near his home town. Here he teaches youngsters how to print and “helps them print their own soccer kit”.

The same year, his art was chosen to represent Many Voices, One Movement Global Conference at OR Tambo International Airport. The conference reflected on poverty in Africa, and he produced an edition of 63 linocut prints for conference attendees.

He donated one of his works to the Keleketla auction in 2009, with the funds going into developing Drill Hall in Johannesburg. His work was also chosen as part of the advertising for the World Art Summit at Museum Africa

The ScavengersThe Scavengers by Senzo ShabanguShabangu received the David Koloane Award in early 2010, and his career was clearly ready to take-off. He landed a four-month residency at the Bag Factory, under the guidance of Koloane and Mautloa. During the residency, he worked with artists from around the world.

“From that experience, I learnt a whole lot more about the opportunities available through art.”

Johannesburg Art Gallery
Working with artists like Chepape, who’s also a poet, Jabu Tshuma and Mini Ngoni to name a few, brought Shabangu to the attention of the curators at the Johannesburg Art Gallery. He has exhibited in a number of group shows in Johannesburg, including David Krut Workshop (DKW) in Parkwood. In 2011, he held a solo exhibition, Naked Pressures, a series of linocuts, at DKW Arts on Main.

The rest as they say is history, as his work is doing what he dreams of doing – flying overseas to places like the United States, Germany and the United Kingdom. He is now working on an exhibition he plans to hold later in 2012.

And, with all he has achieved he still holds on to his childhood dream of becoming a pilot – he is now taking lessons at an airport near Germiston. For more information on Shabangu’s work, visit the David Krut Publishing website.

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