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Issue 240

The Piercing New Portraits of Neo Matloga

At Stevenson Amsterdam, it is impossible to overlook the humanity portrayed in the artist's imaginary figures


BY Andrew Pasquier in Exhibition Reviews | 31 OCT 23

Entering Neo Matloga’s latest show, ‘Figures’, I find myself encircled, inescapably witnessed, by eight charcoal and ink portraits. Laying across the canvas in tense repose, these sombre sitters exude a sense of nervous intimacy through their deep expressions, dart-like eyes and close-cropped framing.

Matloga’s new works are a departure from his typical convivial scenes of collective Black joy, such as Khemistr (Chemist, 2022), in which cut-up figures eat, laugh and embrace. The large canvases in the current show cover the walls of a single room at Stevenson. Matloga has loosely rendered each figure with smudges and streaks of black charcoal and ink, creating a context for collaged additions, such as an arm in Paulina (all works 2023) or a leopard-print skirt in Betuele. In some instances, such as Rosa, whose left hand is an enormous found image, the proportions are off. Her eyes remained fixed on us. 

Neo Matloga, Tebello, 2023
Neo Matloga, Tebello, 2023, collage, charcoal and ink on canvas, 1 × 1.4 m. Courtesy: © Neo Matloga and Stevenson, Cape Town, Johannesburg and Amsterdam

‘My aim was to invoke a sense of raw unease,’ explains Matloga in the accompanying material. While the instant feeling of discomfort experienced in the gallery is a testament to this aim, the emotive execution of the subjects begs another question: who are they? The single-name titles engender a sense of familiarity, suggesting these individuals are friends or family, people in the artist’s life. The cut-out collage elements are sourced from family albums, lending the characters a personal dimension, and newspapers. However, the names – Betuele, Rosa, Tebello, etc. – are fictional titles for invented characters, a combination of apparent intimacy and fabricated identity that only serves to heighten the work’s strangeness.

Since relocating from his native South Africa to the Netherlands in 2015 to attend the prestigious De Ateliers postgraduate residency programme, Matloga has been celebrated for creating work that expresses sociability, nostalgia and tension within Black communities in post-apartheid South Africa. However, ‘Figures’ reveals a change of focus. Gone are the group scenes in bars and living rooms, compositions conveying a sense of security rather than an overt political statement. In turn, the single figures that remain are piercing and relatable but sad, with languid limbs, faint frowns and furrowed brows.

Neo Matloga, Rosa, 2023
Neo Matloga, Rosa, 2023, collage, charcoal and ink on canvas, 1 × 1.4 m. Courtesy: © Neo Matloga and Stevenson, Cape Town, Johannesburg and Amsterdam

The straightforward construction of the images – simple ink washes suggesting figurative outlines – contributes to this shifted sensibility. To make his earlier collage work, Matloga spent days layering ink, paint and cut-up photographic materials in a step-by-step process, creating time-space gaps like overlapping film snippets. For the current series, Matloga imagined he was painting a live model forced to remain in the same position, suffering until the image was complete. Water, he says in the text, acted as a ‘time expander’ against quick-drying ink – a decisive force that drove the disjointed joy of his earlier group-scene work. Now, Matloga seems to wallow in the painterly process alongside his imagined subjects.

Neo Matloga, Betuele, 2023
Neo Matloga, Betuele, 2023, collage, charcoal and ink on canvas, 1 × 1.4 m. Courtesy: © Neo Matloga and Stevenson, Cape Town, Johannesburg and Amsterdam

On his Instagram profile, Matloga posted a short poem to accompany the exhibition: ‘In collages, characters I’ve arranged / Curiosity grows, their essence I crave / Painting, my medium, reveals their soul’. In ‘Figures’, Matloga observes the souls of imaginary friends, the souls of Black folk in an often-alienating society. Confronted on all sides by these figures’ intense gazes, it is impossible to un-see their humanity despite its fiction. For a series that appears, at first, a return to earlier formalism, I leave the show feeling Matloga has achieved a new psychological depth in his canvases.

Main image: Neo Matloga, Phillipi (detail), 2023, charcoal and ink on canvas, 70 × 100 cm. Courtesy: © Neo Matloga and Stevenson, Cape Town / Johannesburg / Amsterdam

Andrew Pasquier is a writer and researcher. He is based in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.