The Inner Worlds of Oil Painter Cinga Samson
Cinga Samson's work asks the viewer to looks beyond the surface and into the self-taught artist’s intensely personal universe.
Cinga Samson doesn’t read the hundreds of reviews celebrating his paintings around the world – nor does he plan to. His job is to work, he says, to reflect and to create artworks that represent his sense of self, led by his desire to treat his audiences to rare, dynamic depictions of beauty.
Born in 1986, the self-taught painter has a history deeply entrenched in the arts. From a childhood interest to a chance artistic ‘adoption’ by artists Luthando Laphuwano, Xolile Mtakatya and Gerald Tabata, Samson found his way toward oils, his chosen medium. After hanging around the artists’ studio, showcasing his growing skill and opening himself to their community, his early twenties became a turning point.
‘At this moment, that’s when I consciously said, “I want to spend my life producing artwork”,’ he says. It was a declaration that would manifest into an illustrious career as an oil painter.
Reflecting on the rage, displacement and rejection that bubbled up from his upbringing in Cape Town’s Khayelitsha township, Samson used painting as a way to reveal his inner self – for the sake of his own peace, and for his steadily growing audiences. He habitually creates images featuring himself as a kind of protagonist for stories about him and his community, but over time, the energy has shifted. Samson admits that he doesn’t know what will emerge on canvas, but inevitably, it reflects his deepest emotions. When he feels appreciated, his figures are strong, thriving and almost animated. When he has gone through periods of rejection, the figures look dark, doomed and ‘disturbed’, he says.
What’s most striking about this, however, is Samson’s active resistance of the latter feeling. After weathering immense pressure from family and friends to pursue ‘real work’, to avoid the road less travelled and put himself on a more conventional path, Samson retreated even further and began to craft a new consciousness. Today, he is unflappable and grounded – the sort of person whose confidence makes you feel stronger just by talking to him.
This is perhaps most clear in his Ivory series. Samson depicts images of a driven, purposeful black man who lives above his material circumstances. ‘When I look at myself in the mirror, I have the ability to tell myself that I am handsome, I am exotic. I have to encourage certain feelings. When I turned 30, I realised I needed to exhibit something other than poverty, HIV stigma, pain – those things are our reality, but they aren’t our identity. I must be more,’ he says.
This doesn’t mean that Samson has shut himself away from South Africa’s realities, however, especially when it comes to art and accessibility. During his commercial photography studies in Stellenbosch, he was brought face to face with the hurdles that black art students face. ‘The artists who have gone to school know how to manage themselves, they know the who’s who and the main people in the industry – I didn’t even realise there was an industry,’ he says.
But in the end, Samson believes that talent and resonance are the great equalisers. After all, he has exhibited as far afield as Mexico and Germany, taken up a residency at Popty Bach international artists workshop at Llanfihangel-ar-Arth in Wales, and scooped the prestigious Tollman Award for Visual Arts in 2017.
Nevertheless, he (and his work) laments a reality where white students drive to class while black students walk – Samson spent four hours a day commuting when he was studying in Stellenbosch. Despite his optimism and the decision to turn his eyes to the beauty of black figures, his road to success has hardly been an easy one.
Aged just 33, Samson is still evolving, being inspired and, in turn, inspiring his peers and audiences alike. He is currently working on a large-scale exhibition for Blank Projects in Cape Town, which is also home to artists like Sabelo Mlangeni, Bronwyn Katz and Igshaan Adams. But this exhibition won’t be what Samson fans are used to. In addition to a series of paintings, he’s working on a performance as well as an installation.
And even this is not enough to quench what seems to be an infinite well of passion and ambition. ‘I’d love to teach teenagers and primary school kids. I want to do talks and workshops. My practice is very demanding right now, but I’d love to teach and connect so that more people like me can have a holistic understanding of art,’ he says.
So, while Samson is not at all interested in the critics’ reviews, he’s still very plugged in to people. Whether it is his community of fellow artists who have helped guide his path, a new generation of blooming black artists, or anyone who comes across his work, he believes that the mission and the message are clear. ‘There’s beauty in everything you’re looking at,’ Samson says. ‘It might be ugly to you, or uncomfortable, or angry, but it demands to be appreciated. As an umbrella and a base for my work, I want the viewer to see and experience this beauty.’
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