Cinga Samson

Iyabanda Intsimbi / The metal is cold

The FLAG Art Foundation
545 W 25th Street, 9th Floor
New York
Chelsea
Oct 16th — Jan 15th

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Cinga Samson’s paintings, rendered in dark hues with a high-gloss finish, glitter and beckon like black mirrors, intermingling your image with their private world. It’s impossible to take the images in at a glance; you have to physically move around to see what the compositions depict. Taking in the scenes across the three large-scale canvases—7-by-8.5 foot tableaux of various figures gathered for enigmatic reasons—you develop the sense that you’ve made a wrong turn, stumbling onto something you aren’t supposed to see.

The 20 works in “Iyabanda Intsimbi,”—a Xhosa phrase meaning “the metal is cold”— at the Flag Art Foundation depict lush, almost surreal settings. Stoic human forms, their eyes pupil-less and white, stand like statues overgrown with South African flora and fauna, which serve as both memento mori and Xhosa iconography. Samson, who is based in his native Cape Town, has described his figures as supernatural beings while stressing that his works defy Western stereotypes around African beliefs and spiritualism. These ancestors, whether captured as individual portraits or gathered for a communal ceremony, wear denim and patterned streetwear, often donning gold chains around their necks.

The portraits’ power comes from their simultaneous allure and distance. The sense of immersion you feel while navigating these paintings is counteracted by the eerie creeping quality of the landscape and the formidableness of the figures’ poses. The painting Umkhusana 1 (2021), for instance, appears to depict a roadside funeral. A massive mountain slopes toward a highway while, in the foreground, a group of mourners, dressed in black, surround a white sheet. They’re depicted mid-act, settling the shroud, disturbingly, over several white buckets overflowing with a maroon substance that looks suspiciously like flesh. Two men, like ominous twins, peer over their shoulders and glare directly at you.

The stillness, the disquiet, the funereal aura. Every aspect of Samson’s paintings—a purse overtaken by vines, fragments of a modernist building in Cape Town consumed by the jungle, the man in a fur coat with a gazelle’s skull in his hand—advances the sense of an alternative world, parallel to ours, but not out of sight. It’s as though they are capable of crossing over at any moment. After all, what is an attempt to approach beauty and terror if not an intrusion, a form of complicity in the spectacle of death? —Will Fenstermaker

Cinga Samsonm, Umkhusana 2, 2021. Oil on canvas, 86 5/8 x 102 3/8 x 2 inches. Courtesy the artist and White Cube, London.