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Agnes Lew Interviews South Africa-born Contemporary Artist Simphiwe Ndzube

By Agnes Lew
Sep. 24, 2020

“Simphiwe Ndzube’s work just captivated my interest, and I knew that I had to interview him,” says Agnes Lew, East West Bank’s senior vice president and head of private banking. “As an appreciator of art, I can say that everything Ndzube uses, from the bold colors to how he applies different dimensions, transports you to a mystical world.”

In collaboration with the Gallery Association Los Angeles, Lew is exclusively interviewing a variety of prominent artists in the LA art scene during the pandemic to contextualize and showcase their work. To date, 81 galleries have united to create an online space called Gallery Platform LA during the shutdown to provide art aficionados around the world a way to enjoy and engage with art. Gallery Platform LA features 10 gallery “viewing rooms” along with a selected project on a rotating basis every eight weeks. East West Bank is a proud sponsor of Gallery Platform LA.

In this edition of Lew’s artist series, she talks with South African artist Simphiwe Ndzube who has been receiving a lot of attention in LA. From a video interview with Vanity Fair, to his most recent exhibition at the Nicodim Gallery in Los Angeles, Ndzube’s unique collection has traveled and received wide attention around the world. Inspired by moments in his childhood and his experience in post-apartheid South Africa, Ndzube’s work tells a story that is distinctly relevant in today’s world.

 Agnes Lew, East West Bank’s senior vice president and director of private banking

About Agnes Lew

Agnes Lew, East West Bank's senior vice president and director of private banking, leads a team of financial advisors that provide financial and investment advice, ranging from retirement to estate planning. Lew is often referred to as a cultural concierge by her customers.

More about Agnes
Simphiwe Ndzube

Q: Funny how no interviewer has ever asked you this monumentally important question. Why did you live in Arcadia when you first moved to LA? And do you have a favorite restaurant there?

At the time, I was seeing someone who grew up and lived in Arcadia, so we lived in her apartment. We experimented with a bunch of the local restaurants; my favorite was Din Tai Fung whenever we could afford it.
(Left): “The Orator,” 2018. (Right): "In Search of the Sacred Stone," 2018. (Photo credit): Courtesy of the artist

Q: Your work is often stitched together through many different dimensions that are really brought to life from your experience in South Africa. Narratives of post-apartheid South Africa and African mythologies have often been found in your work. How has the black experience in LA influenced your work?

Similar to Thelma Golden’s concept of post-blackness, the concept of the black experience in Los Angeles is something that I am able to both embrace and challenge through my person. I identify strongly with the immigrant experience in Los Angeles and find that the black American experience affects me in a way that is likely different than some. To be in a place where black people are not the majority population has been an interesting adjustment for me. I’m becoming more aware of my own blackness, which I wasn’t aware of until I went to college outside of my community. I am learning as I find my peer group; the history and complexities here go beyond just having black skin. Here, I am both an insider and an outsider to the black experience and to the American experience.
“Bhekizwe,The Alligator Rider,” 2020. (Photo credit): Courtesy of the artist, LACMA and Nicodim Gallery

Q: I know this is a corny question, but I really want to know. Who are your art heroes?

I could point out incredible artists like Francis Bacon, Dumile Feni and Wangechi Mutu, but the one that is really close to me as a mentor and father figure is the South African late poet and painter Peter E. Clarke. He helped me to see how the artist creates productive habits and takes care of others. He took care of a lot of us black kids forging art careers in the absurdities of the townships. I believe in my practice in large part because of him.

Q: What are some of your dream projects?

I have a dream project of working with a group of primarily black dancers, contortionists, a dance group of differently abled people, and opera singers to create a play that activates my paintings and sculptures. I had the chance to see William Kentridge’s theatre performance in collaboration with Dada Masilo and many other South African artists. It had such a profound impact on me; in South Africa, we could see that work probably because of the complexities and cost of production. I had also seen the exhibition at the LA County Museum of Art of Marc Chagall’s costumes and set designs. It ignited a spark for me to pursue my own project of this sort.
“Waiting for Mlungu,” 2017. (Photo credit): Courtesy of the artist, CC Foundation and Nicodim Gallery

Q: What is your most prized possession from your foraging?

The answer is that I am communicating something meant to open up the imagination and feelings. You can allow yourself to feel the work without necessarily having to logically attach to it. The art industry is a system that has viewed logic as a dominant cypher; this prioritizes emotional intelligence as lesser than logic. I want to encourage people to trust their emotional intelligence as an equally valid entryway to understanding my work.

Q: English is a second language to both you and me. I don’t ever remember learning the word “discourse” in school, and it is not a vocabulary word that people use in day-to-day conversations. Yet, everyone in the art world seems to use that word all the time to sound serious. What does “discourse” mean to you and how is it relevant in your work?

“Discourse” is a word that I encountered in art school, engaged with, and then left in art school.
“In the Order of Elephants After the Rain,” 2019. (Photo credit): Courtesy of the artist and Nicodim Gallery

Q: For us who have close families overseas, it is particularly challenging during the pandemic, as we can’t visit with them as easily as we wish. When you get to travel again to see your family in South Africa, what would you pack in your suitcase to bring them?

I have a massive family. For the little babies, I always bring candy, coloring books and little toys. For the high school boys, I usually bring school supplies and cool souvenir clothing from the places that I’ve been. For the adults, like my aunts and cousins that have kids, I’ll bring them envelopes of cash so that they can convert the dollar to the local currency, be surprised by the conversion rate, and get the things that they feel they need.

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