Cinga Samson - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale London Thursday, March 3, 2022 | Phillips

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  • 'I felt it was important to start to celebrate myself and project more about what it is that I enjoy, about me, or what really makes me—elements that make me, as an African, as a young man, and as a an artist.'
    —Cinga Samson
    With shaven head and milky, translucent eyes that seem to glow with an other-worldly vision, the mesmerising figure of Ubuhle beenkanyezi VIII is instantly recognisable as the work of young South African artist Cinga Samson. Casually dressed in blue denim jeans, a length of rich, gold fabric hanging down across his bare torso, the figure exudes a quiet confidence and self-possession. Although he stands turned squarely towards us, he seems remote, a sense of impassable distance captured perfectly by the title, which translates from the Zulu dialect as The Beauty of the Stars’. Like a messenger between two worlds, the figure appears poised on the threshold between material and spiritual realms.

    Highly stylised, Samson’s portraits feel at once timeless and contemporary, the self-taught artist deftly blending youthful aspiration and traditional beliefs as he explores his own complex feelings around masculinity, spirituality, and modernity. This is especially pronounced in the present work, which was executed in 2018 and belongs to a broader series of self-portraits where the artist has more self-consciously introverted his gaze to ‘celebrate myself and project […] elements that make me, as an African, as a young man, and as an artist.’i Although his compositions are executed with a confident realism due, in part to the artist's tendency to work from carefully staged photographs, they nevertheless speak to a mysterious world that lies just beyond the scope of our understanding and powerfully expressive of the artist’s description that, ‘if you ever get too close, you start to approach danger.’ii


    Landscape and the Language of Flowers

    Although Samson’s work clearly belongs to a long tradition of figurative painting that combines European and African modes of figuration, landscape – or, more precisely, the undulating vistas particular to the Mthatha district of the Eastern Cape where Samson was born and raised – is also central to his pictorial language. While clearly geographically located, the more symbolic treatment of the floral motif here recalls the crisp rendering of Sandro Botticelli’s La Primavera. Softly rendered in gently rolling hills behind the standing figure and bathed in Samson’s characteristic twilight hues, the world of Ubuhle beenkanyezi VIII hovers between fable, dream, and reality, not unlike the allegorical canvases of Kenyan artist Michael Armitage. Like Armitage, Samson’s portraits also draw on a history of the exoticising Western gaze, using the landscape to explore ways of navigating African identity in a globalised world.


    La Primavera, detail, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence  Detail of the present work
    Left: Sandro Botticelli, La Primavera, c. 1477-78, detail, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence. Image: akg-images / Erich Lessing
    Right: Detail of the present work

    Such ideas are obliquely referenced in the visual resonances struck between the ethereal, enigmatic quality of these landscapes, and Henri Rousseau’s exoticised arcadian visons. As in Samson’s highly decorative treatment of rich foliage that envelopes his subject here, Rousseau’s canvases were teeming with richly abundant fauna, the imagined landscape as important to Rousseau’s historically specific vision as the animals and figures he populated it with. Similarly, Samson’s portraits of young, aspirational African and diasporic men attempt to reconcile traditional cultural codes with a more globalised 21st century vision of success and aspiration signified by designer clothes, trainers, and material possessions.

    Henri Rousseau, Tropical Forest: Battling Tiger and Buffalo, 1908, State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg. Image: Bridgeman Images
    Henri Rousseau, Tropical Forest: Battling Tiger and Buffalo, 1908, State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg. Image: Bridgeman Images

    Unlike Rousseau though, who famously never left France, Samson’s careful observation of the flowers and plants indigenous to his native Cape Town are charged with personal and cultural significance. As the artist describes, flowers have formed a foundational element in his painting. His earliest works were traditional still lifes, elements that have woven their way through his work ever since. In 2015 as he was working on his Scent of Flowers series Samson developed this motif, experimenting with ‘creating flowers that are burnt, leaving charcoal marks. I had this outline, this drawing of still life flowers in a vase, which were drawn in charcoal, on a dry brownish surface.’iii


    As in the elegiac 2016 Hliso Street series which the artist dedicated to the memory of his mother, the figure holds the slender stem of an indigenous white-petalled flower here, introducing a funerary or ceremonial atmosphere to the piece. Emphasised by the muted palette and distinctive quality of Samson’s light, the still and quiet atmosphere of the painting here is especially pointed when we learn of the personal significance of the Cannas flowers. As the artist describes:

    'There’s a link I’ve found between me and the still lifes. I spent my earlier ages with my biological mother, who used to pick up flowers in the yard and put them in the vase […] I was tapping into that memory.'
    —Cinga Samson

    In a nod to his earlier vanitas paintings and providing a poignant meditation on the brevity of life itself, the one, cut flower here is an elegant and loaded touch. However, in the proliferation of these small, white flowers across the tangled fronds that animate the surface of the canvas, Samson seems to be offering a more optimistic vision of the vitality of memory, and a sense that death itself might not represent the end of a journey, but another stage of a larger cycle.


    Cinga Samson in his Cape Town studio discussing the role of masculinity in his paintings.

    Collector’s Digest

    •    Based in Cape Town, Samson is a self-taught artist who began painting after joining the Isibane Creative Arts shared studio in Khayelitsha when he was 21.

    •    Before joining White Cube in 2021, Samson had been developing a significant reptation internationally with critically lauded solo exhibitions hosted by blank projects in Cape Town and Perrotin in New York. Since then, Samson mounted an exhibition of new works at The FLAG Art Foundation in October 2021 and has a forthcoming solo exhibition with White Cube in London.


    •    Examples of his work can be found in the public collections of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Pérez Art Museum, Miami; Minneapolis Institute of Art; Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College, New York; South African National Gallery, Cape Town; and the A4 Arts Foundation, Cape Town.

    i Cinga Samson, , quoted in Katy Donoghue, ‘Cinga Samson Captures the Beauty and Spiritual Side of Young African Men’, Whitewall Art, 16 April 2019, online.
    ii Cinga Samson, quoted in Meara Sharma, ‘An Artist Who Doesn’t Want to Feed Western Fantasies About Africa’, 21 February 2020, New York Times, online
    iii Cinga Samson, quoted in Katy Donoghue, ‘Cinga Samson Captures the Beauty and Spiritual Side of Young African Men’, Whitewall Art, 16 April 2019, online

    • Provenance

      blank projects, Cape Town
      Private Collection
      Acquired from the above by the present owner

Property from a Prominent Private Collection


Ubuhle beenkanyezi VIII

signed and dated ‘Cinga Samson 2018’ on the reverse
oil on canvas
80 x 59.7 cm (31 1/2 x 23 1/2 in.)
Painted in 2018.

Full Cataloguing

£50,000 - 70,000 

Sold for £252,000

Contact Specialist

Rosanna Widén
Senior Specialist, Head of Evening Sale
+ 44 20 7318 4060

Olivia Thornton
Head of 20th Century & Contemporary Art, Europe
+ 44 20 7318 4099

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

London Auction 3 March 2022