Sithembiso Sibisi

Sithembiso Sibisi is a self-taught artist who is a highly-skilled draughtsman with a background in mechanical engineering studies. His artistic career began at the Caversham Centre for Artists and Writers in Howick, KwaZulu-Natal where, in the late 1980s, he began working with masterprinter Malcolm Christian on set projects. During this time he produced outstanding etchings which, similar to the painting Sangoma dance (plate 319), were a direct reference to his experiences of having being called to become a diviner by the ancestral powers. This experience required Sibisi to go through an initiation process called ukuThwasa which served to initiate him into a higher divinity. This became a subject central to the artist’s life and work, creating a space where both callings, the one as an artist and the other as a diviner, meet and yet diverge. The point of convergence also provides a conflicting interplay of ‘traditional’ gender roles, confirming societal imbalances as seen in the painting Sangoma dance. What is highlighted in this fire and moonlight scene is a dancing woman dominating the composition while her gaze remains fixed and seems to seek approval from the men, who are placed on the right; the women are on the left and behind the sangoma.

We can attribute this to what Mduduzi Xakaza (see his essay in this catalogue) explains as Sibisi’s being possessed by ancestral shades with feminine attributes, which are also said to cause conflict between Sibisi and the female members of his family.

This conflict is further underpinned by the way that the picture is composed. The dance symbolises a state of trance and a point where the ancestor enters through the dancer to disclose future possibilities and reveal hidden agendas. The trance state has always been a form of social or political activity in the divinity cult. Another interpretation is that the dancing woman is possessed by ancestral shades with masculine attributes; this would explain why her gaze is fixed to the right, a position usually taken by men in most traditional settings and circumstances.

Gabi Ngcobo


Sibisi passed away in Johannesburg in late February, 2006, before the publication of this book. His untimely death has left a remarkable vacuum in the artworld of South Africa given that his artistic journey was characterised by numerous possibilities and successes. Most connois- seurs, critics, art historians and the general public anticipated much from him. The shocking news of his death came at a time when Sibisi, a self-taught artist, had just embarked on a profound overarching theme of a ‘road to divinity’ which, in essence, was both autobiographical and anthropological in nature. It was hoped that his work would see a continuation of an exploration of some of the themes that the late Phila Trevor Makhoba (1956–2003) (qv.) contemplated and tackled during his lifetime. Sibisi leaves behind a legacy that determines, among others, a particular direction that is discernible in the works of some of his fellow artists – a direction that is characterised by self-introspection and an acute awareness of contemporary social aspects of our society. Sithembiso Sibisi has gone, but he still lives through his profound and intellectually challenging artistic output, both provincially and nationally.

Hamba kahle Mahlase!! – Mzuzile Mduduzi Xakaza

Born Durban, 1976. Training Self-taught as an artist. Exhibitions 2002: Abelumbi: The Untold Tales of Magic, Durban Art Gallery. Collections Art for Humanity, Durban; Nelson Mandela Metropolitan Art Museum, Port Elizabeth.

Photograph of Sithembiso Sibisi. Courtesy of Bruce Campbell Smith.


The late Sithembiso Sibisi was galvanised by his discovery of the work of George Pemba (See ReVisions pp. 90-95). Pemba’s knack for painting simple narratives in an illustrative style, sometimes with a gentle underlying moral, seemed to indicate a way forward for the impoverished Sibisi, especially given the high prices being achieved for the veteran artist’s work after his touring retrospective in 1996. Sibisi’s body of work seems to make it clear that he had set himself the agenda of becoming a Zulu equivalent to the Xhosa Pemba. His energy and undoubted artistic potential, however, were often compromised by the demand to produce saleable work marketed through a gallery at the BAT Centre complex in Durban. Despite this he still managed to produce significant paintings that were deeply autobiographical in nature, and concerned with his calling to become a sangoma.1 Going Home (Chicken Couple) (2005) (plate 51), an apparent play on the rigidity of Zulu patriarchy and gender-relations, also seemed to promise new directions in his work. His Baptism – Spiritual Healing in the Sea (2005) (plate 53), a reworking of his slightly earlier Ocean Baptism (2005) (see ReVisions, Fig 11, p.43) – extended upon his interests in initiation rituals. In this work he introduced contemporary elements, such as a surfer and an oil tanker out at sea as if to indicate the growing incongruity of such rituals in the contemporary world.

Prior to his mysterious death-fall from a tall building in Hillbrow, Johannesburg, in early 2006, Sibisi had been arrested and jailed in Durban on trumped-up charges of rape as a result of a dispute. In the truck to court (2005) (plate 52) is a work in pencil drawn just after his release on bail. Pencil was his chosen medium here because, having fallen on hard times, he simply could not afford paint and canvas. His articulation of the space inside the prison van is reminiscent of the rather over-generous interior tableau-settings of George Pemba’s Singing in the Bus (1989) or his Terror (1991).2

  1. See Mduduzi Xakaza’s discussion of Sibisi in ReVisions, pp. 42-43, and in particular figs. 9–11.
  2. See Hayden Proud and Barry Feinberg (eds. and contr.) 1996. George Pemba: Retrospective Exhibition. SA National Gallery/Mayibuye Centre, UWC. plate 15, p.98; fig. 6.33, p.62.

Hayden Proud