Because of the internet I know many things about the graphic artist DJ Ndebele. I know he’s not a DJ, nor is he from the Ndebele tribe. I know that despite not being a DJ he has an Afro-house set on SoundCloud, that he makes prints on metal and wood and shows them around southern California, and that he designs t-shirts for his brand Timbuktu State.
But when I look at Ndebele’s graphic prints it’s the limits of my knowledge that suddenly seem the most salient. It’s not quite the feeling of not knowing enough, but more that no matter how much I know it won’t quite matter to understanding this artist’s work.
Take his recent piece, “The People’s Body Shop,” which he showed at the 2013 Pan-African Film Festival in Los Angeles. The piece uses an abstract design of circles and angles to focus attention on an image, apparently reproduced from a photo, of a person’s scarred back. The image reveals four or maybe six double rows of raised dots, curving from the small of the back up over the shoulders; there are also two parallel lines cut in a V shape between the shoulder blades.
Above and below this image, in letters cut out of patches of soft turquoise and yellow, are marketing pabulum and other bits of found language such as “The People’s Body Shop,” “true beauty is within,” and “Timbuktu State.” In the corner the artist has superimposed a surreal god-like figure covered in leopard spots and sprouting both wings and roots from his attenuated limbs. He may represent an African artist in the diaspora, caught between rootedness and flight. He mirrors the downcast look of the central image, but his pose is tough and showy.
The piece pushes right up against the limits of triteness. The idea of the “body shop” in the context of black bodies seems to hold up consumerism as a way to get beyond the psychic wounds of racism. Ndebele borrows from the t-shirt design philosophy of throwing together a bunch of phrases and images that may or may not mean anything, but somehow seem intense. He uses soft, natural, undemanding colors that conjure up mid-century petrol stations. Even the vintage pastiche look — I know I’ve seen it before.
But then I realize that I’ve fallen into a trap. The piece is a game of mirrors and echoes. The curves of the scars echo the curve of the back almost perfectly, just as the dots that make up the scars are echoed by the bold circle of the graphic design and again by the leopard spots on the man-god in the corner. The scars on the back are reproduced as cuts and gashes in the paint; and especially in Ndebele’s American setting they echo the whips of slavery. The marketing slogans and clichés ring with the echoes of their previous uses. Even the image itself mirrors the graphic philosophy of the t-shirts that Ndebele sells next to it.
Ndebele may traffic in vaguely self-affirming positivity, but that doesn’t mean he’s buying it. His work is like pop music – it’s catchy, if you let yourself be caught.