Kunyalala Ndlovu | 'His Stories: Unearthing history in portraits of us' by Sean O'Toole

''I was interested in history in a massive way at school," says Kunyalala Ndlovu, a lanky 28-year-old graphic artist currently exhibiting works on paper at Cape Town start-up gallery SMITH.

That interest, which saw Bulawayo-born Ndlovu plough through European, American, Russian and Asian history during his Zimbabwean upbringing, is unchanged in all but one respect. He is now compelled by Southern African history.

The Heart that Thunders, Ndlovu's exhibition of pop screenprints, linocuts and silk embroideries, takes the view that history resides in individual biography. It includes portraits of Xhosa prophetess Nongqawuse, Scouting movement founder Robert Baden Powell and husband killer and one-time Bulawayo resident Daisy de Melker, among others.

Printed on vintage newspapers, each portrait is contextualised by an informative caption. Ndlovu's aim with his exhibition, which also excavates forgotten musical history, is to highlight "those unseen actors" of our regional history, and place them firmly "centre stage".

His fascination with well-known figures like Nongqawuse and De Melker is partly due to the blind spots in his education.

"I knew next to nothing about Zimbabwean history," says Ndlovu, who relocated to London with his family in 2004. "We would be taught up to the Ndebele kingdom's demise."

This is not to say that Ndlovu, who studied printmaking at London's Camberwell College of Arts and has garnered a cult following around his graphic alias Fort Rixon, has produced an exhibition without scope or depth. His most affecting biographical portrait depicts an elderly Zulu woman from Johannesburg, pictured holding a bottle of water drawn on her first trip to the sea.

Most of the reference material for Ndlovu's work originated from research at the British Library and forays online. He also dug around charity shops.

During one such dig he found a copy of author Lauren Beukes's Maverick: Extraordinary Women from South Africa's Past (2004). Other writers referenced on his exhibition include US-Zimbabwean memoirist Alexandra Fuller and prolific local fiction writer Stuart Cloete.

Ndlovu summons a line from the latter's book of stories, The Writing on The Wall, to explain his personal orientation as an artist. To paraphrase: the past is much nearer than the future.

"I think that is a really powerful phrase," says Ndlovu, who has returned to live in London after three years in Cape Town.

The Heart that Thunders is at SMITH until August 15.

Taken from TimesLive online source