A Contemporary Take on Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights”

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DENVER — The book of Genesis describes the location of Eden as a paradise from which four rivers flow. The painting “The Garden of Earthly Delights” (1490-1500) by artist Hieronymus Bosch represents the geographic landmarks with a pink baptismal fountain and fantastical blue orbs with spires and spikes. Five-hundred years later, one of these symbolic orbs is being carted away in artist Simphiwe Ndzube’s new series Oracles of the Pink Universe — Eden is now wherever water springs. 

Ndzube was raised in Masiphumelele, South Africa, a township that battled for safe water since its establishment in the 1980s. Today, after six years of drought, water shortages have threatened to turn off taps from Johannesburg to Nelson Mandela Bay. Most dams are nearly empty, like the Kouga dam which is at 3.98% capacity, the lowest level since construction completed in 1969. The second largest dam in the Eastern Cape, Impofu, can hold 100 million liters of water, but sits at 16.6% full. The artist told Hyperallergic that he returned home this year to build a well and filtration system for his family. “Most of the white families around that area had wells to maintain gardens, and some were converting well water into drinkable water. I took that as inspiration.” Now, the artist lives in Los Angeles, California, a state perennially on fire. “[In California] people use water as if it is abundant. Cape Town almost ran out of water, and it taught people how to conserve.”

Simphiwe Ndzube, “Dondolo, the Witch Doctor’s Assistant” (2020), mixed media on canvas (image courtesy Denver Art Museum)

The artist expresses water as a blue ripple pattern, achieved through preprinted duct tape, a material used to fix anything in a pinch. This design returns frequently in his paintings, but the water is always in retreat, such as in “When Grass Meets Fire” (2020). A thick orange substance replaces the water and abundantly pours from a fish’s mouth. A stoic person in a bucket hat resigns to a puddle. Similarly, Bosch used dirty canals to communicate the boundaries of hell in contrast with the sky-blue waters that drew Eden’s edge.

The dense symbolism of Ndzube’s paintings and sculptures makes them tempting to hunt for meaning, but the dualities are many. A corpse flower, which robs noses from faces with its stench, adopts the same color as the rose fountain in “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” which served as a symbol of fertility at the time. And while the gestures of the paintings’ inhabitants are reminiscent of Christian illustrated manuscripts used by Bosch, the hand signals are a different language: curse words performed by South African youth. Ndzube masterly weaves Bosch’s iconography into his own landscapes, as both artists address the destruction of creation. 

Most unique to Ndzube’s work are the figures that physically emerge from the canvas with actual, sewn-on clothing and strange limbs. They do more than theoretically trouble the space between real and imagined, sculpture and painting. When the feet and arms of Ndzube’s figures share air with the gallery visitor, they position water scarcity as a problem here and now, not elsewhere or in the future. Ndzube’s macabre imagery exists an ocean away, in the subconscious and in your backyard. 

Simphiwe Ndzube, “When Grass Meets Fire” (2020), mixed media on canvas (image courtesy Denver Art Museum)

Simphiwe Ndzube: Oracles of the Pink Universe continues at the Denver Art Museum (100 West 14th Avenue Pkwy, Denver, CO) through October 10. The exhibition is curated by Laura F. Almeida, curatorial fellow of modern and contemporary art.

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