For Ncumisa Spelling, the journey to life as an artist started in the city centre.
And although she has plans to travel, she will never really leave, she said.
Ncumisa grew up in Mthatha and moved to Cape Town to study quantity surveying.
“I wanted to do architecture but the course was full, and I was told quantity surveying incorporated architecture, among other things. But overall, I was in Cape Town, and I wasn’t going to go back to Mthatha.”
She landed her first job in Long Street. Coming from a small town and then into the student community, she was in awe of the city centre.
“I walked up Long Street for the first time, and it felt very different. There were so many people of different colours. As I walked up, the air got fresher, and when I saw Table Mountain, I made it my mission to live next to the mountain.”
Ncumisa lived in Parklands at the time, and moved a lot, each time a little closer to the mountain.
She said working in Long Street, she always envied the people sitting at the little coffee shops, parking their fancy cars in the road to get to their meetings while she was office bound.
After a year, she quit her job and worked for a company which assembles petrol pumps to pay for her interior design course. She started painting the walls of her, flats and friends who came to visit always praised her work.
“My paintings were just a means to bring my apartments to life,” said Ncumisa.
She then moved to Bo-Kaap, and this was where she networked and met many creatives.
“In 2008, I met someone who started a clothing brand, and he wanted to use my art as part of his brand, so for years I was an artist for them.”
The people she met inspired her and made her rethink her life. “I kept asking myself ‘who am I?’ And my sister kept saying, ‘you’re an artist’, but I felt it was something too big for me to call myself. I was very conflicted.”
While Ncumisa still worked full time, she painted as a hobby. “This was when my first beautiful images emerged. I decided to find a gallery that would be interested in exhibiting my work. Kunst Gallery on Kloof Street took two of my paintings and they were sold in days. People then started looking for my art.”
However, her exhibition at the gallery was short-lived, as the gallery management said she wasn’t producing enough.
“I had to work because I needed an income, and I was just painting for fun.” She then moved to Germany for six years, and when she became a mother, she stopped painting. “I then came back to Cape Town because I missed it here. The city inspires you in a different way to Germany.
“I lived in the countryside in Germany. It was laid-back, which is a good surrounding for an artist, but it doesn’t stimulate you the way the city does. Here, it is vibrant and has energy that stimulates you as an artist.”
But when she moved back, Ncumisa felt like she needed more from her life. “I felt empty. My son was starting playschool and I was alone very often. I taught myself to make clothing and while waiting for cut, make, and trim (CMT), I got bored. I looked at the paintings in my home, and started painting over the ones I didn’t like.”
One painting became three, and three became seven, and when her friends came over, they were so impressed that they talked her into exhibiting her clothing and art at her Bo-Kaap home. Thereafter, she walked the streets of the city in search of a gallery that would be interested in her work and found exhibition space at the Young Blood Gallery in Bree Street, then at a space at the Foreshore, and again at the Cape Town Club.
“I met many people who were interested in my art, and the more I made, the more I sold. I then stopped making clothing and focused on my art.”
Ncumisa described her art as conceptual, with many questions and lots of little stories that create conversation.
“A lot of people buy my art when they hear the story behind it because they relate.”
She said for a big part of this year she painted in isolation. “I was trying to find myself and it made me frustrated and I made many self-portraits – I even shaved my hair. Now I’m back, and inspired. With my period in isolation, I’ve produced images that are now exhibited at Souk in Long Street for the next month.”
She said the city centre had a big part in fostering her career. I went away and came back to paint here. The CBD has a lot of South African as well as international influences. It’s relaxed and colourful and diverse, and my community is very inviting. With art, the city is the best place to be. It helped me come out of my shell.”
However, Ncumisa will be travelling a bit to learn more about art as a discipline.
“The problem with South Africa is that it hasn’t grown to a place where we can tell stories through art, whereas countries such as Europe have been doing it for centuries. We are getting there, and art is becoming more open an inclusive everyday.”