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Mhlengi Shange at Simchowitz
“New Generation” is Mhlengi Shange’s first solo exhibition and first ever show in the United States. The artist reflects on his school days back in Kwadabeka, South Africa with meditative charcoal and acrylic portraits of teenage students in uniform. The subjects sit, and in some cases, stand, against vibrant shades of yellow, cream, pink, and green, which feature subtle tiled patterns that blend into the background. Some of the students also have amorphous blobs floating behind their heads in a collage-like manner. These masses are a muddied yellow, with vigorous black mark-making that feels a bit ominous, but mostly just unclear — not unlike the weight of their unknown futures at this stage of adolescence.
Each subject’s eyes immediately divulge how they might be feeling. Some gazes look worried, others optimistic, and many appear to be lost in hopeful introspection. The teenage years can be a heady time, but in portraits like Mnge (2021), where three friends sit confidently in their matching blue vests, we’re reminded of the lighter aspects of this period. These girls have well-masked smirks and look at you with an exactitude that makes you want to join their crew and learn their juicy secrets. And in Untitled 3 (2021), we see a student with an unmistakable air of mischief to her expression, which suggests that there’s fun to be had.
While adulthood often makes time feel like it’s collapsing into one really long day, there’s something to be said for those formative adolescent years that remain so precisely memorable. It might be a challenge to recall yesterday’s lunch, but just a few minutes with Shange’s paintings can transport you back to high school with swift, remarkable detail.
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Photo: Mnge, 2021, Acrylic and Charcoal on canvas, 57h x 75.50w x 1.25d in, 144.78hx191.77w x 3.18dcm, image courtesy of the gallery and the artist