Colbert Mashile was born in 1972 in Bushbuckridge in the Mpumalanga Province of South Africa. Mashile says, "I come from a place that is shrouded by powerful cultural norms and customs". These customs, such as the ritual of circumcision, informed his earliest work, and he sought refuge and healing through art.
Colbert Mashile explores the psychological impact of traditional circumcision and initiation rituals on initiates. He also explores the often problematic narratives of collective cultural determinants within these communities. These psychological underpinnings are still evident in his work, but his imagery has transgressed these limitations to begin addressing issues such as home, power, language and the natural landscape.
Mashile comes from a family of teachers and was expected to join the family trend on completion of high school. While studying in Pretoria he became curious about the art that he saw in gallery windows on the streets of Pretoria. This led him to the Johannesburg Art Foundation and then to a degree in Fine Arts from the University of the Witwatersrand.
Colbert Mashile has risen to prominence on both national and international level. His work is infused with the natural and mystical elements that are part of his physical and psychological environment. In nearly every work, what emerges is a subtle tension between an invasive nature and a sense of serenity. It is this dichotomy that is so engaging.
Mashile has an uncanny ability to "tune into" universal psychological archetypes in his work. These images are completely based on his African identity and yet they link up with the universal. His horned figures that loom over men, coffin-like vehicles and vast landscapes fill his prints. Mashile's fine sense of colour compliments his forms, which seem to celebrate a connection to the earth.
Mystical figures, phallic images, pods, huts and organic shapes are but some of the visual stimuli, which abound in Mashile's recent work. Minuscule figures stand unobtrusively atop high structures surrounded by open fields.
Mashile, a quiet individual, reflects on his use of symbols and icons. He comments that it simply shows the "truth about the land and its people and thus my existence in South Africa". This poignant statement reflects someone who has a clear understanding of the prevalent issues in South Africa. Mashile has found an individual way in which to communicate his own concerns and those of society as a whole, and he does so in a remarkable manner. His work references various elements of more traditional art-production techniques (printmaking and painting). But, within this production, he isolates the personal narrative as the loudest voice in a cacophony of layers of meaning and reference.