No contemporary artist has challenged the South African art world like Moshekwa Langa. His fellow artist, the art historian and curator Colin Richards, captures the prevailing view: Before a work by Langa `You're unsettled, you're undone, because you can't place him and consequently you don't know where your place is.'

`On the one hand I have the image of a perfidious trickster and on the other hand there is that earnest innocence that he has developed to a fine art.'

Richards goes on to describe Langa as a `disruptive enigma', `enabling narcissist', `knowing child'. Cryptic epithets abound, but what remains indisputable is the fact that Langa is `a real challenge'. Hence Richard's recourse to a language of paradox. Or Langa's avowal that his work has `no logical narrative' and resists `semantic closure'.

'People can't reconcile my idiosyncratic views with their own desire to classify me,' says Langa. 'I sometimes have a sense of people trying to lay claim to me, of putting me where they think I should be and not leaving me to do my experiments, have my failures in peace ... people seem to talk about me rather than to me.' These words, from an interview with Hazel Friedman, form a striking contrast to Langa's understanding of what he does. Consider these remarks by Langa in his presentation at the Fault Lines conference in Cape Town: 'Many things have happened to me, around me, away from me. I don't remember them them sequentially. But I remember some of them, as if they are happening at that moment. The work I produced some ninety days ago is as recent as the work produced now. When producing a work, sometimes I am absent, perhaps partially. Rarely am I fully present. When I have done the work sometimes I return to it, sometimes it catches up with me.'

'I was quite surprised to discover that people were receptive to what I was doing,' said Langa in an earlier interview. 'I don't really understand why I am treated like this because it never used to happen before.' Langa's remarks then were a response to his stratospheric rise in the wake of his first exhibition at the Rembrandt van Rijn Gallery in Johannesburg in September 1995. Untitled, the main piece and the exhibition came to be known, per Victor Metsoamere, a Sowetan journalist, as 'Skins'. Made of ripped-open cement sacks treated with Vaseline, turpentine and creosote, these were first seen on the Twirly-dry in Langa's yard in KwaNdebele. In the gallery the 'skins' were piled in a heap on the floor and bound with wire in bundles as wall pieces. The effect was obscene and precise - a grim and brilliant simulation of slaughter. On the strength of this work alone, Langa's ascendance was assured. At once protective and suspicious, he attributes his success to the fact that he is young and black and without formal art training. A 'new curio from Africa', as he refers to himself, he chooses not to be answerable to his national and international success. 'The work is not being received by me,' he says. 'It's being received by other people. They are the ones who have to be accountable to their ha ha ha.'

'I think that my work is unclassifiable in terms that a lot of people are used to using to talk about South African art and black art. I don't think people expect black people to make the work do ... and not having an art education makes it all the more complex.' Langa' allure is compounded by the fact that he is 'not very literate in terms of art criticism'. 'I have never really thought about the materials I am using. It has more I suppose to do with economics than with any specific psychological conditioning.' However, Langa admits that his process of art making was 'a kind of therapy', and that a central issue for him is 'the thing of not really belonging, not fitting in anywhere' - the ambivalence of being 'an inside-outsider'.

'I pick it off the street and from dumps, Langa says of the throwaway materials he uses. The works exhibited at the Rembrandt van Rijn Gallery, and later shown in Germany, were made in the backyard of his mother's home in KwaNdebele. They were never intended to be exhibited in a metropolitan arena. Langa sees the works as part of an 'open-ended' continuum - a dense doc ument. 'I don't have separate pieces. All the work I do is a continuation.' 'These things don't have titles because titles tend to fix things.'

'Cut and paste' is Langa's method. His notebooks are a case in point. Therein one finds a strikingly unique way of sticking things down, layering meanings, altering images. Exhibited widely, the notebooks are constructed autobiographical records of 'rural areas ... moving from place to place'. They are also clues to Langa's exhibition, 'Skins,'in Johannesburg, and more recently, his installation at the 'Fault Lines' exhibition at the Castle in Cape Town - where Langa described his contribution as not being about 'anything', but about 'flashes of things ... about the dangerous potential of innocence, about artifice represented as reality, and the borderline between this and that, where one is neither fish nor fowl.'

What distinguishes the work is the astonishingly inventive use of throw-away materials - concrete sacks, plastic bags stuffed with paper and cooking fat, shredded paper, clear plastic, coat-hangers, bubble wrap, buff tape, Jeyes Fluid. For Langa, what matters is the articulation of matter. Though the work presented is not titled, one finds compelled to give it meaning, to read the viscer. Walking through 'Skins' one is reminded of genocide - the mounting up of carcasses. Or witness Langa's installation at the Cape Town Castle, with its sticky flayed strips of brown paper jammed into wire mesh, its glutinous floor strewn with crumbling pieces of masonite. The impression is synaesthetic and physical. One thinks of an abattoir. The pungency of Jeyes Fluid forces back the heady stench of carrion.

Or consider Langa's soiled 'stick figure', redolent of cave paintings and children's drawings. And yet, with its sullied and disarming combination of materials, a distinctly postmodern piece. There is the head frayed about the edges, two strips of buff tape for a neck, a torso of bubble wrap with its sachets of air, legs made of transparent tape within which fine tribes of shredded paper are sealed. The arms fan outwards, the symmetry broken by the annexure to one arm of a tumorotis bubble-wrap extension against which sealed plastic straws are fixed. At the clavicle there is an expired phone card. Along the invaded chest a row of cigarette butts; a narrow distance away, an unlit cigarette. The fingers, made of filthy buff tape, fan tentacular. What compels one here is Langa's canny urgency - a chastening convergence of pollution and innocence.

Sue Williamson and Ashraf Jamal in Art in South Africa - the future present