Xhosa artist Nicholas Hlobo: ‘I felt I had to assume a new approach’

Nicholas Hlobo is an artist who wears several layers of identity — “Xhosa, gay, South African but, first of all, Nicholas, myself”, he says. In the energetic sculptures — sometimes supersized — for which he has become known, canvas, latex, tyres and inner tubes are combined with copper wire, piping, loops of leather cord and satin ribbon to make works that often have an almost animal presence.

In 2012, he set up his studio in Johannesburg’s Lorentzville district, using the generous spaces of a building that has itself had many identities. The block was built in the early 1900s and used as an early cinema, the Valley Bioscope, from 1918. In 1926, it was consecrated as a synagogue. In 1983, it was deconsecrated. By the 2000s, property developers were circling it as a residential development opportunity.

Lorentzville, no longer a working-class Jewish area, became multi-ethnic (a new mosque in the neighbourhood now serves immigrants from Senegal and Cameroon) and a bit arty. The light industrial units of Victoria Yards, just down the road, have been converted into creative spaces and coffee roasteries.

This transformation finds echoes in Hlobo’s art, which is full of repurposing. His materials are reclaimed, recycled and reused but, more importantly, they are chosen for the stories they tell, for example the narratives embedded in rubber. “Ancient tribes discovered rubber long before automobiles existed,” Hlobo says. Now it evokes both S&M and the fragility of life: discarded inner tubes are ubiquitous in townships and faulty ones cause many road deaths; a tyre filled with petrol, placed around a neck and set alight, was used to punish collaborators in the brutality of apartheid.

It was in the old synagogue, during lockdown, that Hlobo set about making a new body of work, using brilliantly coloured acrylic paints that he hadn’t touched since 1999, his first year at art school in Johannesburg. The finished paintings, threaded and embellished with ribbons and leather, are now on show at Lehmann Maupin in London.

“We were all summoned by circumstance to take a break,” says Hlobo, “and it lifted a lid for me. I felt that I had to assume a new approach to how I conceive my objects, and go for something I haven’t tried before.”

The improvisational flourishes that acrylic paint allows have given rise to a febrile series of cold-blooded creatures: snakes, lizards and turtles. There seems to be a human being among them, too, surfing a giant board across a circular canvas. In another work, reptilian hatchlings emerge, vulnerable but hopeful, into an exciting but dangerous new world. Such pandemic-induced allegories don’t need much unpacking.

Xhosa artist Nicholas Hlobo: ‘I felt I had to assume a new approach’

By the second half of 2020, Hlobo was frequently being asked by one gallery or another to put on an online show, but consistently refused. “I don’t visualise myself as having an exhibition in some funny box called a computer,” he says. And it’s true that his works, even those that hang on the wall, are highly spatial. There are coiling copper ones that sit on the ground and perform like drawings in the air. Hlobo sometimes gives stately performances around his composite sculptures, where his own stillness emphasises the uncanny sense of movement they convey.

I don’t visualise myself as having an exhibition in some funny box called a computer

The piece that brought him global attention, at the 2011 Venice Biennale when Hlobo was 36, was an alarming dragon-like beast of rubber, leather, ribbons and multiple found objects that hovered in the rafters of the Arsenale. When it was finally returned to Cape Town (where Hlobo is from) in 2017, to be hung in the soaring foyer of the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa — the country’s first — it had a rather emblematic quality as the work that had consolidated South Africa’s presence on the global contemporary art stage.

Hlobo, who could have rested on his laurels, says that being part of the Biennale had already taught him something: to be humble and keep his ego in check. Meanwhile, from a mentorship with Anish Kapoor from 2010 to 2011, under the Rolex Mentors and Protégés initiative, he had taken the older artist’s advice. “He told me: ‘Don’t take on too much. Don’t grow up to be like me. The phone never stops ringing, and it’s a pain,’” says Hlobo.

The dragon was called “iimpundulu zonke ziyandilandela” (All the Lightning Birds Are After Me) and Hlobo has continued to name all his work in the Xhosa language. This is not just to highlight its connection to both the spiritual myths and the harsh realities of the Xhosa people — historically and today — but to separate it intentionally from the western art canon. It might now sit in white cube galleries and US and European institutions, but viewers — with these hard-to-pronounce titles — are encouraged to resist an instantly reductive interpretation and to consider first the context from which it comes.

The title of his new show is Elizeni Ienkanyiso (On the Wave of Enlightenment), something which Hlobo felt keenly during the pandemic in his country. “It gave us the opportunity to be better people,” he says. “But it also revealed some of the workings of the world and who runs the show.”

Hlobo complains about having to drive to Soweto to pick up black market cigarettes for twice the normal price (tobacco was banned on health grounds during South Africa’s first lockdown). But on a more serious note, he talks about the funds donated by wealthy private individuals in South Africa to help small businesses in financial straits brought about by the pandemic. Such acts, while philanthropic, in his view also brought South Africa’s deep inequality into sharper focus than ever.

“We always knew that we have great poverty and small pockets of great wealth here,” says the artist. “But the pandemic made it more obvious. That perhaps the people who really run the country are not those we elected.” Hlobo, with his surfers and snakes, is telling it how he sees it.

To April 23, lehmannmaupin.com

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