Beauty inside

“What I do is also a form of religion”: in the dark and fascinating world of South African artist Nicholas Hlobo

South African artist Nicholas Hlobo deeply embeds themes of intimacy, conflict and darkness into the textures of his work.

To get to the root of the work he does, a visit to his studio proved fitting – a vanished synagogue in a multi-ethnic area of ​​Johannesburg, where he designs his multi-media work that spans painting, weaving, sculpture, installation and performance. .

By embellishing and reconstructing used objects such as leather suits, mannequins and rubber inner tubes of car tires – cut, hung or laid down – the artist “re-socializes” the materials with meaning. By reworking mundane or masculine items such as leather or car parts into cocks or fetishistic boots and booty, the artist instructs the viewer and accuses them of seeking eroticism.

Hlobo’s art-laden creations elicit composed readings, with mysteries yet to be unpacked. Indecipherable shapes recall marital roles or mating rituals, and alien, ancient, or amphibious creatures piece together private puzzles concerning relationships, religions, or romance. These anthropomorphic creeps or demi-gods without eyes or mouths raise questions about the artist’s own life as a gay black man born under the oppressive apartheid regime. While South Africa is ahead of the curve compared to other countries in Africa that still cling to homophobic laws and litanies – it is a country where queer communities are seen as relatively free – for some , it is safer to live with their sex in the shadows. But Hlobo insists his sexuality causes him neither conflict nor pain.

Vibrant, talkative and full of spirit, Hlobo welcomes a closed expanse into his world. His studio is surrounded by a surreal oasis filled with an elaborate pond, birds whose elongated beaks rest on curving trees or emerge from bushes of flowers and fruit that line the garden and grow in abundance.

As I enter Hlobo’s sanctuary, the first studio he ever owned, a cast-iron sign boldly states, “COLOR ONLY, no whites allowed.” The sign is a playful gesture and a purchase, not Hlobo’s creation. “I always have to find ways to affirm what is in conflict with me,” the artist told me.

Nicholas Hlobo in his studio, Lorentzville, Johannesburg, South Africa. Photo by Ilan Godfrey.

Surrealism and spirit

Hlobo rose to fame in the art world after his monumental rubber and ribbon sculpture became a curiosity Limpundulu Zonke Ziandilandela / The Encyclopedic Palace captivated art lovers as he toured the Arsenal of the Venice Biennale in 2011. Since then he has participated in several major exhibitions and biennials around the world. Yet esoteric truths inhabit his works, which can sometimes give the impression of an artist conversing with himself about his country’s past and present. While his creations travel far and wide, he remains resolutely close to his culture by working with titles written in the Xhosa language.

These artistic gestures are not meant to be acts of exclusion or restitution, just like the sign of his studio, which is a pike in its local context. The words of the late South African-born but exiled writer, Lewis Nkosi, could explain Hlobo’s temperament: “for a black man to live in South Africa in the second half of the 20th century and at the same time preserve his sanity, he needs a huge sense of humor and a surreal spirit.

The surreal Hlobo Synagogue-turned-studio in Lorentzville, a former Jewish working-class neighborhood turned multi-ethnic, supports his vision as an artist: “What I do is also a form of religion,” he said. The space is occupied by artifacts of devout or artistic sensibilities: ranging from a menorah to skulls and bones. Religious gnomes line the walls but everything has its place, whether it’s stacks of coiled copper wire, maps of forgotten territories on designated walls, or mannequins hidden in stairwells.

Searching the space, I came across an archival work by the artist, an elongated black rubber oddity rolled up in the basement; when deployed, it was a large human-sized form marked with Hlobo’s signature stitching. Objects that were once part of long-dismantled sets, and mixed new and old objects abound – the whole part and puzzle of African existence that Hlobo unveils in the gallery’s white cube.

Nicholas Hlobo in his studio, Lorentzville, Johannesburg, South Africa.  Photo by Ilan Godfrey.

Workshop of Nicholas Hlobo, Lorentzville, Johannesburg, South Africa. Photo by Ilan Godfrey.

Building differently

When I asked what led him to become an artist, he recalled life before art, when he worked in construction. “We have been discouraged from being active in politics,” the artist said, referring to the many other black boys who have been driven into men by deprivation and structural violence, living in a time of segregation that has saw millions of blacks forcibly resettled through whites. instruction on black “homelands”.

Speaking of the men who sacrificed their lives in the struggle for freedom or lost as political prisoners incarcerated or exiled, he said: “A lot of where I come from started to disappear in the struggle – the struggle to deconstruct the regime apartheid”.

In South Africa, civil liberties, such as education and employment, among other economic opportunities, were restricted to blacks by state decree until the end of apartheid in 1992, by law . The methods of the repressive regime continue to cripple generations of communities in Africa’s most industrialized economy. Speaking of inequality, poverty, social conflict, spatial segregation and lingering rage, Hlobo’s words about how black communities in South Africa are faring today, refer to the crime, lawlessness and those who have no choice but to seek help in the streets from those who have been spared.

And the artist is determined to build space where it is needed. His work and presence create a system for the aspirations of emerging artists to thrive. Some of these artists work alongside him in the studio. Hlobo claimed that although his country’s position is “very dire”, he has not left, nor will he have any ideas to do so.

Nicholas Hlobo in his studio, Lorentzville, Johannesburg, South Africa.  Photo by Ilan Godfrey.

Nicholas Hlobo in his studio, Lorentzville, Johannesburg, South Africa. Photo by Ilan Godfrey.

We met a few days before the opening of “Elizeni Ienkanyiso”, an exhibition of new paintings at the Lehmann Maupin gallery in London (until April 23). This is his first solo outing to the city since his exhibition at the Tate Modern in 2008. I have seen elements of his signature style of meticulous ribbon work still alive in the sketches, annotations and writings of the artist.

His thoughts and plans were splattered on studio walls, and the new works I witnessed in progress testified to an evolving act of painting, with splattered-brushed-poured acrylics in unique and tempting tactile tracks. which symbolize a changing moment in the artist’s process. These voluminous and alluring creations fused colors, forming kaleidoscopic blues or carnivalesque reds and blacks, and merge fibers and textures such as leather – a material he has been working with since a seminal visit to a sex museum in Amsterdam. many years ago – alongside ribbon.

Reflecting on these paintings on canvas, Hlobo advances a theory of beauty that has been informed by both her experience and her attraction to the liminal spaces that exist between what some only see as black or white. “The world in which we exist is beautiful but so unbeautiful. These concepts of contradiction touch me,” he said. Criticizing what he sees as a “sanitized” popular understanding of beauty, what Hlobo seeks to do is tell the story of aesthetics “beyond what is idealized or seen on the face”, and to create an open space for beauty that also envelops the intangible. .

“I go to the struggle to find what informs this beauty. And it can be very ugly,” he said. “That’s where my images come from.” Although her sexuality is out in the open, the artist’s layered discourse tells the story of men whose practice is the art of the unspoken – an expected outcome of communities of men made to love behind closed doors.

Nicholas Hlobo as Elizeni Ienkanyisois on view at Lehmann Maupin in London until April 23.

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