‘What I Do Is Also a Form of Religion’: Inside the Obscure and Tantalizing World of South African Artist Nicholas Hlobo – artnet News
South African artist Nicholas Hlobo laces themes of intimacy, conflict, and obscurity deep into the textures of his work.
To get to the root of the work he is making, a visit to his studio felt apt—a defunct synagogue in a multi-ethnic neighborhood of Johannesburg, where he conceives his multimedia work that spans painting, weaving, sculpture, installation, and performance.
Through embellishing and re-constructing used objects such as leather costumes, mannequins, and rubber inner tubes from car tyres—severed, hung or laid—the artist “re-socializes” materials with meaning. By reworking mundane or masculine wares such as leather or car parts into dicks or fetishistic boots and loot, the artist both instructs the onlooker, and accuses them, of seeking out the erotic.
Hlobo’s loaded artistic creations elicit compound readings, with mysteries still left to unpack. Indecipherable forms recall conjugal roles or mating rituals, and aliens, ancient, or amphibious critters stitch together private puzzles concerning relationships, religions, or romance. These anthropomorphous creeps or demigods without eyes nor mouths spark queries into the artist’s own life as a gay Black man born among Apartheid’s oppressive regime. While South Africa is ahead of the curve compared to other nations in Africa that remain wedded to homophobic laws and litany—it is a country where queer communities are regarded as relatively free—for some it is safer to live with their sex in the shadows. But Hlobo insists his sexuality causes him no conflict nor pain.
Vibrant, chatty and high-spirited, Hlobo is welcoming into his world, a gated expanse. His studio is surrounded by a surrealist oasis replete with an elaborate pond, birds whose elongated beaks rest on curving trees or emerge from bushes of flowers, and fruits that line the garden, growing in abundance.
As I enter Hlobo’s sanctuary, the first studio he has ever owned, a cast iron sign asserts boldly: “COLORED ONLY, No Whites Allowed.” The sign is a playful gesture—and a purchase, not Hlobo’s creation. “I always have to find ways of asserting that which is in conflict with me,” the artist told me.
Surrealism and Wit
Hlobo rocketed to art world fame after his monumental rubber and ribbon sculpture-come-curiosity Limpundulu Zonke Ziyandilandela / The Encyclopedic Palace captivated art enthusiasts walking through the Arsenale at the Venice Biennale in 2011. Since then, he has participated in several key exhibitions and biennials across the globe. However, esoteric truths live within 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 adamantly keeps close to his culture by working with titles written in the Xhosa language.
These artistic gestures are not intended as acts of exclusion nor restitution—just like the sign on his studio, which is a jibe in his 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 requires an enormous sense of humour and a surrealistic kind of wit.”
Hlobo’s surreal synagogue-turned-studio in …….