Nicholas Hlobo: Out of Africa

First published in 2011

With a string of high profile exhibitions and collections, Nicholas Hlobo has quickly crossed over from the ranks of rising stars to being one of the most sought after young South African artists. On the eve of his first solo show with Lehmann Maupin Gallery New York, we revisit an early interview with the artist. Exhibiting at the 54th Venice Biennale in 2011, Hlobo discusses his very personal style of visual storytelling and post-Apartheid identity politics.

Nicholas Hlobo at the 54th Venice Biennale. Photo: Diana d’Arenberg


A riot of ribbons, stitched leather and rubber gently sways, suspended from the ceiling of the Arsenale exhibition space. A beast with large extended wings, and a horned skull head  attached to a body of discarded tyres and inner tube, looks like it has taken flight from a Pieter Brueghel painting. This crude Frankenstein gimp creature seems to fill up the entire hall. It is a bloody and menacing presence, casting shadows across the red light filled space; a junkyard golem fashioned from nightmares and folktales.

Participating for the first time in the Venice Biennale, South African artist Nicholas Hlobo’s giant ‘dragon’, titled in his native Xhosa Iimpundulu Zonke Ziyandilandela (All the Lightning Birds Are After Me) generated a lot of buzz, and was immediately snapped up by German collector at the biennale’s VIP preview.  Many loved it. Some were repelled. But few assumed the studied nonchalance and cynicism so familiar amongst seasoned art tourists and collectors. The work, installed in the centre of the Arsenale space as part of the biennale’s main ‘ILLUMInations’ exhibition, was unavoidable, confronting and dramatic. The title, Iimpundulu Zonke Ziyandilandela refers to folk song about a mythological creature, the ‘lightning bird’ or a dragon, a fearsome creature which upon encountering also provides enlightenment, an understanding of one’s own mortality. An encounter with the Iimundulu  rouses one’s ability to reason with the world. It also roused me from my art-induced somnambulism after a couple of long art-filled days.

Whilst numerous emerging artists were overshadowed in the Biennale by established and recognisable names like Urs Fischer, Monica Bonvicini and Rosemarie Trockel, Hlobo was swamped with requests for meetings with collectors and museum representatives. He may not yet be a household name, but securing 15 minutes with the artist was an accomplishment worthy of a martini reward at Harry’s Bar. Although the art market thrives on marketing and pimping the latest ‘it’ artist ad nauseam, Hlobo is no flash-in-the-pan sensation churning out market-pleasing production-line fetish objects. Nor is he the flamboyant self-promoter that seems a pre-requisite for a successful art career these days. While his career has been a rapidly developing one, with an exceedingly busy few years, the slight and softly spoken artist shows no sign of stopping anytime soon.

Since graduating with a degree in Fine Art from the Technikon Witwatersrand in Johannesburg in 2002, only four years later he went on to his first solo exhibition at Cape Town based Michael Stevenson Gallery. Soon afterwards he shot to recognition with his 2008 solo show at the Tate Modern, called Uhambo, and the Standard Bank Young Artist Award for Visual Arts 2009. In 2010 he was the recipient of the Rolex mentor and protégé arts initiative with a mentorship by Indian British artist Anish Kapoor. His works have made their way into the Pinault Collection at the Palazzo Grassi, and the Palazzo Papadopoli as part of the Future Generation Art Prize, established by the Victor Pinchuk Foundation. With an impressive body of work, a string of accolades and exhibitions, and a waiting list for his pieces, it’s surprising then to learn that the thirty-five year old only seriously considered a career in art and applied for art school, after working an unfulfilling two and a half years as a cement factory labourer.

Hlobo is an artist who delights in thinking his way through the creative process and engaging with both the language of art and that of his own personal and national history, rather than just reacting to the medium used. His sculptures, installations and works on canvas are loaded with meaning, symbolism and innuendo, which slowly reveals itself only upon closer inspection. They excite interest as much for their ability to provoke questions about sexuality, gender, race and identity as for their distinctive style and sensual use of materials. Much of this is rooted in his native Xhosa culture and language, and also draws from contemporary South African society.

‘Impundulu Zonke Ziyandilandela’ (‘All the lightening birds are after me’), ILLUMInations, 54th Venice Biennale, 2011. Photo: Diana d’Arenberg
‘Iimpundulu Zonke Ziyandilandela’ (‘All the Lightning Birds Are After Me’). Photo: Diana d’Arenberg

“I’m telling a South African story,” explains Hlobo. “I’m not the only one who’s told it—they’re old stories—but through that I’m celebrating my identity as a South African. I regard my works as writings rather than just objects. They are visual writings that talk about how culture evolves and how identities change and are rebuilt.” The use of his native Xhosa language is an important tool for Hlobo, allowing him to reconnect to his traditional culture, redefine his identity and reclaim his African history in a predominantly white art world. “At home we speak Xhosa,” he explains, “but I’m now forgetting, and incorporating the language into the works is a way of reminding myself, and trying to study it. I play at times with the language and invent metaphors. Most of the time I draw from the words and paragraphs and build an image out of that.”

Hlobo has forged his own artistic language and aesthetic that offers a peek into modern South Africa, “recycling good pieces out of the past and recreating them as new.” Despite the variety of media he employs to create his work— from paper, canvas, installation, sculpture and performance —the artist strives to weave a common thread through them all, to create “a sort of family unit, so the works have to be linked by a certain thread—either by the material or title.” Everything he uses to create his pieces is laden with symbolic meaning—personal or cultural—such as the rubber and tyres that is a recurring material in his work. It is a material associated with automobiles, and thus masculinity. But it is also a material associated with danger and the erotic. Sex is hinted at throughout much of his work, in the phallic objects that make an appearance in sculptures and installations, in the fleshly, stitched wounds and orifices that float and gape across white canvases, and in the extensive use of black latex. “Rubber also relates to gender subculture in the context of sado-masochism”, adds Hlobo. “If you go to sex shops you get the same material to make costumes and toys. It’s a material that is very sensitive and stubborn at the same time.” On the other hand, the use of embroidery and ribbons, which are also hallmarks of Hlobo’s work, lends his pieces a softness creating a contrast of coloured thread fluidly dancing like calligraphy across the surface of the black rubber. Hard and soft. Masculine and feminine.  Hlobo revels in playing with binaries and gender politics. “In most cultures I think the perception is that stitching and sewing is a woman’s job. But what I find fascinating is that the leading fashion designers, most of them are men. I think people invent conventions in order to divide people up into categories.”

Hlobo’s works play with his own personal identity as a gay black South African male, as well as tapping into South African politics, history and culture, while defying ethnic stereotyping.  In an earlier interview he stated, “Most people I know say my work is so not black. I quite enjoy that, because I am somehow celebrating all my heritages: my African heritage, my colonial heritage.” Hlobo tells an altogether different story of being South African, one that is a patchwork of identity and memory, and not reduced to race alone. “We’re not a nation that’s mono-cultural. We’re a nation that’s made up of various facets and there’s an importance in celebrating those important facets”, says Hlobo. “We call ourselves a rainbow nation. A rainbow is not one colour, it’s several colours, and I think there’s an importance in celebrating all those different colours.”

‘Thoba, utsale umnxeba’, 2008. Performance from Monumentum series (#11) at the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston, MA. Courtesy of the artist and Michael Stevenson Galley, Cape Town, South African. Photo: John Kennard
Nicholas Hlobo-01_compressed
Installation view, Nicholas Hlobo: Sculpture, Installation, Performance, Drawing, National Museum of Art, Architecture, and design, Oslo, Norway, 2011. Photo: Michael Stevenson Gallery, Cape Town.
‘Umphanda ongazaliyo’, 2008. Installation view, Monumentum series (#11) at the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston, MA. Courtesy of the artist and Michael Stevenson Galley, Sape Town. Photo: John Kennard
Nicholas Hlobo
‘Phalela mgama and Wanyus’ msila’, 2010, at the 54th Venice Biennale

Nicholas Hlobo at Lehmann Maupin Gallery

February 24 – April 17, 2016
201 Chrystie Street, New York

Concurrent with his exhibition at Lehmann Maupin, Hlobo’s work will also be included in several major museum shows including the solo exhibition, Imilonji Yembali (Melodies of History) at Museum Beelden aan Zee, The Hague, Netherlands, on view from February 13-May 16, 2016; as well as group exhibitions, History, Art, Architecture and Design from the 80s to Now, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, on view through March 7, 2016; and Energy and Process, Tate Modern, London, on long term exhibition.


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