n i c h o l a s h l o b o
ngubani na lo?
6th october | 14th november 2009
Nicholas Hlobo (Cape Town SA, 1975), at his second solo show at e x t r a s p a z i o, is well known for installations, performances and images that tackle complex themes and elicit different levels of interpretation. The artist involves the observer in the construction of a story with multiple meanings.
The title of the exhibition is Ngubani na lo? – translatable as Who is this?: Who are people, where do they come from and, above all, what identities are built up in various contexts?
Asking questions is as fundamental to Hlobo as the process of making. His works are rich in references to Xhosa culture and to the experience of life in post-apartheid South Africa, while at the same time representing more general reflection on themes such as language and communication, gender and sexuality, race and ethnic group.
The artist often speaks of his work in terms of ‘writing’ and always uses his mother tongue for their titles, Xhosa, a Nguni language, widespread in South Africa. Its poetic idiomatic expressions, proverbs and ambiguities of significance are particularly suitable for eluding taken-for-granted meanings and for undermining stereotypes.
This language so flexible that the words can be understood in manifold ways, further enriched by transpositions into the other languages Hlobo uses in South Africa, is a resource that the artist optimises: he tears, stitches up, cuts and recomposes non-homogeneous materials – often in themselves charged with hypothetical interpretations – to construct sequences of unpredictable images without an apparent narrative structure: ‘montages’ of fantasies that call on the observer to continue development of the story.
Tyre inner tubes, which Hlobo picks up in workshops, become a symbol of industrialisation and the urban experience. At the same time the rubber takes on the value of an emblem of masculinity. Owning a car in South Africa is a clearly male status symbol and the tubes may moreover be associated with condoms. Here the vulnerability and precariousness of certainties are brought into play. The condom is in everyday use, but it is also a male fetish and furthermore a cause of conflict in one of the world’s most important religious cultures. A bit too much for such a small and lightweight object?
Hlobo has always amused himself by dismantling and building up acquired certainties and clichés, especially gender stereotypes. In many of his works the rubber, the satin ribbons, crochet, lace, approximately phallic forms, iridescent embroideries of spermatozoa and orifices of an uncertain nature seem to be seized by a rapture that brings them ineffable pleasures.
The complex and multifaceted interpretations which his works succeed in arousing among the public are, for Hlobo, an integral part of the creative process.
The title of one of the works on show, Mondle umkhulise (Nourish him, or Nourish her), hints at this need for exchange, participation, nourishment and enrichment.
It’s a structure similar to a nest, suspended in the centre of the gallery space. During the opening evening it will be inhabited by the artist. The image of the nest tends to remind us that ideas need to be protected, to be accommodated.
Seeking to build up peaceful relationships with oneself and others is a subject represented also by a large size sheet of paper, sectioned and recomposed with ribbons of silk. Bringing the parts back together has resulted in the emergence of protuberances, further elaborated with embroidery, which make one think of small breasts. The work, entitled 'Unyulu' (pure/virgin), is in monochrome white and tends to transmit a sensation of tranquillity, a goal achieved, though not without effort. Some finishes left suspended might be a clue that it is only a temporary pause. Hlobo’s restless tenacity in undoing and continuing to explore unprecedented solutions speaks to us of a purity that is not to be understood as innocence but is the result of a ceaseless process of knowledge.