Finding the plot

Nicholas Hlobo’s ringing telephone is determined to thwart the tranquillity of his Doornfontein studio following last week’s announcement that he is the 2009 Standard Bank Young Artist for Visual Art. Friends, art dealers, journalists and cameramen are all after some time with him, when all he wants is to finish his latest sculpture, Ingubo Yesizwe, in time for his solo show opening at London’s Tate Modern gallery in December.

“Fame is not really what I’m looking for. Fame comes with a lot of baggage. I wouldn’t say I feel I’ve arrived,” Hlobo says about this flood of attention.

Without telephonic reminders of the outside world, Hlobo’s airy studio is a private galaxy of ribbons and rubber, an otherworldly haven veiled from its urban environs by fabric visual diaries in curtain-like swathes, gentle mounds of shredded tyre tubing and oodles of bright satin ribbon tumbling off the benches and walls.

Icelandic band Sigur Rós provides the transcendent soundscapes that twinkle somewhere in the background while Hlobo and his helpers tie and stitch into the late afternoon. “I love Sigur Rós because I think we have the same mindset somehow,” he says. “They use an ancient Icelandic language, a language that I don’t understand at all, and I feel that this is almost the same feeling many people get about my work.”

Ingubo Yesizwe, the title of the giant tangle of patchwork tubing and leather Hlobo is working on, is isiXhosa for “the blanket of the nation”. It is a 50m-long soft sculpture built by stitching together quilt-like patches of leather scraps and black rubber with satin ribbon. From above, parts of the morass resemble the undulations of hilly, cultivated land viewed from an aero-plane. Add to this a bit of stuffing and long tentacles of plaited ribbon and you have something more like the Kraken, Tennyson’s mythological sea monster, beached and girded for a new life on the banks of the latter-day Thames.

Although Hlobo’s work is reaching an increasingly wide international audience through his participation in group exhibitions in New York, London and Siena — and a recent solo exhibition in the Momentum Series at the Institute for Contemporary Art in Boston — its metaphors and materials are firmly rooted in traditional Xhosa language and culture. Raised in the Eastern Cape before moving to Johannesburg to study visual art, the 34-year-old artist titles his works only in isiXhosa. “Language has become my identity as a South African. South Africa is culturally very diverse and you cannot be too general when you talk about it. You have to find a focal point and my ethnic background became my focal point. That’s where my plot begins,” he says.

The ubiquity of sexual innuendo, and especially clearly phallic forms, in Hlobo’s work is an extension of his interest in carving out an idiom of cultural specificity through his practice. The penis becomes a metaphor for Xhosa masculinity, not just male sexuality, and phallic appendages to found objects, performance costumes and Hlobo’s hanging visual diaries allude to Xhosa rituals surrounding circumcision and sex. For Hlobo, circumcision is “one of the few rituals Xhosa people feel they still have almost total claim to, as most other cultures have allowed similar traditions to be diluted by Western influence”.

“I feel that this is how I need to celebrate being a South African … I feel this is actually celebrating the rainbow nation and this is how I want to do it,” he says. “I also want to challenge visual art conventions. I think there is a tradition of English language and culture being very dominant in the art world and I feel there is a need for that to be challenged somehow.”

Hlobo treats his receipt of the Standard Bank Young Artist Award with the same earnest hope in the “rainbow nation”, seeing the recognition it signifies as an opportunity to become an “ambassador” for South African culture. “The award is not just about me. I think it’s about us as South Africans and what we do … I think it’s another acknowledgement of my contribution to the visual writings of South African culture and the diversity of that culture and it’s an opportunity to carry on sharing that with the world,” he says. “How you carry yourself outside says a lot about where you come from.”

Traditionally ritual spaces
Umthubi (2006) — [kraal]
Hlobo’s Umthubi is a construction charged with traditional Xhosa cultural significance, but which also suggests slippages between South African indigenous cultures, the loss of tradition to social change and the potential vicissitudes of gender conventions upheld in South African societies. Kraals are traditionally ritual spaces, freely inhabited only by men. Yet a net of pink satin ribbon spreads across the centre of this kraal, implying a feminine presence and the co-option of a cultural symbol by a wholly other substance or force. The piece, although titled in isiXhosa, is the shape of a Zulu kraal, suggesting the permeability of cultures through migration, cross-influence and intermarriage.

Chumisa (2008) — [pink organza]
This womb-like organza environment suggests the influence of sculptors such as Eva Hesse, Louise Bourgeois and Joseph Beuys, whose almost architectural use of soft materials blurred distinctions between their sculptures and the environments in which they existed. In a similar gesture of contempt for the building that houses it, Chumisa seems to shun its surrounds, opting instead to create its own insular nest of meaning. On his influences Hlobo says: “I try not to be like anyone but myself. But I like Beuys — I think he was crazy. I also really like Bourgeois’s work. I think she’s also mad, in a good way. And people sometimes say I’m crazy too.”

Izinqanda mathe (2008) — [testicular saddle thing (right)]
“I come from a culture where the penis is very important,” Hlobo writes in the catalogue for Izele, his first solo exhibition at Cape Town’s Michael Stevenson gallery in 2006. Symbols of male potency in Hlobo’s work, such as the erect penis appended to the saddle or the burdensome testicles in Izinqanda mathe, waver between conviction and self-deprecation. Virility is encumbered by the literalised “weight” of cultural sexual pressure, the threat of disease and impotence, and the responsibility to one’s progeny.

Ungamqhawuli (2008)
Hlobo’s performance art traverses the genres of physical theatre and fashion, transforming his often grotesque rubber and textile constructions into absurd body suits that at once collapse the boundaries between the human body and sculpture. Ungamqhawuli, performed at Kwatsityw’iziko (Hlobo’s second solo show at Michael Stevenson) in March 2008, is recalled by those who were there as one of Hlobo’s most poetic and perilous performances to date. As he hoisted himself ceiling-ward in the pale blue satin cot, the pulley system clicked and threatened to drop him on the hard gallery floor. Yet the work held together, following its mandate to be “quiet”, as a traditional Xhosa married couple would be as they “crossed the hearth” to sleep together without the rest of the household knowing.

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