Don't neglect art

Nicholas Hlobo was born in Cape Town in 1975 and moved to Johannesburg in 1995 where he worked in the television industry as an extra and set-builder.

He explored art-making on his own, but later enrolled at the Artist Proof Studio in 1998. He also studied at the Technikon Witwatersrand (now the University of Johannesburg), obtaining a BTech in fine art in 2002. In 2006 he won, among other things, the Tollman Award for Visual Art.

In 2009 he scooped the Standard Bank Young Artist Award for Visual Art. His exhibition, Umtshotsho, was on until early this year at the Standard Bank Gallery in Johannesburg.

Hlobo draws on his Xhosa culture and heritage as well as on his experience as a black person in post-apartheid South Africa. He is also concerned with gender and sexuality, race and ethnicity, and “anything that people find embarrassing in society”.

Age: 34

How do you earn your living?
I am an artist.

Where did you grow up?
I was born in Cape Town, but spent most of my childhood in Idutywa, in the Eastern Cape.

What primary school did you attend?
I started my schooling when I was six or seven years old in rural Transkei where I completed standard five in 1988.

Secondary schooling?
I started high school in 1989 at Tiisetsong Secondary School in Thokoza, east of Johannesburg. But in 1993 I went to Milton Mbekela Secondary School in Umtata to complete high school.

Tertiary education
I studied fine art at the then Technikon Witwatersrand and graduated in 2002.

Any favourite teachers?
Yes, in primary school Miss Ntuthuza Ncanywa and Mrs Guma made an impression on me in those important first years. At high school, it was Miss Tshabalala at Tiisetsong and Mrs Gweba, Miss Jafta and Miss Vena at Milton Mbekela, who were all very encouraging. At the technikon, Bonita Alice and Leora Farber had a big influence on me, although at the time I fought with them a lot and found them to be very challenging.

Why were you so fond of them?
At the time, I didn’t realise how they affected me but when I left school I began to see how their input helped me. They seemed like my enemies, but they unleashed the good in me. They challenged me and were always on my case, but their honesty helped me to realise who I am.

How did your education influence your becoming an artist?
When I was at school in the Transkei we often did extramural music and theatre activities. And, each year, we participated in competitions at the town halls. But in the Transvaal [now Gauteng] the focus was so much on politics—it was boring! The enjoyment I got from taking part in the creative and expressive activities helped to show me what I wanted to do with my career.

What were your favourite subjects and why?
English, especially reading poetry and other literature, and writing essays and analysis of a subject. It allowed creativity and freedom of expression. I also liked geography and agriculture, learning about and understanding the land and how it works. I also found biology interesting, but I disliked the “cramming” approach used. Xhosa was also my favourite, but it became too technical in high school when things like phonetics were introduced.

What are the qualities of a good teacher?
A good teacher challenges learners, but is not restrictive in how they choose to tackle a problem. During the old system of education in the 1980s there was very little freedom of thinking encouraged. I found maths difficult because there were no real-life examples and I would find myself asking “What is x?” when we had to solve an equation. So a teacher should aim to make the subject accessible to students.

What are the things a teacher should never do or say?
Teachers should not put themselves above their students, but should allow learners to challenge them. They should never discourage learners from being curious. Teachers should allow learners to be dreamers.

What message do you have for teachers in South Africa?
When I think of my own journey as an artist I realise there is a lot of work to be done in teaching culture. I encourage teachers to take on the responsibility of educating themselves about art and different forms of expression so that they are useful sources of information. They should read art books and attend exhibitions to build their understanding of the subject without needing to be prompted by the education department.
Not much attention is given to the arts in educational supplements in the media—the focus is more on maths and science. It implies that everyone in this country should be wearing a white coat and carrying a syringe.

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