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Talking about the City

Artist Sam Nhlengethwa's recently opened exhibition presents us with what one may call a thematically interesting perspective given its title, Conversations. I say interesting as opposed to refreshing or new since the idea of conversation is an everyday norm and activity which has at its centre some topic or other, from the serious to the mundane.

Nhlengethwa's representation of the city is not at all focussed on the urban landscape of it but rather the spaces and individuals within it. The people that populate his spaces serve the double purpose of adding an animated force to them as well as giving form to the notion of conversations. We therefore have a city bustling with life for, let us not fool ourselves, architectural fanatics as some of us might be, an empty urban landscape with empty buildings is just that, empty.

But to what extent does the work successfully communicate the representative quality of conversations? Evidently, Jo'burg is the city of choice for Nhlengethwa and it is fitting. It is characteristic of at once seeming multi-faceted and chaotically stagnant is captured somewhat in Nhlengethwa's specific style of including collages as part of his paintings. The works are, however, linear and a lot more sanitised than the city they represent in many instances. This is not to say that they fail since it is the activities of the people that is of central importance.

Standing around the gallery space on opening night, observing the patrons and revellers, I could not resist the possible thought of how the very act of having a sanitised space such as a gallery, populated by a group of individuals, was in fact a testament, even if indirect, to the very ideal of the exhibition itself. It brought to mind the words of academic and artist Thembinkosi Goniwe when he said in response to a question I had posed to him earlier, that there is no certainty to be found in the intention of the artist as everything he does will inevitably be subject to control and mediation. This certainly rang true of the work on show.

Among some of the works on show were titles that alluded to aspects of conversation. "You Take the first Solo", an ode to Nhlengethwa’s abiding affection for jazz, or "The Marikana strikes are worrying" as a passing commentary on one of the more infamous events of our post-apartheid dispensation. Nonetheless, the snippets of conversation as presented by the titles are something that any observant person can and should be able to recognise.

I am afraid that I cannot agree with the notion that the work "portrays the exuberance of the city" as purported by the gallery. It portrays the city no doubt, but as mentioned earlier, it’s the more tangible characteristics of Jo'burg that are discernible as opposed to the intangible energy of it. Representations of the city, any city, never quite achieve the elusive task of capturing its essence especially when the medium through which this is done is the traditional art practice of painting.

Photography itself does not achieve this even if it is the most responsive between the two art practices. Perhaps it could be that the reason for this is the immense scope of the physical subject (the city) itself, which means that only aspects of it will be almost always be caught by the artist for the benefit of the viewer's gaze.  

If, for example, one were to consider the series of city landscapes by Peter Eastman’s City/Stad or maybe those of Herman Niebhur's City Chromatic one is hard-pressed not to say that they give what is arguably a stylised view which doesn’t quite go beneath the surface of the city but rather comes across as only a beautiful depiction of its exterior. Maybe this is the saving grace of Nhlengethwa’s interiors and the conversations that are housed within them. I cannot fault him especially if one considers the progression that this latest series of work appears to display in comparison to his earlier work.

But Jo'burg to me would surely be captured; it achieves animation in the defiant walk of its reluctant pedestrians, the restlessness of overeager taxi drivers, the lively side-street hawkers, the microcosms of varying cultural communities that inhabit it and the constant impression of a space barely managing to contain the numbers of people within it.

Conversations is on at the Goodman Gallery Johannesburg from September 27 to October 20.

Follow Mpho on Twitter: @mphomoshe

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Mpho Moshe Matheolane
Mpho Moshe Matheolane is a Motswana from the little town of Mahikeng. He is a budding academic, researcher and writer with interests in art, history, semiotics and law. He sits on the Constitutional Court Artworks Committee – a clear case of serendipity – and is a firm believer in the power of an informed and active citizenry.

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