South African artist Nicholas Hlobo creates works on paper, sculptures, and performances that activate the associative potential of materials such as ribbon, leather, and rubber. Laden with innuendo and wordplay, Hlobo's works fluidly traverse topics related to identity—including gender, sexuality, and ethnicity—anchored in the artist's position as a descendent of Xhosa, one of South Africa's largest indigenous communities, to challenge prescribed perceptions of his country.Read More
Born in Cape Town in 1975, Hlobo graduated with a degree in Fine Art from Johannesburg's Technikon Witwatersrand in 2002, developing his practice in post-apartheid South Africa. After turning to art in his late twenties, the artist quickly rose to international recognition. Hlobo's materially charged works involve cutting and piecing materials together, with the repetitious 'baseball' stitch visible across their surface. In Ingubo Yesizwe (2008), for instance, which translates to 'clothes or blanket of the nation', what appears as a lunging, headless beast, is made up of hundreds of pieces of rubber, gauze, ribbon, and leather. Leather, another recurring material in Hlobo's practice, references the economic, social, political, and spiritual significance of cattle to Xhosa culture. The title of this work relates to a commemorative practice in Xhosa culture whereby a cow's hide is used to cover a corpse before burial, protecting the individual in his or her passage to the afterlife.
The materials used in Hlobo's practice are often playfully juxtaposed to enhance their masculine or feminine properties, drawing attention to gender binaries. Rubber, for instance, references automobiles and their emblem in South Africa as a masculine status symbol, along with condoms, and 'gender subculture in the context of sadomasochism'. Ribbons and embroidery flicker through his stitched works, bringing a contrast of warmth and softness generally associated with female handiwork. For the artist's first institutional solo exhibition in the United States, Vula zibhuqe (2008), part of ICA Boston's 'Momentum' series in 2008, an 18-foot ribbon and rubber hanging sculpture consumed a pink-lit room. Titled Umphanda ongazalivo (2008), which translates to 'the vessel that never fills up', the growth-like sculpture dangled from the ceiling by wires, tapering off into a tunnel that fed into one of the gallery's walls to construct a black 'orifice' on the other side. Hlobo has referred to the work as a stomach that symbolises the 'all-consuming greed' for which the world remains at war, 'because there is a need to feed the stomach.'
In 2011, Hlobo participated in the Venice Biennale for the first time with the monumental installation, Iimpundulu Zonke Ziyandilandela (all the lightning birds are after me). Hanging from the ceiling in the centre of the Arsenale, the dramatic installation resembled a dragon made of rubber, inlaid with long strands of ribbon that dangled off its body and wings, and with a fleshless skull as a head. The work references a folk song about a mythological creature, which 'at times presents itself as a bird and at times as a handsome young man, but only to women'. During the Venice Biennale preview, the work was purchased by German collector Jochen Zeitz, chairman and chief executive of Puma, and the founder of Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa.
Copper was added to Hlobo's material repertoire in 2017, recurring in the form of bundles of spindly industrial tubing to take hold of surrounding space in novel ways. At the Maitland Institute in Cape Town in 2018, for instance, the artist paired with Cinga Samson for Umthamo, an exhibition for which these copper sculptures took up one of Maitland Institute's airy, industrial spaces. Short sections of tubing were occasionally entangled in tight masses, and in other cases sprawled across the floor, their swirling forms resembling live organisms moving through the space, generating an ecstatic energy. In later works, the artist has added further objects to the copper tubing to layer meaning, as in the case of Mphephethe uthe cwaka (2017), which translates to 'blowing them in silence', and refers to oral sex, but also the power of music and sound, with trumpets added to the end of the copper tubing that is assembled into a loose bundle. In another example of one of these works, Dyumpu, which translates to 'splash', a mass of copper tubes is fitted with shoe-like forms, which 'represents the imagery of a person diving into water,' explains Lehman Maupin Seoul Senior Director Emma Son in a video for Ocula IGTV.
Hlobo's artwork has been the subject of solo exhibitions at institutions such as The Hague, Netherlands (2016); Savannah College of Art and Design, Lacoste, France (2010); Tate Modern, London (2008); Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston (2008); and SCAD Museum of Art, GA (2007). Hlobo has participated in multiple institutional exhibition, including the 18th Biennale of Sydney, Australia (2012); the 54th Venice Biennale (2011); the 6th Liverpool Biennial (2010); and the 3rd Guangzhou Triennial, China (2008). His work is included in numerous international public and private collections, including The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris; South African National Art Gallery, Cape Town; and the Tate Modern, London. Hlobo has received numerous honours and distinctions such as the Rolex Visual Arts Protégé (2010–2011); Standard Bank Young Artist Award (2009); and the Tollman Award for Visual Art (2006).
Tessa Moldan | Ocula | 2019