Shunning conventional artistic materials and traditional male roles, the works of South African Nicholas Hlobo (handmade sculptures, stitched paper works, visual diaries, installations and performances) are overtly about the process of their making and the journey of the artist's selfgrowth. By articulating his sexual politics, sociohistorical positioning and ethnicity in the diverse worlds that his work inhabits, Hlobo explores desire, imagination and the very potential for transformation.
SEAN O'TOOLE I want to start by establishing links between your biography and your approach to materials and subject matter. You previously told me that as a boy growing up in the Transkei, you learned to make traditional indimoni drums using tire inner tubes as an alternative to cowhide. Was it purely economic, the decision to work with rubber?
NICHOLAS HLOBO Economic, but also a change in lifestyle-hide wasn't readily available. Boys used the indimoni drums, which can be anything from a five-liter paint tin to something much bigger, during parades and performances; they used them to announce their decision to embark on the process of becoming adults. Playing the drums was a last celebration before the circumcision rituals marking entry into manhood and adulthood. Boys would go around the neighborhood beating drums, singing. People would give them gifts. In Xhosa culture, boys are not given that much respect. You are treated like a dog, basically. I think it was a way to instill an anxiety and desire among boys to want to become a man, to acquire status.
SO You grew up in the village of Newtown with your maternal grandmother while your parents lived and worked in Johannesburg, right? Your grandmother ran a strict Anglican home that shunned many of the old traditions. How is it that you are so familiar with the use and associative qualities of the materials in your works?
NH My grandmother was an illiterate woman who never went to school. She was separated from her husband and owned a tavern. She had very firm ideas-feminist views, you could say-about how her household should be run. She believed that kids from wealthy families - urbanized families with higher education, people like us - should not play on the streets or attend ceremonies. She didn't like the idea of my cousin Micky and I going to weddings, birthday parties or traditional ceremonies. My grandmother had this thing that it would create the impression that we were not fed at home, that it was disrespectful. She got angry whenever she found out we had been watching traditional ceremonies. Growing up, I really saw her as the devil. She could be tender in private, but once the extended family awoke she changed into this authority figure. Psychologically, I think she was a hermaphrodite. I remember her arguing with men at her tavern. "I wear both the pants and the frocks in this house." She was very vocal. "I have both the balls and boobs in this house. Don't tell me what to do." I still quote my grandmother all the time. I am who I am thanks to my grandmother. She instilled a lot of good in me, although I sometimes feel cheated for not being able to play in the streets. I don't know how to milk a cow, herd goats or ride a horse, things I should be able to do having grown up in the countryside. I was never given that opportunity or taught those things, which I feel I should have known or had experience of. It was almost like living in a convent, in a way. Yet somehow I have come to emulate her worldview. I don't trust people easily, I have very few friends, and I am very solitary.
SO When you make your works, do you consciously set about to engage and interpret your personal biography?
NH I am curious about who I am, my origins, the migratory origins of black South Africans, and the mosaic qualities of Xhosa rituals. I am constantly trying to understand exactly who I am. I always have questions. I find my upbringing and my understanding of my culture to be very confusing. My paternal grandmother, who is still alive, is of mixed descent- her father was colored-which brings a slightly different genealogy into our blood. She uses this identity to her advantage, sometimes saying she is not Xhosa. Her family name is Morrison, and her older sister was named Jessie Morrison. When I was in high school I went to Johannesburg to live with my parents in Tokoza. My paternal grandmother and her sister would always have heated debates. Great Aunt Jessie would ask my grandmother why she had kept the "stupid name" Hlobo. My grandmother won't talk about it; there are still so many truths about myself that I don't know.
SO To what extent is this biographical detail important to an appreciation of your work?
NH I feel I should not rob the viewer of the opportunity to create his or her own understanding of the work. Hence, the titles of my works are not translated, so that whoever is reading the title is made to look at the object. The stories around the work are the least important things, because what attracts a person to a work of art is the object itself. What comes afterwards can either enrich or detract from that experience.
SO You once repeated to me this Anish Kapoor quote: "Works created around identity are interesting but inferior; works of art have to live beyond that-they should not be restricted to identity." Is this a conversation you have with yourself since having met and engaged with him?
NH It was something I'd read, which I found a little discomforting because it questioned my approach to making work-I brought it up in our first meeting. Most people tend to look at my gender and identity and not read beyond that. It is one of the things I battle with. Most people think my work is just about sex, sexuality and being Xhosa. They never look beyond that, at the object, or make connections with the work of other artists. But I feel I have to have my own approach. Looking at my identity grounds me. My work and my personal life are intertwined; I find it difficult at times to separate myself from my work.
SO Could you talk a bit about your 2008 piece lngubo Yesizwe?
NH The work has an interesting history, especially in terms of how the materials arrived in my studio. A friend found the leather on the streets in Doornfontein in central Johannesburg. He thought I might have some use for it. The piece started out as a fabric that I would get assistants to stitch as a way of learning my process. When the Tate Modern proposed an exhibition, the fabric evolved into an artwork. The title translates as "blanket of the nation," and it relates to ideas of burial and mourning: in traditional Xhosa culture hides are used to cover a corpse before burial to protect the deceased as they enter the afterlife. The leather I used has been treated or tanned. The way it is purposefully cut and stitched together reminds me of seeing a quilted landscape from an airplane.
SO That view you describe presumes edges or borders. The suture or stitch is very prominent in your work. What significance do you attach to the join?
NH On a purely formal level, I use discarded objects that I put together and give new values. Of course, given the history of this country, the process of trying to rebuild a new culture gives the stitch a metaphorical quality. It's almost as if we are stitching bits and pieces of history together to build something new. I choose to employ techniques that many people consider primitive. An Italian curator visiting my studio said the work is very craft-orientated. This is deliberate, I am telling an African story. I enjoy my interference with the material, not using an artificial tool like a camera or having the material laser-cut. It is my way of inserting myself into that object, of putting my soul into it.
SO I want to go back to the late 1990s, when you worked at a cement factory. You once described this period to me as your "blue collar" phase. Black masculine working-class culture, especially as it is associated with the hostels in Johannesburg, which your studio is very near to, is a mixture of exaggerated ethnic pride and forgetting -forgetting about the rural home and becoming cosmopolitan. To what extent did you, a Xhosa man with some Zulu relations in your family, get caught up in any of this while at the cement factory?
NH It happened earlier. In 1988 I moved to Johannesburg to start high school. I came from a monoculture to a multiculture. I became very conscious of what it means to be Xhosa. "You Xhosa boy, you think you're smart." I learned how other groups despised the Xhosa, and that I was from a culture that is perceived to be smart, rural, devious, not to be trusted. I got to learn all this when I was 12. The township was also interested in politics, whereas in the Transkei we were discouraged from even mentioning Nelson Mandela's name. Coming to Johannesburg definitely played a role in how I view myself now. It made me conscious of myself.
SO You were in your mid-twenties when you enrolled in art school. I want to pause on one student work, Hermaphrodite (2002), which formalized your approach to color and found materials, especially the way you ornately orchestrate them into cryptic sculptural forms. How was this work received?
NH My degree exhibition created a lot of conflict. Most of the works went a little mad. I was trying to follow what I had been taught, to resist convention and to be myself, which some of my lecturers couldn't accept. One lecturer said my work was not African. Hermaphrodite, however, was considered a resolved piece because it had a well-defined edge, a tube with tassels around it. When I entered it into a local art competition, I overheard a young black artist looking at it say that I'd gone off track. People have often said my work is too white, which I find very interesting.
SO So lngubo Yesizwe comes from that more anarchic or resistant strain of your practice? It is not a neat form.
NH As much as I miss having works that are well rounded, that are easy to view, I find it interesting when an object suggests that it could be developed further. I enjoy a work when it suggests that it is not tight but loose, a work that is flexible, adaptable and can change shape. With lngubo Yesizwe, for example, the tail is now presented differently to how it was first shown at Tate Modern. I enjoy the flexibility of the work, also its impermanence. It might not be there in the next thousand years, unless it is well preserved. It has its own life. Something I would love to do, but is impossible, is to create an infinite piece, a work that just goes and goes, that you never see in full.
ESSAY BY TRACY MURINNIK
Over the past, prolific decade, Nicholas Hlobo has engaged in richly enigmatic conversations with his audience that explore themes of sexual and cultural identity via the suggestiveness of materiality that compose his evocative artworks. These conversations are complex engagements in that they assemble-and intricately join together-various aspects of who the artist is and where he comes from through the ideas and concerns that they address, which include both Hlobo's formative cultural environment and his present reality. And that reality is of a gay, Xhosa, South African man living openly in an era of (relative) political and sexual liberation, and the various worlds, at home and abroad, that he consciously enters into and draws from. While not strictly autobiographical in their content, the conversations that Hlobo proposes do intimately relate to the continuing negotiation of his own experiences. By articulating his sexual politics, sociohistorical positioning and ethnicity in the diverse worlds that his artworks inhabit, the artist explores desire, imagination and the very potential for transformation.
Born in Cape Town in 1975, Hlobo grew up in the rural Eastern Cape and currently lives in central Johannesburg. These disparate geographical and narrative experiences are deftly echoed in his use of ornately crafted and unlikely combinations of materials. The artist's now-signature eclectic pairings of rubber inner tubes, ribbon, lace, leather, silicon, organza and satin, as well as occasional found props, have come to represent a growing visual vocabulary of the artist's concerns. With such materials and their corresponding forms, Hlobo conjures amorphous but allusive imagery redolent of the particular vernaculars of fetishized sexual clothing and objects, of queer dress codes and of Xhosa cultural references. Each new work, whether a sculptural installation, relief "painting" or performance-animated piece, compounds and deepens this vocabulary to communicate a multifaceted reality, and the multiple threads of influence that inform the artist's identity.
Formally, Hlobo's sculptural works tend to be provocative in their structural allusions. See the often masculine, bulbous, phallic or spermshaped forms that his works take, at once organically suggestive and sexually evocative. Almost without exception, the artist's formal vocabulary bears an external projection: something extraneous that extends or extrudes from the larger, fuller form. These protrusions inhabit space like a type of probe- a thread, a clue, a latent action or perhaps even a bud. Not simply passive augmentations, nor overtly functional parts of the sculptures, these projections nevertheless seem imbued with potential. And it is this very quality that is occasionally realized or enacted during Hlobo's affecting performances that utilize his sculptural works. These adornments or appendages affixed to dense, sultry drifts of rubber and leather invite the spectator to scrutinize and take pleasure in the surfaces of the artist's skinlike sculptures, with their alluringly tactile membranes. As Hlobo has noted, "[w]hat is interesting is how rubber tends to take on a shape of its own, despite being cut into a particular shape. It almost resembles flesh in its tone, finish, elasticity, and even fragility for that matter."
Hlobo consistently posits this potential for "fragility" against the rubber's apparently solid constitution in numerous ways. See the juxtaposition of delicate, ethereal materials such as ribbon, lace or organza against the thick finiteness of black rubber. Or take one of his earliest sculptures, Hermaphrodite (2002), which features a deflated circular rubber inner tube interwoven at its center with carpet, a bold, rubber fetish tassel attached, and a small, downward-facing wire spring towards its base. The disruption or material contradiction in this work involves the masculine imagery of the sculpture, with its material and formal reference to a "rubber," or condom, being complicated by the soft, decorative, even feminine tasselled fringe that surrounds it. Altogether, the sculpture is an elegant fulfilment of its title. In subsequent works, however, Hlobo has complicated the rubber's seeming opacity even more fundamentally by piercing it, either by punching out delicate designs (as in lmtyibilizi xa yomile, 2006) or, more often, stitching and embroidering it with ribbon or other binding materials, thus again obscuring and/or challenging gender stereotypes
Once exposed as not being impenetrable, Hlobo's ever-employed rubber suddenly takes on other possibilities. For as much as the rubber and leather function to intuit a quality of membrane, the artist skilfully plays with the suppleness and suggestiveness of their folds and weightiness to create a tangible tension between surface and what may lie underneath. His works entice, in other words. But this suggestion is fuelled by another tension incurred by Hlobo's use of stitching and embroidered ribbon to bind the pieces of rubber and leather together. Not only is this combination of material and technique aesthetically ambivalent, but what it produces, metaphorically and visually, is the seam. At the most obvious level, the seam refers to a point of (allusive) connection. But these seams can also be read as elusive, as they close off access to that which they bind. The sculptures, then, become a complex join of idea and mate rial; a suture or decoration; a scarification, alteration or embellishment. Rather than skin, the surfaces of Hlobo's sculptures might instead be
looked at as amorphous coverings, as sheaths concealing other figures, human, ghostly or otherwise. This holds true for his sculptures that employ satin, organza or gauze as well, which infer similar forms.
If the seams in Hlobo's works intimate points of both connection and concealment, they simultaneously offer up the possibility, alternatively, of access. For in their deliberate action of joining and honing in, his sculptures also hold the ability to be undone or pried open-a delicate innuendo. While not specifically transgressive or subversive, his employment of thread or ribbon seems to offer an in, or a passage, to an alternative awareness. In this might be made a visual metaphor for opening access to hidden territory, and the tension between the longed for or imagined and the seemingly inaccessible find their balance here.
The inference of body or inhabited form is most tangibly fulfilled through Hlobo's animation of his sculptures -and his actual insertion into them -via performance. If these performances enhance the opacity of the works being animated, they also complicate their potential trajectory. In his earliest performances, lgqirha lendlela (2005-06), Hlobo donned a worn-leather biker's jacket modified with a large, rubber hump. With the jacket, Hlobo wore a blue ruffled blouse, a skirt made from old neckties and a pair of hand-stitched rubber boots. Invoking the African dung beetle, Hlobo has written that the title of the work "derived from the Xhosa choral song /gqirha lendlela nguqongqothwane. This means that the dung beetle is the doctor of the road ... They are not intimidated by having to move things larger than their bodies." Wearing this dramatic hump in the performances, then, seems to infer that whatever baggage you're carrying could well be an impediment along your journey to self-realization. Yet, like the dung beetle, there is the positive prospect to still make your way forward. A final elegant inclusion to this attire is a delicate, bulbous, white-fabric head covering that Hlobo wears, which conjures the chrysalis, suggesting that when thrown off, it will have been host to the birth of a newly evolved being.
Another powerful performance suggestive of rebirth or incubation is Mondle Umkhulise (2009), which means "caused it to grow." Here, Hlobo inserted himself into a tasselled, hanging, womb-like rubber pouch. Rather than interact with or remain visible to his audience, the artist maintained a guarded distance, denying access to his body. Yet Hlobo has also produced a series of works that, though performative, offer performance in absentia. Bhaxa, lqinile and lkhiwane (all 2006), all comprise a sofa and chairs, the cushions of which are covered with a molten layer of (ubiquitously South African) green Sunlight soap. Instead of the figure being physically present in these works, the existence of a body/bodies is implicitly suggested through the imprint of bare male buttocks that are marked in the soapy veneer.
Ultimately, it is Hlobo's insertion or imprint of his own body into his sculptures-which may themselves act as his own temporary disguise that allows the artist to vicariously explore psychic spaces of physical or imagined encounters and thus to impart meaning onto them. If he activates his sculptures through performance, still they exist before and beyond his transient embodiment of them. Like the striking contrast of Hlobo's various materials, his presence in these performances shifts between the real and the imagined, between the tangible and the ethereal. As such, his "paintings" on paper and canvas are a further type of slippage of that performative process, of a two-dimensional plane coming into light relief, ready to be explored beneath its surfaces. It is precisely these slippages, or potential peeks - either into darkness, or subtly exposed through the light of language, form or imagination-that are Hlobo's sustaining conversations with his audiences. And like the materials, forms and words that he proffers as alluring clues, these slippages are threads to be followed and unravelled, or standing as the experience of what they might conceal, imagined. His works probe the edges of identities in formation or evolution, as they simultaneously imagine or intuit their dissolution. Though what is sculpturally or performatively presented may at first appear solid and finite, it is instead along the joins, and into the edges of liminality, that Hlobo's conversations lead us.