Art critic Richard Cork interviewed Nicholas Hlobo about the exhibition and about his expectations for the mentoring year.What are the figures doing in your Liverpool work?
They are playing hide and seek. It’s the idea of life being a game – hard or easy, depending on your background and economic circumstances. The theme of the Liverpool Biennial is “touched”, which is quite open-ended. But I wanted my room to touch you, and it’s interesting to have an artwork which allows you to touch it -- unlike in museums, where you are not even allowed to touch bronzes. And that’s when my idea evolved into hiding and seeking. Also, the idea of the imagination: being moved and upset and even weep if you need to. Hiding and seeking is to do with looking for answers and not wanting to reveal too much – cultural, colonial and gender identity.
What is your artistic process when creating a new work?
With the Liverpool piece, it began in September 2009 when I first saw the room [for the exhibition] and started thinking about what I could and couldn’t do. The thinking process is the hardest part of the job. I don’t want to tire myself because when I have doubts, I sit back and smoke.
What inspired you?
The hide and seek theme goes right back to my childhood; the experience of not being there, getting lost and the joy of being found. I had a great childhood, starting off for less than a year in Cape Town, and then moving to the Eastern Cape before ending up in Johannesburg, where I still live now.
What is new about these works?
There is a lot new. Each time I bring a new element – a new stitch technique, for example. But here it’s the very extensive use of ribbons, so that they become the main material. I wanted to create something like a maze or a hanging garden. Also, I go back here to using ceramics: the last time I did that was at university.
Are these pieces for sale?
Not in this exhibition. But after they go back to South Africa, they might be for sale, because I need to make money and sustain my practice.
How do you see your work progressing?
My main motto is: the next show has to be better than the last one. I believe in the importance of challenging oneself and exploring new materials, as well as finding new ways of manipulating materials I have used already.
What are your expectations for your work together with Anish Kapoor?
I expect to learn a lot from this opportunity. It will shed some light into my world. I also hope to teach him a thing or two. It’s not just the young who are learning and growing – the old, too, can learn from the young. But I’m expecting to get a lot of education about making art. I’ll take things as they come during the mentoring year, but the overall aim is growth. It puts me on the spot, and makes me feel scared – in a good way.
I never thought that I’d have the chance to meet such a “big guy”. I have the ambitions to realize my dreams, but there is still a long way to travel. I’m having fun and enjoying myself, even though I spend sleepless nights and torture my body to do my best as an artist. You learn to be your own devil and I think about a piece for a long while before making it – spending time on my studio roof, looking at cows and birds and the rest of the world.
Will you live in the U.K. for the duration of the mentoring year?
To be honest, I don’t want to live there the whole year. But maybe I do have some fear of being in a foreign land. What bothers me is the climate. If I spent 12 months there, I’d go nuts. Two months would be fine, but I’d miss my studio in Johannesburg. I’ll have to find in the U.K. a new story to tell – a new subject. Something away from my existence. A new story to do with being an alien in a different culture. The focus will be on identity. I’m sure this mentoring process will be very interesting.
Have you exhibited in the U.K. before?
Yes, in London. I showed my work at Haunch of Venison in 2008, and then in Mythologies at Burlington Gardens. Between late 2008 and early 2009, I also exhibited in the Level Two Gallery at Tate Modern.
What influence did the Xhosa culture play in your upbringing?
For a while I spent most of my time living with my maternal grandmother, so I was very close to her. And as I grew up, I realised that I was forgetting the Xhosa language. It’s not as respected as it should be, but the culture and the language are evolving. I can’t speak Xhosa or English fluently. But school encouraged me to speak English, and you were beaten if you didn’t! I was always the smallest in the classroom and liked being at the back. But I was scared of the woman teacher with her stick.
In Xhosa culture there are a lot of performances – colourful, elaborate, very gay. I grew up in the countryside, in a reserve to protect me, and there were ceremonies. I’m not religious at all, but that has influenced me a lot. Maybe I’m a bit nostalgic because I’m drifting away from my culture. But there’s an increasing atmosphere of tolerance in South Africa.