Nicholas Hlobo, at Lehmann Maupin, Meditations on belonging

Meditations on belonging

As his works go on display at museums in three European countries and a prestigious gallery in New York, South Africa’s Nicholas Hlobo unpicks the threads at the heart of his startling creations.
By Amei Wallach

“I was quite taken aback with joy and excitement,” the South African artist Nicholas Hlobo recalls of the recent February day when he first viewed his mid-career retrospective at the Museum Beelden aan Zee in The Hague. “I got to lay my eyes on some of the works I had not seen since they were leaving my studio, and I got a good sense of having achieved something.” For Hlobo, the exhibition has turned out “to be an inventory of how far I’ve come and how far I have to go”.

This is a spring of milestones for Nicholas Hlobo, with work on display in group shows at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris and the Tate Modern in London, as well as the solo exhibition in The Hague until mid-May. And he is having his first exhibition in a commercial gallery in the US. 

In the six years since the celebrated artist Anish Kapoor selected him as his protégé in the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative, Hlobo has shown frequently in international museums, Kunsthallen, art fairs and biennales, including the Venice Biennale (2011), the Sydney Biennale (2012) and the Palais de Tokyo Triennale in Paris (2012). But his exhibition at the Lehmann Maupin gallery in New York this spring inaugurates his first commercial representation outside the Stevenson gallery in South Africa.

In the new work at the Lehmann Maupin gallery, Hlobo composes his installations of ribbons, wood and snaking snarls of stuffed leather lozenges on the floor and his “paintings” of elegantly draped leather swags on the wall into arresting meditations on what it is to be an itinerant artist who is gay, black and South African. Perhaps there is more lyricism in the new work in New York than the blatant theatricality evident in the 10-year survey in The Hague, but there is an unmistakable continuity in his focus, materials and techniques of assemblage and stitching. 

“If I was a painter, I would more or less keep the same palette – think of Van Gogh, with the same technique, same palette even though he changed,” Hlobo explains on a walk-through of his exhibition at the Lehmann Maupin gallery. “I don’t like the idea of feeling I’m wandering. If I am in the forest hoping to pick mushrooms, I should just pick mushrooms and occasionally if I come across a strawberry or a blueberry, then I pick that. So I’m basically keeping the same palette because the stories I’m telling are in some sense a continuation. There’s no stop where one story ends, because it is not just one story, it is the idea of celebrating all of who I am and looking at my ethnic, national and gender identities, as well as being a citizen of the world.” 

To the curator Tumelo Mosaka, the most striking development in Hlobo’s work is that “it has become so much more refined. He’s really pared it down so that every detail counts.” Hlobo was still an art student a dozen years ago when Mosaka chose to include his work in the international travelling exhibition Decade of Democracy: Witnessing South Africa.

“At the time his approach was more intuitive, he was asking where do I belong? I think the materials haven’t changed, the approach hasn’t changed, but I feel he’s become much more aware,” Mosaka says. 

“I think he has been able to understand that the inspiration of the work really comes from within himself, which is why he has to retrace his steps in terms of his family history, heritage and trying to understand the larger visual vocabulary in South Africa. He’s at the point where it’s: this is what I want to say about who I am and I want to put it front and centre.”

Metaphors are the essential language of Hlobo’s work. The gallerist Rachel Lehmann has noted that “like a poet, he is exploring the in-between places that are difficult to define – such as the area between male and female, between white, grey and black.” 

In the new work at the Lehmann Maupin gallery, the metaphor has to do with migration.

“The entire body of work looks at that idea of the migration of eels back and forth, to the ocean to breed and back into fresh water,” Hlobo says. “And that idea of migration of eels is metaphoric. I’m looking at my own migration as a person – how I’m continuously moving back and forth trying to venture into newer territories and sometimes going back to where I come from.”

He is talking not only about his migration to and from his home in Johannesburg, though he exclaims: “I love home! The longer you stay away, you tend to lose touch and forget certain things and you find your house is taken over by weeds.”

The sculpturally abstracted eels also address migration “spiritually and psychologically, how I relate to the world in which I find myself, how I relate to movement”. 

In the past he expressed movement through the appropriation of inner tubes, which are rich in connotations of automobiles and sex. But inner tubes have disappeared from tyres in South Africa as elsewhere, and his habitual medium of leather is far more prominent at Lehmann Maupin. Like the inner tubes, it bears sexual connotations, like the rubber, it is hand-stitched and patched – mended, he calls it.

The artist he most admires is the late Louise Bourgeois, that great mender of found materials that she bent to her own deeply personal allegorical ends in order to create unprecedented new forms. For Bourgeois, too, sewing was a metaphor of renewal. 

“She employs the experiences or ideas of being a mender,” Hlobo says. “You mend, you put things together, you rebuild things. You are always going to keep your materials and not dispose of everything, bring them to new life, give them a new lease on life.”

Hlobo is mindful of the ways in which though “the changes in the work tend to be minute most of the time”, he has changed personally since his Rolex protégé year with Anish Kapoor. “He told me: `Nicholas, I hope you never grow to be like me. I continuously have 10 or 20 things happening in one minute. It’s very hard. It’s madness’,” Hlobo says. 

“So being with him allowed me a space to reflect and understand that he’s got more experience and wisdom than I do, so he can afford to bite more than he can chew and he won’t choke. I am still very young. I have to be content where I am, but never stop to dream to be somewhere else.”