Anish Kapoor and Nicholas Hlobo

A year of mentoring

Overview (Chapter 1 of 6)

Year after year, Anish Kapoor, one of the world’s most famous living artists, astonishes the international arts community with his gigantic, enigmatic creations that fill the biggest exhibition spaces in the world’s best-known galleries. Nicholas Hlobo, a young artist from Johannesburg whose output is closely watched by collectors longing to buy, weaves together rubber, leather and fabric to produce intimate objets and performances that evoke an enticing but provocative beauty. Although there are few points of connection between the two artistic approaches, the “poetic dialogue” of their mentorship year proved fruitful and inspiring.

Anish Kapoor and Nicholas Hlobo

A year of mentoring

First impressions (Chapter 2 of 6)

June 2010

An interview with Nicholas Hlobo before the beginning of his mentoring year with Anish Kapoor.

At what age did you become interested in the visual arts?
There were no art or drawing classes in my primary school in Transkei [a homeland in South Africa for Xhosa people], but when I was eight or nine years old I was already drawing, either on the blackboard for teachers or in my books. At the age of 11, people started saying to me: “You’re an artist.” I asked them: “What’s that?”

Was there a defining moment in your youth when you decided that you wanted to be an artist?
Actually in primary and junior secondary school I was in the choir. I wanted to get into music. I even wrote to the University of Natal to ask for a prospectus for music studies. Then I came to Johannesburg with an idea of taking a short cut into music and tried to get into a band. But I realised that it wasn't as easy as I thought it was. So I just let it lie. I started working to earn a living, and from 1996 to 1998 I had a boring job at a cement factory. I got employed as a pre-set scales attendant i.e. weighing cement bags. In every spare moment I was doing sketches. Some of my colleagues there saw the sketches. They told me: “You’re in the wrong place.” By 1998, I decided I had to do something different with my life. It was clear I was interested in something creative, so I started studying fine arts the following year. At first I thought it was going to be a way of preparing myself for a career in the film industry.

What words would you use to describe your artistic vision?
All I can say is that I want to make each work better than the previous one. Quality is important. Being South African, and coming from a country that is often described as the third world, we have to show that we are proud of our country and create art that demonstrates this. The Xhosa culture [about 8 million South Africans are Xhosa, including Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu] is not respected as much as it deserves. Referencing the Xhosa culture is a way of telling a story, a South African/human story that many have told before, in a way that is fresh. In doing so, I elevate the status of the language that many in the world are not familiar with. Thus introducing isiXhosa [the Xhosa language] into high culture and art. The subjects I deal with in my works are not uniquely South African.

You often use rubber in your sculptures. Why?
The use of rubber is non-conventional. At the institute where I trained, our lecturers impressed on how art-making was not about convention. You need courage to use new materials and you need courage to come up with new ideas. I like using rubber, particularly the inner tube of tyres. They’re related to many aspects of culture and all sorts of references in human life. Rubber is protective, but it’s also stubborn and strong. Somehow it is an ambiguous material and relates to the human body and how men evolved when one thinks of industrialization. In Xhosa, an inner tyre tube is calledithumbu lemotowhich translates as the intestine of the car.

In your performance/sculptures too you show courage, particularly the one in which you dress yourself in rubber, ties, a hump and a biker’s jacket and you wear a mask of gauze.
Yes, that is calledIgqirha Lendlela, which meansDoctor of the Road. Igqirha lendlela referenced a Xhosa folk song, popularly known as the click song that got popularized by Miriam Makeba. In this piece, I address ideas around identity and how it can be related to the baggage we carry around all the time. I've taken a break from performances because, though I enjoy it, it takes a lot of emotional preparation. The last time I performedThoba utsale umnxebaat ICA, Boston, I wept afterwards. When performing, I go into the character. And, yes, courage is essential. To be an artist, I need to be audacious. My grandmother raised me and she told me: “The world is hard, you need to be strong.” If you’re lukewarm, no one will believe you. It’s like a ballerina dancing – it looks graceful and beautiful, but she is working hard. That’s what art is like.

On average, how long do you spend creating a work of art?
It varies, I might work on a small sculpture for three or four weeks, but another work might take six months to complete. It depends on how difficult it is to translate the idea into a sketch and then a sculpture. I don’t make just for the sake of making. I critique myself. Once you graduate from university, you are all on your own. Some people who come into your studio don’t tell you the truth, so I have learned to play my own devil. Plus the work is very labour-intensive.

Did you know much about Anish Kapoor before being invited to apply for the mentorship?
Yes, we studied him at several points in my university studies. His work is great. In 2004, I did a residency in the Netherlands, and I saw some of Kapoor’s work at the De Pont Museum [in Tilburg]. What was interesting in his work there was what was concealed from the eye. It was very thought-provoking.

What happened when Anish Kapoor met you during the process of choosing his protégé?
Meeting Anish Kapoor was very good. Before I went to meet him, I had decided to simply be myself and to take the opportunity to learn a little about him. He was interesting and exciting, and very comfortable and confident as an artist. He asked why I wanted to become a protégé when I clearly had found a direction for my art. I explained that people in South Africa thought I had got what I wanted. But I felt personally that I had not achieved what I was looking for – that would take a lifetime. I wanted to learn wisdom from those like him who have a better understanding of the art world and of creating art.

Does your artistic vision have much in common with that of your mentor?
There are things we have in common. I feel he doesn't want to limit himself at all. And there are differences too. His works have the feel that they are untouched by human hands. In mine, you can see the work of the hand everywhere. His works look well polished, while mine are rugged and rough, I depict an ugly beauty. It will be an unforgettable experience to see what happens during this year of working with him.

Anish Kapoor and Nicholas Hlobo

A year of mentoring

First steps with the mentor (Chapter 3 of 6)

October 2010

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.

Anish Kapoor and Nicholas Hlobo

A year of mentoring

Artists in wonderland (Chapter 4 of 6)

Anish Kapoor’s South London studio complex encompasses an entire block, and Nicholas Hlobo confesses that he felt “overwhelmed” when he first went there – “it was much bigger than I thought!” Since then, he has returned to Kapoor’s studio several times. Hlobo regards it today as a “Wonderland”, and likens his visits there to voyages of discovery.

Both artists have been exceptionally busy with their own projects during the mentorship year, so they have squeezed their time together between exhibitions. They regard each other with an immense amount of respect, and Hlobo considers that his experience as a protégé has led him to gain a fresh outlook on his life as an artist.

For Kapoor, “art is about slowly unraveling the process that leads from one work to another. It’s a poetic conversation, and it couldn’t be had in a hurry. It’s about how forms and stuff engage with a moment of dreaming. I make works and then sit in the studio for six months and watch them. Some will last, and some survive less well. You do need to know the difference. That’s important, but you can’t tell immediately.”

Agreeing with his mentor, Hlobo also believes that “dreaming is important. It happens to me when I’m awake, as well as asleep, and I hope for better things. My dream is just to be among those people who aren’t closed up, but open to rich, unknown territory.” He pauses, looks around Kapoor’s studio, smiles and then says: “I’ve gained a lot of encouragement and wisdom here.”

Extracted from an article written by Richard Cork, for Mentor & Protégé,a magazine documenting the 2010/2011 cycle of the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative.

Anish Kapoor and Nicholas Hlobo

A year of mentoring

After a year with a master (Chapter 5 of 6)

Nicholas Hlobo Talks about his Year as a Rolex Protégé

How well did you know London before your protégé year began?
On my first visit, in 2004, I walked until my feet were virtually sore. I thought that I’d do Tate Modern and Tate Britain in one day! I couldn’t, of course, but I remember seeing pictures of Anish’s Marsyas in the Tate’s Turbine Hall, and it captivated me.

What have you gained from the mentorship?
I’ve gained a lot of strength. It’s kept me awake, and I’ve gained a lot of encouragement and wisdom. Anish says: “It seems that you’ve found what you need.” It’s very hard to put into words, but it’s like getting to do my pointe work if I was a dancer.

Is Anish of special interest to you as an artist?
Yes, and he was long before this. But I never dreamed that I’d be sitting in front of him now. In his art there is a balance between revealing and concealing things. You have to find your own way in, and Anish’s work touches me.

What do you think of Anish’s London studio?
I’ve been here four or five times now and it’s a “Wonderland”! I imagined it would be a big studio, but it’s much bigger than I thought! This is a discovery, and the teams of people who help him to make the work are a lot to desire.

Has your work changed during the mentoring year?
One of my mottoes, each time I make something, is that there has to be an introduction of something new. What this Rolex project has done is allow me to have some new outlook on my life as an artist and have a thousand scales to weigh different things.

What hopes do you have for your future?
To have a better understanding of who I am and allow myself to look in a better way. I want to find a key to open things up and allow the light in – even when it’s dark at night. So I learn all the time, and I wish for the positive and to be surprised.

Anish Kapoor and Nicholas Hlobo

A year of mentoring

Interview with the mentor (Chapter 6 of 6)

Interview with Anish Kapoor

Why did you choose Nicholas Hlobo as your protégé?
I had four very good artists to choose from, but there was an accomplishment in Nicholas’s work that I recognized at once. There’s also a great energy in it: I’m not afraid of unshy sculpture. Then I met him, and I’m not terribly talkative compared with this guy!

Are there any points of connection between your approaches as artists?
No, there aren’t, but that doesn’t matter. Mentorship is about having a poetic dialogue, talking about the art world and how it can eat you. It offers opportunities, but it’s a killer of souls. There’s a great dictum for artists: “Don’t complain and don’t explain.”

Was it difficult fitting Nicholas into your very busy schedule?
The schedule is insane for both of us, so it has been hard. But I’d like our association to continue, given that one year isn’t long enough. It should be three years. Visual art is not about technique: it’s about slowly unravelling the process that leads from one work to another.

What do you think a mentor can offer a protégé?
The only difference between the two of us is that I’ve had 30 years of making and showing stuff. But I hope all my innocence and wonder haven’t been lost. I want to protect them. It’s like being continuously in love, and your inner life matters.

Did you ever have a mentor of any kind?
There was Paul Neagu in the 1970s, who taught me at Hornsey College of Art in London. He was important for me, and he emphasized that it wasn’t really about objects. It’s more about the way that objects come to mythologize a certain presence.

What advice would you offer Nicholas for his future?
It’s about inner lives and taking it seriously. No embarrassment: it’s there and it matters. It needs love, care, dynamic action and inaction – living with it. Some bodies of work are latent. You need to know what is the main trajectory of your work, and what’s inside it.