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Nicholas Hlobo

Nicholas Hlobo
images © Nicholas Hlobo

An internationally-regarded figure and one of the most important South African artists of his generation, Johannesburg-based Nicholas Hlobo (born 1975) creates sculptures, assemblages and performances which attempt "to create conversations that explore certain issues within my culture...".

Central to these concerns is an interrogation of sexual identity that draws heavily on his own experience as a gay man within a traditionally macho society.

"I come from a culture where the penis is very important", Hlobo has stated, and many of his earliest works are indeed dominated by representations of the phallus, although later pieces hint equally at orifices, umbilical cords and internal organs.

Nicholas Hlobo

Hlobo's choice of materials - which characteristically include rubber, leather, gauze and ribbon (and are always recycled) - extend his investigations of identity and culture by invoking associations that are simultaneously personal to the artist as well as reflective of South African society.

The inner tubes of car tyres, for example, represent the 'masculine' connotations of car ownership as well as vaguely resembling condoms.

They also hint (along with Hlobo's use of leather) at gay fetishism and, more darkly, at the practice of 'necklacing'; an execution method used by vigilante groups in South Africa during the 1980s and 1990s in which victims were immolated in a petrol-filled tyre.

Nicholas Hlobo

Aggression and threat in various forms - psychological; ritualistic; the grotesque - are often present or implicit in Hlobo's frequently disturbing works, and violence is equally a factor in the genesis of his 'paintings': canvases which he initiates by slashing their surfaces in a semi-symbolic gesture he describes as a "harsh approach to bring in new elements, change things, a painful process."

Subsequently stitched together using materials such as ribbon and gauze as well as tyre rubber and leather, Hlobo's suggestive acts of 'repair' adopt the practices of sewing, weaving and embroidery which are traditionally undertaken by women in his homeland.

Such crafts, besides their feminine connotation, are replete with associations of domesticity, creativity and unification, and by pointedly co-opting them to connect the more 'masculine' elements of his works, Hlobo simultaneously challenges gender-based assumptions regarding divisions of labour while reinforcing the sexual ambiguities so central to his practice.

Nicholas Hlobo

Other forms of tradition and heritage, however, assume less dialectic roles, particularly the use of his native tongue, Xhosa, with which Hlobo generally titles his works.

Characterised by a highly visual idiomatic structure and rich turns of phrase, Xhosa assigns a particular linguistic poetry to the works.

Hlobo also draws widely from the visual iconographies of traditional African art; underlining the fact that, although many aspects of posited self-identity are challenged and even undermined in Hlobo's multi-layered practice, others are seen as a welcome source of succour, strength and stability.

Nicholas Hlobo

Mike Brennan


more artist profiles: Allison Schulnik | Oskar Dawicki | Sara Ramo | Joana Vasconcelos | Nora Schultz | Tillman Kaiser

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