Monday, August 31, 2009

Kentridge Tapestries launch new Goodman Gallery project space


I am starting to enjoy all these little open-door soirees at Arts on Main – David Krut launched their new space at the centre a couple of weeks ago with a champagne brunch. This past Sunday it was the Goodman Gallery’s turn with an informal celebration of their new project space and what better than to use William Kentridge’s six metre long tapestries to draw crowds to the new exhibition space. Maybe it was because the launch was held early on a Sunday morning but Kentridge followers tend to be on the dark-side of fifty and a well-moneyed lot: I don’t think folk this side of town have seen such a concentration of Jaguars parked in their midst. Art critics and media folk were thin on the ground: has a Kentridge showing lost its cachet? The tapestries were undoubtedly beautiful; in itself the scale of the works is enough to engender awe. However, one can’t help wondering whether tapestry is the appropriate medium for his brand of art, which is defined by its collage properties. The process of tapestry naturally works towards interweaving divergent materials into a cohesive whole and while collage embraces a similar goal, with collage it’s never about creating a seamless sense of unity; the rough edges and multiple textures are given room to assert their own idiosyncratic visual persona. In such works the nature and process of bricolage can articulate the work’s ideological significance. The maps that Kentridge displays in his art for example are shown to be dated items appropriated for his art: redefining old artefacts adds gravitas to his work. In the tapestries this aspect is obviated.  None of the tapestries were displayed with any titles and one was left with the distinct feeling that they simply functioned as decorative pieces that simply pay homage to a visual signature – dark silhouette over map - that Kentridge has made world-famous. Not good. When I spotted Danny K and Lee-Anne Liebenberg I knew I should have stayed in bed and carried on reading Everything is Illuminated, which is much more brilliant.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Women themed exhibitions: Aaargh!


Women-themed cultural products seem to dominate the cultural scene in August, to tie in with a public holiday created in their honour.
It can be daunting for a member of the fairer sex to be inundated with representations of the self, but above and beyond that most of these products and shows tend to be highly contrived. Too often cultural products with an intended social objective feel overly simplistic and didactic. In the context of art exhibitions centred on gendered tropes, the ideological dimensions implicit in some of the artworks that transcend the gender slant also become muted.

Excessive attention is drawn to the artist's gender, creating the impression that their oeuvre or aesthetic is shaped by their identity. That may represent the approach of some, but it is not the case for all female artists.

A surplus of women-themed exhibitions - in Joburg there are at least three - also contribute to the idea that such a thing as "women's art" exists. This is a precarious notion, one that ghettoises women's expression, relegating them again to the periphery. The post-modern age may well have "refined our awareness of difference," as French philosopher and literary theorist Jean-Francois Lyotard has observed, but surely such blatant and mostly obtuse exercises in asserting difference surely risk undermining the great strides that women have made in freeing themselves from the shackles of their gender?

It's a conundrum that African artists and curators who label their products African have also had to negotiate on international plaftorms. Nonetheless, there are ways and means of constructing gendered exhibitions in such a way as to avoid stumbling into the pitfalls that recovering one's place at the centre seems to entail.

Jeanine Howse and Amy Watson staged an excellent show at the Johannesburg Art Gallery in 2006 titled Women: photography and new media, in which they located the female identity outside of the physical self and, in so doing, allowed women to transcend the entity that has held them prisoner since time immemorial.

Three gendered exhibitions under way in Joburg are: Innovative Women: Ten Contemporary Black Women Artists, curated by Bongi Bengu, Face Her, curated by Ingrid Masondo and Rita Potenza, and Domestic, curated by Melissa Mboweni and Jackie McInnes. Each has a different angle on the theme. In Innovative Women, the emphasis, as the title suggests, is on black women who are perceived to be creating "innovative" and "contemporary" work. The fact that innovation is no longer the objective of so-called contemporary artists is perhaps a negligible detail. Of course, such a title neatly pigeonholes all the artists as black female artists and their art as a product of that identity, which does limits one's reading of their work.

Take Nadipha Mntambo's The Rape of Europa (2009), a highly stylised image which sees the artist posing as the defenceless and nubile Europa and her rapist Zeus (disguised as a bull). This work articulates themes and ideas that extend beyond her identity as a black female. In assuming the roles of both Europa and the bull, Mntambo subverts what could have been a dialogue between the self and the other into a discourse with the self and divergent aspects of the self. In this way, Mntambo is both aggressor and victim, male and female, coloniser and colonised. Given that she tries to shirk fixed notions of identity through this work, it seems ironic that it would find its way to an exhibition that pigeonholes her as a black woman. Mntambo also engages and challenges Western myths and how its pervasive influence shapes one's concept of self.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Anthea Moys: Everard Read Brait Award



WITH high-profile artists and academics from Wits University's School of the Arts on the judging panel of the Brait-Everard Read Art Award, one is almost always guaranteed an exhibition that is a cerebral and visual turn-on. Previous winners such as Natasha Christopher and Alexandra Ross certainly didn't disappoint on either score. This year's exhibition of winner Anthea Moys may have been accompanied by her novel concept Fast Art Girls - a mobile truck selling take-away art - but it was not as readily likeable as her predecessors' offerings.

It is not that the ideas underpinning her work are clichéd; they just feel expected. She treads in the footsteps of a number of artists whose work has centred on the city of Joburg, without surpassing what they have done or offering any new insights. Nor is it unusual that her actual art, her performances which have taken place outside of the gallery, are not directly within viewers' grasp.

Much of the interactive and site-specific artistic projects in Joburg are only ever gleaned from documentation. In her favour, however, the photographs of her incursions into Joburg's no-go areas are more than banal records or by-products of her ephemeral practice; they are carefully construed art objects in their own right.

Mostly, the photographs are well taken and visually arresting, such as the images of Moys exploring a Gautrain construction site. In one, she is covered in the bright orange soil and in another she is seen standing looking vulnerable in between two giant machines. These images are obviously posed and Moys clearly is performing for the camera - with no audience present the camera is the only witness - thus her brand of performance art is intrinsically tethered to the photographic image. In her Nessum Dorma (None Shall Sleep Tonight, 2008) series in which Moys sleeps in a bed in Joubert Park, it is clear that the scene has been heavily styled with a pristine duvet, a book titled Don't Panic and petals that are strewn across the bed adding to its visual flavour.

The photographs are supplemented by video footage of her performances, but with the video-screen tucked behind a corner there was a sense that the photographs were the focus of the exhibition.

As the title of her exhibition designates, Moys's performance art is centred on placing herself in sticky situations in a city thought to be dangerous. But the perceived "risk" attached to each endeavour is underpinned by her racial, gender and economic status, establishing the idea that "danger" is socially and politically defined. The risk value, so to speak, of sleeping in the notorious Joubert Park, on the edge of Hillbrow, is directly attached to her status as an affluent white. Impoverished people sleep in this park daily without it being construed as a statement.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Roger Ballen: The Boarding House



At first his new body of work appears to be classic Roger Ballen. With a monochrome palette and a grainy visual texture, Ballen conjures twisted, tortured, uninhabitable realms in his photographs. The walls are grimy and stained, the furniture, torn and soiled.

Naïve drawings of human forms cover walls and surfaces like graffiti inside toilet stalls. Disparate disused objects are co-opted into absurd and seemingly illogical configurations.

In Scavenging (2004) what appears to be a dead rabbit lies sprawled in front of a dilapidated dustbin. Out of one end a human leg protrudes, a half-naked young boy is seen placing his head inside the other end. Loops of barbed wire hang from the dark grey wall in the background.

Ballen's photographic works appear to summon worlds beyond reason, beyond human comfort, beyond comprehension and beyond human experience. It's as if Ballen is driving his viewers to the limit of psychological discomfort and physical uneasiness. He displaces the spectator. But his seemingly unfathomable compositions pique our curiosity and draw us in.

We are driven by a desire to unlock their meaning so that we can subvert their hold on us and relegate them to a place of comprehension where we hold the authority and not them.

While these images are obviously constructed, hinting that they are derived from the imagination, Ballen's mode of expression is such that they similarly remain rooted in reality too, thus he blurs the boundary between fact and fiction.

It's not just that the objects are familiar to us, some even promise comfort, like the tattered teddy bears, dolls and cute puppies and cats that populate his photographs, but his vocabulary or mode of narration, if one could call it that, recalls the classic social documentary style, hinting that these images are derived from reality and in a sense they are - the title of the exhibition alludes to a fixed place.

Because he shoots in black and white, his work recalls that canon of photography that is centred on probing human depravation, but his subject matter and the location of his work - a boarding house - both contribute towards what appears to be a study of existence at the fringes of society.

Ballen too has contributed to this canon with his earlier photographic essays on life at the edges of South African society. Here, however - and this is where this body of work extends his trajectory - he unpacks the significance and mechanics of that genre.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Vaughn Sadie and Bronwyn Lace: Unit for Measure



As I pass through the Sci-Bono Discovery Centre in Newtown, Joburg, where the art installation Unit for Measure is located, I notice that it is full of unconventional interactive objects that are designed to aid visitors' understanding of the world. On a superficial level, this no different to the goals of Vaughn Sadie and Bronwyn Lace's art, which encourages interactivity and imparts a heightened awareness of the material world.

Despite this affinity, their installation is removed from the science displays and is in a barren structure beneath a staircase. It is an uninviting and seemingly dysfunctional space, but it is the ideal environment for Sadie and Lace, who thrive on redefining and unpacking the politics of space.

The title of the exhibition refers to the scientific tools used to furnish us with a precise measurement of the material world. But it is an imprecise and subjective practice. There are an infinite number of ways to survey the world and in this unconventional exhibition, Sadie and Lace offer a number of structures that attempt to explore the visible and invisible dimensions of this makeshift gallery.

There are three installations, a vertical, a horizontal and another, which, consisting of a bright artificial light placed in front of an almost solid square of fishing lines, attempts to read or make visual the light's refractions. These understated visual and conceptual explorations of space are the result of an artistic and ideological exchange that has taken place between Lace and Sadie over the course of the last two years.

Of course, those familiar with their previous works will be able to pick out their individual signatures: Sadie's heightened awareness and manipulation of the lighting and Lace's proclivity for densely packed and ordered art in-stallations. But their individual take on aesthetics and trajectories aren't discordant.

Their latest artworks - Sadie's Situation exhibition at Bank Gallery in Durban and Lace's installation at The Double Body group exhibition - evinced a common interest in the dynamics of space and a penchant for interactive mechanical objects. To a large degree, Unit for Measure extends those preoccupations.

Here, however, their installations are purposively designed to manipulate our interaction with the space, while making us aware of the mechanical strategies that predict and control movement.

On a purely formal level, the installations all consist of lines, vertical or horizontal, fashioned from wire cabling and fishing lines. In a vertical installation, hundreds of fishing lines are grouped en masse in a square and are suspended between the roof and floor of the room. En masse, they have a presence, but the individual threads are delicate and almost invisible. Suspended along some of these lines are colourful artificial flies used in fishing to attract the attention of fish. This installation is exquisite and undeniably alluring, and therefore fulfils much the same function as the colourful artificial fish, because it attracts and traps human attention. Like fish, we respond to base sensory signs.

The installation is intriguing: the densely packed fishing lines fill a block of space, but their almost imperceptible physicality suggests the space is similarly unoccupied. In this way, this installation presents a wonderful interplay between absence and presence, and, apropos the fishing lines, which are used as bait, the tension between beauty and danger, and how those qualities define how we interact with space.

In stark contrast to this delicate artwork is an installation consisting of heavy wire cabling. It is in the juxtaposition of the verticality of the near inivisible installation with this heavy horizontal structure that the disparate manners of exploring and defining space are discreetly unpacked. The horiztonal wire cabling is fed through 60 pulleys that are attached at considered positions around the upper wall of the space, the wire cables criss-cross each other, creating a complex configuration.

Shadows of the cables are cast on to the walls with the aid of strategic lighting, thereby amplifying the density of the structure and engendering a sense that it extends beyond the confines of the room. The arrangement of the cables isn't random: there is a distinct pattern that creates order and makes for an aesthetically pleasing appearance. However, like the delicate vertical installation, one feels caught within a web.

In this way, the artists seem to be suggesting that we become so caught up in measuring space that the very tools that are meant to facilitate this activity actually become a barrier to our experience of the space. The weight and density of the cables and the extent to which they dominate the room are physically and psychologically overwhelming. Offering a reprieve is a winch situated in the centre of the room allows me to adjust the tension of the cables, which are all interconnected. As I turn the wheel, the cables adjust their position. In this industrial setting, with exposed pipes and wires in view, the cables don't look out of place - in fact, they appear to be part of the architecture. Interacting with the cables creates the illusion that the grey oppressive architectural structure in which they are embedded is in some way malleable, open to influence. Of course, in pulling at the cables I only tweak the structure.

As I exit the Sci-Bono Centre, passing groups of children gathered around garish gadgets, I am left with an acute sense of the role science plays in creating the illusion that the invisible can be made visible, and the dialogue between Sadie and Lace's installation and the museum begins to unravel in my mind.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Mary Sibande: Domestic Fantasy



OVEREXPLOITED and positioned within the heart of white South Africa, domestic workers have been the ultimate victims of a skewed social and political system thus their occupation embodies the vexed racial dynamics in this country.

Therefore, the figure of the domestic worker provides the ideal vehicle to unpack the politics of Self and Other. It is this aspect that Mary Sibande meditates on in this exhibition, and while all the sociopolitical baggage attached to this character remains in attendance simply because the domestic worker is such a politicised figure, Sibande's treatment of her subject matter is unexpected and unconventional.

Her sculptures and photographic artworks depicting the domestic worker aren't by any means sociopolitical products employing, say, the documentary genre that tends to evoke pathos, anger, shame and humiliation in the viewer. Their theatrical quality confidently roots them in the realm of fantasy, thus obviating those predictable knee-jerk emotional responses which ultimately have a didactic goal and underscore the domestic workers' role as victim.

Sibande's work grapples with transcending this actuality, which not only has ramifications for the domestic worker but has significance for all of apartheid's victims, perpetrators or beneficiaries - if the domestic worker is able to liberate herself, we can all be free from the past.

It's heavy stuff and these are ideas that other cultural producers have touched on before, but Sibande's expression is exceedingly inventive and elegant; besides, her art reaches towards an unexpected conclusion.

To prevent spectators' viewing the domestic worker as a victim Sibande situates the discourse in the realm of fantasy through several visual strategies. The background of all her photographs is a neutral pale blue, denoting a photographic studio setting - the ideal environment where identities can be remoulded with the aid of lighting, costume and make-up. In this way she detaches the domestic worker from reality.

In the design of the domestic worker's get-up, Sibande activates another level of fantasy. With a bustle, pleating, organza sleeves, layers of petticoats and rouching, the domestic worker uniform is transformed from a functional everyday item into a pseudo-Victorian dress suited only to a sedentary life. In such a get-up all menial tasks would be impossible. So while her outfit fixes her in a position of servitude it can, with adaptions, precipitate her liberation.

The clothing that Sibande has developed for this exhibition is central to her expression. For it is through the uniform that she is best able to manipulate the identity of the domestic worker, transplanting her not only into a bygone era but into the persona of the white European colonial - her mistress. So while the domestic worker appears to have transcended her station, she is similarly trapped in the same paradigm that fixes her as a cleaner. Her liberation is illusionary and seemingly impossible; even when she dreams and aspires for an alternative existence, she is locked into the madam/slave dichotomy. She can't think outside of it even when she isn't limited by reality.

The other intrinsically fictional feature of the work is enacted by Sibande herself, who poses in the photographs assuming the domestic worker's identity (casts of her are used for the sculptures). In assuming both the author and subject roles in her photographic works Sibande subverts the politically loaded relationship between subject and author, which in the context of South African art has been determined along racial lines. This way Sibande has complete control over how she is represented and she creates the conditions in which fantasies can best materialise. Daydreams are the products of an inner dialogue, which explains why Sibande is pictured with closed eyes. She isn't just blocking out the present, or the elements that keep her grounded in reality that deny inventions, she is engaging in a dialogue with herself. Hence, occupying the dual role of author/ subject has significance beyond rallying against artistic conventions.

Most importantly, in dressing as a domestic worker, Sibande herself is living out a "fantasy" of sorts. Given its undesirability and the low status it signifies in our society, the domestic worker seems an unlikely figure to aspire to be, and as fantasies tend to provide individuals with a chance to aspire beyond their present circumstances, Sibande's performance presents the unthinkable.

It is also absurd given that Sibande is asm a well-educated and empowered black professional. In masquerading as a domestic worker, she denies her affluence, her status, which in post-apartheid South Africa is thought to epitomise the goals of the struggle, which were to establish a brighter future for the youth.

Sibande isn't challenging or rejecting her affluence - it is her confidence in her status that allows her to parade as a domestic worker. The domestic worker is a mask, like any other she can slip on and off at will. The ease with which she is able to do this implies that no one is defined by their appearance. In assuming the guise of this highly politicised character, Sibande is able to explore, ridicule and subvert the structures that victimised the domestic worker. It's a cathartic and subversive act.

This is a remarkable exhibition that teases the mind long after one has finished viewing it. Its boldness, both visually and conceptually, is a surprise for a young artist's first major solo exhibition. - published in The Sunday Independent, July 26, 2009

Avant Car Guard: As Gaudy and Alluring as Ever



IT ALWAYS seemed that Avant Car Guard's flippant and irreverent brand of art had a sell-by-date. It is expected for young peripheral artists to challenge the pretensions of an art world they are yet to be embraced by; it's a reflexive response that softens the blow of anonymity. Who would want to be celebrated by an insular and tiny art world anyway?

At least that was what was implied in a work titled Avant Car Guard dive into the South African Contemporary Art Market, a photograph which showed the trio (Michael McGarry, Zander Blom and Jan-Henri Booyens) preparing to jump into a puddle situated at the base of a sandy excavation site.

Of course, such artworks called on the South African art community to reassess its sense of self-importance.

Nevertheless, one couldn't help feeling that such strategies would inevitably seem awkward once the trio had found their footing in the world that they so hastily claimed to reject.

Their motivation for parading as a cohesive unit as a way of destabilising the conventional western art practice where the single genius/artist is celebrated also wouldn't hold much sway the moment they began actively pursuing solo careers.

But one would be foolish to think that the astute artists who comprise Avant Car Guard aren't aware of their flawed position. Certainly the title of this exhibition is an admittance, a response and a celebration of a widely held notion in the art world that the trio's brand of art has become passé, if not limited, by its own ideological stance.

The gaudy, tasteless and provocative paintings that make up the bulk of this exhibition are a wonderful retort aimed at an art intelligentsia that was starting to show signs that it had had enough of these rebellious upstarts. So in a sense this exhibition is emblematic of Avant Car Guard's attempt to retrieve ground, or at least enter uncharted territory and show the art world that they aren't a one-trick pony.

Certainly, switching their medium to painting has helped facilitate a new direction in their aesthetic.

Granted, there was an elegance to their constructed photography that has been lost, which has given way to a kitschy and showy brand of art that has less to do with parody and more to do with caricature.

Paintings such as Roger Ballen and the Fuck Dolphins, Dr Pallo 'Air' Jordan and Robin Rhode are all playful caricatures of figures in the local art world.

They reference illustration and with drips of paint running down the canvases they establish this sense of painting being a spontaneous medium rather than part of a learned and measured activity.

These paintings are (one hopes) purposefully vacuous statements, but they are visually alluring.

Drawing from fantasy illustration, comic drawings and rudimentary Photoshop effects, and employing a neon colour palette typical of Emo fashion, they are securely products of our time. As are these artists - their work exudes a reluctant recognition of their epoch.

The most striking aspect of this exhibition is the manner in which these artists parade the rhetoric of rebellion or demonstrations of rebelliousness without believing that it will result in transformation.

The textual works, such as one that simply states, "Fuck this, Fuck that", draws attention to the lack of intent driving their rebelliousness.

In a sculptural work, Resistance Art in South Africa, they reference a previous generation of rebels who rebelled against the status quo through their art. An inscription or subheading for this artwork states, "your pain was meaningless", implying that not only were their actions futile but as benefactors (they only list white artists) of a corrupt system their resistance was undercut by their complicity.

The discourse on rebellion as a central trope of art is the most interesting aspect of this exhibition, and shows the artists to be turning their assault inwards.

Avant Car Guard are a product of an art world that has rejected the belief that the narrative of art is evolutionary. In such a context there is no need for rebels to ignite the wheels of progress and in a world where plurality and multiculturalism is embraced there is no overlying central system to revolt against.

In such a context the act of dissension is obviated. Under the guise of Avant Car Guard they are able to explore this actuality without it having ramifications for their individual practices, in which the artist is expected to engage in the act of "breaking boundaries".

Though clichéd such ideas about art are, ironically, the necessary motivation to keep artists working.

That the members of Avant Car Guard move between making art as a group and pursuing their individual practices amplifies the contradiction between contemporary art theory and practice.

It's not a contradiction that they choose but one inherent in the schism between academia and commerce.

Despite art theorists' rejection of the artist/genius, in day-to-day life the white male artist remains the predominant figure in the art world.

One vacillates between hating and loving this exhibition. It is highly entertaining and thought-provoking but much of the art does parade a puerile façade bereft of substance, leaving one undecided whether this exhibition spells the end of Avant Car Guard's or has extended its life span. - published in The Sunday Independent June 28

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Nicholas Hlobo: Caught between Two Worlds



For an encounter with one of Jozi's pre-eminent art talents, there is only one destination worth visiting: August House, Doornfontein.

Belying its austere interior, with its concrete floors and banal white partitioning, this dilapidated edifice is a hub of artistic production where the likes of Lawrence Lemaoana, Usha Seejarim, Dorothy Kreutzfeld, Gordon Froud and Nicholas Hlobo are to be found working.

The first clue to the activity inside is scrawled in the lift. One button is labelled "Other artists" while another is for "the Othered artists".

In his art Hlobo engages with aspects of himself that suggest "otherness". His homosexuality and his allegiance to and reverence for the Xhosa culture and language - which are often cast as "un-African" because of their indebtedness to the English language and Anglo Saxon mores - are superficial identifiers associated with his unique brand of art. He isn't bothered by being typecast as the "gay, Xhosa" artist.

"People choose the things they want to know," the 33-year-old observes. "It doesn't matter whether I try to be out of the box, I will be placed in the box by someone."

Hlobo's art isn't easily pigeon-holed. The most one can say is that it encompasses and celebrates ambiguity. Not only does he integrate vocabularies particular to both Xhosa cultural practices and the Western art tradition, bringing their interrelatedness into focus, but he obscures gender positions.

He also relishes delving into transitional states such as the uneasy divide between boyhood and manhood. His art is confrontational and subversive as he goes about claiming the supposedly undesirable parts of himself.

But these personal dialogues have universal resonance, summoning discourses on nationalism, cultural hybridity and the manner in which masculinity is constructed.

They aren't unfamiliar themes on the art circuit in South Africa. It's the distinct idiom he has developed that has set Hlobo apart.

His characteristic rubber sculptures-cum-garments, stitched together with delicate, feminine ribbons, have been a hit both internationally and locally. Last year he had solo exhibitions at the prestigious Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, Massachusetts, and at the Tate Gallery in London. This year he won the coveted Standard Bank Young Artist Award. Phrases such as "hot property" aren't misplaced.

Ideas come to him when he is conversing with people. If he was locked away in a room on his own he would find it hard to come up with new concepts, he says. This characteristic makes him a loquacious personality. An expected one-hour interview grows into three, in which all sorts of peripheral details about the artist, such as his penchant for tea, emerge.

His studio buzzes with activity: three of his four assistants are seated in front of what appear to be giant octopus shapes fashioned from panels of black rubber tubing. The work is called Umtshotsho, referring to a traditional celebration for youths before they are inducted into adulthood.

The rubber tentacles stretch across the concrete floor. Brightly coloured hand-stitching on the edges of the rubber softens and beautifies its coarse, hard texture. It's a fusion of masculine and feminine aesthetics with a strong craft sensibility, which Hlobo says he embraces in an effort to rally against the Western tradition of art and embrace his Xhosa roots - like killing two birds with one stone.

"We were told at tech (Wits Technikon) that art has to improve on the old ideas. There has to be some sense of your intervention. I am writing a story about being South African, but I also have to challenge the conventions of art making. Does a sculpture have to be rigid?

"In the 1980s and early 90s, artists moved away from using craft techniques. I wanted to go back to that, to be inventive. We were told that the objects we create should belong to the movements in the world, but that your colours and shapes should be distinct."

Keen to challenge a predominantly Eurocentric art world, Hlobo eventually settled on an Afrocentric aesthetic.

"Nothing is ordered and measured, like some of the works you get in England. I looked at how African people make things: they always use ornaments and details. Especially when I look at the Xhosa culture, there is this lack of control: you let things go and you put in all the colours; it is a bit excessive and elaborate. It is not subtle."

The giant octopus sculptures that hang from large hooks in his studio like animal cadavers express this Xhosa aesthetic. They are highly crafted, elaborate works made of a plethora of rubber panels all hand-sewn together with multicoloured stitching. For Hlobo the act of fusing pieces of fabric echoes the procedure one undertakes when piecing together one's identity.

"The process of stitching is the process of subtracting and adding. Trying to find your identity is about cutting things off and bringing things back; sometimes you don't know what you want to keep. The methods and techniques that I use in my art talk about rebuilding."

Hlobo prefers to spend time ruminating on ideas than getting stuck into the nitty-gritty of putting his sculptures together. It's an approach he had from early on, when he signed up to do a B Tech in Fine Arts at Wits Technikon (now the University of Johannesburg) in 1999.

"My idea was that I would work in a production house as an art director. I thought I could just think up ideas and other people would make them."

His training further entrenched the notion that he should focus on the conceptual aspect of art making.

"I learnt that these days you can commission someone who works at a foundry to make things for you. I came to realise the importance of the idea rather than the product itself. That was drilled into our heads. The ideas are important in making a well-resolved piece, rather than just making a piece with nothing behind it."

His training also emphasised the necessity of telling a story through art. "I had a list of ideas that I could talk about and finally settled on my identity as a South African: I looked at masculinity, being black, being gay. It gave me the opportunity to voice the things that I questioned in my culture, such as masculinity.

"As time went by, it grew into my celebrating being a South African and all the baggage I carry."

In this way Hlobo's art became part of a process of self-acceptance.

"I developed this pride in all that I am and all the things that have built me. So my art became a playful way of celebrating myself."

Hlobo's allegiance to Xhosa culture was instilled while growing up in the Transkei. It was a rude awakening when his family relocated in 1988 and settled in Thokoza, where he became the target of ethnic slurs.

"We hardly saw white people or Indians in the Transkei. In 1976 everybody left and moved out the homeland because things were becoming tight.

"We didn't feel like we were living in apartheid South Africa. So when we came to this part of the country, where identity and culture was really distinguished, I got to hear about all the stereotypes around Xhosas; how Xhosas think they are smart, that we have corrupted our language … because it is mingled with English. The perception is that the Xhosas have sold out."

Attacks against his ethnicity, however, only deepened his commitment to his ethnic roots. "At times it was harsh in the township. Everyone one is sceptical and doesn't accept you because you are Xhosa. It has made me to be very aware (of being Xhosa) and has encouraged me to walk tall and be proud.

"The Xhosa language has been looked down on for a long time and it is up to me to show it off and share its sophistication with the sophisticated world."

In the titling of his works he exploits the nuances and ambiguity of the Xhosa language. "I wanted to refrain from the formalities of the language and try to have some understanding about how the words evolved and where its influences come from. "With all of this I am trying to understand my sense of belonging to the South African nation, the queer culture and being Xhosa and my colonial heritage."

Hlobo is particularly interested in the affinities between Xhosa and European traditions. "The Xhosa culture shares so many traditions with the West, they are so tightly knitted together, I find it hard to distinguish the two. I can't understand if a particular facet is pure or if it has some foreign influence. I find that fascinating." - Published in The Sunday Independent June 21, 2009