Saturday, April 24, 2010

Nicholas Hlobo at Standard Bank Gallery

It's the pervasive smell of rubber that hits you first. And as your eyes adjust to the pink light, which discreetly enforces a boundary between the installation and the rest of the gallery, one is confronted with six large anamorphic black sculptural figures fashioned from rubber. With multiple limbs stretching out along the floor these disembodied creatures appear like underwater beings or plant life with tentacles used to probe the world around them. They are indeterminate, nebulous creatures that have no distinct identity, which links up with the title of the artworks, Izithunizi (Xhosa for "shadows").

In the catalogue Mark Gevisser suggests that these rubber sculptures represent blankets which conceal human subjects engaged in forbidden sexual acts. Certainly the brightly coloured stitching that runs along the edges of these semi-sculptural artworks recalls a traditional "blanket" stitch that edges old fashioned blankets, which are used in Xhosa initiation ceremonies. Referencing Xhosa tradition is a predominant characteristic of Nicholas Hlobo's work.

The title of the exhibition, Umshotsho, refers to a Xhosa coming-of-age tradition which allows teens to explore their sexuality and sexual fantasies under the guidance of a mentor and in a safe context - boys are encouraged to practice non-penetrative "thigh sex". The amorphous rubber sculptures quite succinctly operate as a metaphor for this stage in a young person's life. Out of the top of one of these sculptures is a protrusion that appears like the bud of a flower. Thus there is a sense that these indistinct beings are at the brink of blossoming, their bodies stirring with the first undeniable urges of sexual desire. It is at this time that people have yet to grasp the rules of sexual appropriateness. For many young men and women their sexual identity seems fluid and unresolved at this time as they begin to discover who they are. It's also a period when the rules that govern and determine gender identity have yet to be fully grasped.

With his characteristic penchant for ambiguity, which manifests in art that masks the boundaries between feminine and masculine identity - and Western and African ones too - it is not surprising that Hlobo has created a work that meditates on this indeterminate stage of human development. Hlobo's art, which embraces cultural ambiguity, has always been concerned with denying fixed positions. What is most interesting is how he allows this theme to manifest in sculptural works: how does one articulate ambiguity with a medium that demands that the physical dimensions of the work be solidified. In other words, the nature of sculpture is such that the physical persona must be set. Traditionally this does not allow the surface character or its materiality to be malleable or changeable. Hlobo subverts this idea with his use of disused tyre rubber, a paradoxical material that is both rigid and adaptable.

The seams that run through his sculptures enable rounded, wavy surfaces, creating voluminous silhouettes that appear to allow for movement. The curved, organic edges or tentacles that trail from his figures in Izithunizi also establish the notion that these creatures are not contained within any definite borders, that they are always extending or retreating from the surrounding environment, like plant life in the sea whose form is dependent on the ebb and flow of waves.

In this way his works are both sculptural and non-sculptural, they are loose forms. The profusion of seams that run through them that are marked by bright stitching, and the embroidered details that embellish them, make these sculptures appear like garments too. For, of course, it is clothing that ultimately allows individuals the opportunity to establish themselves as fluid beings - different outfits delineating different identities.

One of the most interesting and perhaps even puzzling aspects to his work is the manner in which he only ever suggests the presence of a human subject in his work without depicting one. Thus much of his work presents clothing items that hint at a human form, as in works like Unohombile (2008) or his famous Chitha (2006). As such clothing becomes not only his primary mode of expression but the subject of his expression too. He is fascinated by this exterior layer which operates as an index of gender and sexuality and thus determines identity. He also particularly revels in manipulating this outer "skin", fusing and confusing both visual and gender vocabularies. One is often unsure whether his sculptural works represent an empty cavity or describe beings that have become so fused with their outer accoutrements that they have become overshadowed by them. - published in The Sunday Independent, April 4, 2010.

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