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.