Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Art of Abstraction: Rhodes and Hlobo

A still from Robin Rhodes A Day in May

It’s a pleasing surprise. The so-called “eye” of Nicholas Hlobo’s winding rubber sculpture Tyaphaka greets you on the stairs before the entrance to the Stevenson’s Braamfontein gallery, creating this sense that the work cannot be contained. It’s like an amorphous beast, an alien being that keeps multiplying. You half expect to return to the area to find that this black rubber mass has encroached upon Juta Street. This work belongs on the street. It’s exterior fashioned from rubber tyres, incongruently sutured with ribbons, forms this disused blob that would blend into Joburg’s urban landscape. It appears displaced in the pristine white gallery setting, exploding in its largest room, filling the air with the aroma of rubber – a signature of Hlobo’s sculptural work.

The presentation of this rambling sculptural work in this location has lent it new readings. It debuted at the Biennale of Sydney in 2011 before featuring at the Stevenson’s Cape Town gallery in Woodstock in the group show titled Fiction as Fiction (or A Ninth Johannesburg Biennale), where I first encountered it. In that setting, it was buried inside the gallery and the “eye” was on a plinth, thus giving it significance. I was fixated with its relationship to the body; the large mass was like intestines, human entrails. In the Braamfontein setting, it seems detached from any corporeal or real object. It’s a complete abstraction, that invites all manner of metaphors to become attached to it.

Uthwalisiwe by Hlobo
Hlobo’s work probably hasn’t been connected to the body for some time; he stopped doing performance works and evoking the body through both his sculptural works and the motifs sewn on to pristine white canvases, that read like the skin what with inner cavities and external protrusions. Such works evoked the the friction between the exterior and interior – identity politics. Abstraction and formalism are the new buzz words in South African art and they seem to have relieved artists of this initial post-apartheid  preoccupation.
This has given way to a focus on production, the medium, taking it to its logical conclusion. Hlobo’s “beached whale” of a rubber sculpture is in some ways just an extreme, excessive conclusion of what he was doing when he was still interested in the cultural hybridity of the South African identity – part Xhosa, part English etc – and the relationship between tradition and contemporary notions of masculinity.

There is no narrative or political logic driving the work in this exhibition – not in any obvious way at least. This doesn’t read as a glaring absence, perhaps because the work superficially appears to extend from his identity-laden work – it’s the rubber-ribbon vocabulary that secures this idea. And in truth as his work is born from cultural and linguistic faultlines, ambiguity has always been its defining feature. Of course, now it may be lost in its own ambiguity.