First published in:
Flow catalogue 2008
The Studio Museum in Harlem
Close Encounters with the Strange Kind:
In December 2005 in Khayelitsha, a black township near Cape Town, South Africa, I saw a man in a lace bonnet, a leather jacket with a rubber hunchback, a skirt made of neckties and a pair of rubber boots beautifully stitched together with red ribbon.
The locals—many of whom, I guess, had never been to a gallery—greeted him with embarrassed laughter, curious looks and whispers. But they were engaged. The performance, Igqirha Lendlela[i] (2005) by Nicholas Hlobo, inspired what I always hope to see from gallery audiences: a sense of wonder and an inquisitive impulse.
Hlobo himself was enjoying the attention, which makes his work appealing in a way that belies the fact that it is labor-intensive.
In Bhaxa Iqinile2 (2006), Hlobo applied green laundry soap to two old chairs and then had a model sit on them, creating a negative impression of the model’s bottom, legs and testicles. The title of the work, a Xhosa3 onomatopoeic word—roughly translating to “plonk” in English—asserts the artist’s wry sense of humor and the inviting tactility of his work, which make his art pleasurable, even when it relates to touchy subjects.
In a country of homophobia, racial and ethnic divides, gender violence and hate crimes, discussions of gender, sexuality and identity elicit a lot of emotion. Hlobo navigates this ground by juxtaposing humor and seriousness, authenticity and worldliness.
With the many taboos in South African society, silence is often employed to keep people in line and police morality. Initiates undergoing circumcision are not supposed to express pain—even when they are in mortal danger—or relate their experiences to women, outsiders and the uninitiated. Secrecy, it seems, is essential to the coherence of society.
Though we are fourteen years into the democratic era, we are still a nation in transition. There is much to be contested in material and cultural terms. Claiming cultural space has been relegated to third place behind politics and economics, but is no less contentious. Democracy brought a new set of taboos. The imperatives of nation-building and threats such as HIV/AIDS have thrown together old and new prohibitions and taboos. The old policing of sexual behavior found new expression, and practices such as virginity testing have been rediscovered.4 In the same way, traditions such as the male initiation ritual ukoluka have become both cultural practices and ways of maintaining group cohesion and resisting Western values. In the patriarchy/power/ethnicity matrix, appeals to traditional values, nation-building and morality are perfect foils for increasing calls for social justice. This applies to all spheres of society, from government policy to public discourse to the home.
For all his lightheartedness and seductiveness, Hlobo is determined to break taboos. In traditional Nguni societies, sex is not discussed openly, and a number of Hlobo’s works relate to genitalia, particularly penises. Upon closer inspection, however, even in traditional culture one finds that “sex talk” is concealed in everyday speech as euphemisms and rituals. In one of Hlobo’s early works, Untitled #2 (2002), a phallic mound made of woven palm leaves rises from an ordinary rug. Whatever is “swept under the rug” emerges one way or another.
To claim cultural space, confronting racial dynamics, privilege and fear is unavoidable. Is the presence of black artists such as Hlobo on the world stage going to lay to rest fears about the marginalization of blacks voices—and the whites who benefit from it—in South Africa? Not likely. We have not reached a stage where a white artist or museum director is prepared to admit to having benefited from white privilege—the ultimate taboo. After all, we are told, we were all victims of apartheid. Amaaaandla!5
These tensions in Hlobo’s work may not be immediately apparent. The need to understand or preserve Xhosa traditions clearly is very important to him, which explains why he bestows Xhosa titles on his work. He also mistrusts outsiders, particularly whites who tell black stories.6 I suppose this would, in the words of Achille Mbembe, constitute the “nativist reflex.”7 On the other hand, there is no explicit, stereotypical sign that his work is made by an African. Hlobo clearly articulated to me his resistance to the idea that African art should have a look; he borrows from other cultures, including colonial South Africa. Such an approach places him in line with the more open-minded and inclusive Afropolitan view of the continent.
But reality is much more complex than the binaries implied by nativism and Afropolitanism. As artists try to produce socially engaged art, they must perform a very delicate balancing act.. Perhaps the artist’s job is to make good art, not good politics. And yet artists, from Imhotep to Fela Kuti to Hlobo, do play at politics, or at least “polytricks.”
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[i] The title of this work, Igqirha Lendlel, is derived from a Xhosa folk song made internationally famous by South African singer Miriam Makeba.
2 Bhaxa, like the name of the language from which it is derived, isiXhosa, is pronounced with a click. Iqinile literally means “hard” but, according to the artist, it is a word often used to refer to a boy becoming a man and having hardened testicles.
3 The Xhosa are part of the Nguni people, which include the Zulu and Swazi nations that established kingdoms in the eastern parts of South Africa. Nguni languages are quite similar and mutually intelligible.
4 Virginity testing is practiced in certain parts of KwaZulu-Natal, a province in South Africa dominated by Zulu speakers, and is performed by older women to ensure that girls and young women are virgins until they marry. Though some claim virginity testing also applies to men, the testing of women is most common. The practice has enjoyed renewed interest as a way of preventing HIV infections and teenage pregnancy.
5 At protests and marches during the anti-apartheid struggle, and even at present-day political gatherings, the person at the podium shouts “amandla,” which means “power,” to which the crowd responds “awethu,” meaning “is ours.”
6 The artist’s opinions here come from Nicholas Hlobo, interview with the author, January 2008.
7 Achille Mbembe, “SA’s Mprofeti Is Leading Us on Road to National Suicide,” The City Press, June 3, 2006; and Achille Mbembe, “Afropolitanism,” Africa Remix: Contemporary Art of a Continent (Johannesburg: Jacana Media, 2007), 26–29.