Sam Nhlengethwa’s solo exhibition entitled ‘Townships revisited’ opened on 11 November 2006 at The Goodman Gallery. Along with Nhlengethwa’s work, the monograph entitled Sam Nhlengethwa the Goodman Gallery Editions publication will be launched. This was the first comprehensive publication about Sam Nhlengethwa’s life and artworks.
For the exhibition Nhlengethwa has chosen to focus on the theme of townships around South Africa. Historically townships were under-developed urban residential areas created for non-whites by the apartheid government. They were places of riots, unrest and violence. Townships were also places of great music, fashion and style. They were ‘monumentalized’ in the paintings of Gerard Sekoto and George Pemba. Sekoto and Pemba’s depictions of the townships have inspired Nhlengethwa’s work.
Nhlengethwa was interested to see how life in the various townships of South Africa had changes over the years. Whist working on this series of artworks Nhlengethwa revisited and photographed various South African areas and townships. He visited townships in the Western Cape; KwaZulu Natal; Free State; North West and Gauteng. Nhlengethwa describes how ‘as autumn set in 2005, I embarked on the townships project. As part of my research, I visited different townships in the six provinces. I discovered during my research that each of the townships I covered has its own character depending on where it is’. Nhlengethwa describes townships situated near Metropolitan cities as different from townships that are near less densely populated towns and rural areas. They have a more ‘hybrid’ character that is fast-pacing and one cannot clearly distinguish an origin or cultural essence. Townships, generally speaking, have similar infra-structure and architecture. Life-style is casual and vibrant as portrayed by the different characters in the artworks on exhibition.
As an artist working primarily with the techniques of collage and montage, Nhlengethwa has focused on using his own photographs to recreate these township scenes. Moving away from his earlier canvas works, Nhlengethwa’s new collage works are mainly on paper, which are accompanied by a new series of prints. Nhlengethwa’s new series of work gives the public a glimpse of life in the different townships.
The exhibition ran at The Goodman Gallery from the 11th of November through till the 2nd of December 2006.
Sam Nhlengethwa was born in the mining community of Payneville Springs in 1955 and grew up in Ratanda location in Heidelberg, east of Johannesburg. He completed a two-year Fine Art Diploma at the Rorkes Drift Art Centre in the late 1970s. While he exhibited extensively both locally and abroad during the 1980s and ’90s, Nhlengethwa’s travelling solo show South Africa, Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow in 1993 established him at the vanguard of critical consciousness in South Africa and he went on to win the Standard Bank Young Artist Award in 1994.
Nhlengethwa was born into a family of jazz lovers; his two brothers both collected jazz music and his deceased eldest brother was a jazz musician. “Painting jazz pieces is an avenue or outlet for expressing my love for the music,” he once said in an interview. "As I paint, I listen to jazz and visualise the performance. Jazz performers improvise within the conventions of their chosen styles. In an ensemble, for example, there are vocal styles that include freedom of vocal colour, call-and-response patterns and rhythmic complexities played by different members. Painting jazz allows me to literally put colour onto these vocal colours.
“Jazz is rhythmic and it emphasises interpretation rather than composition. There are deliberate tonal distortions that contribute to its uniqueness. My jazz collages, with their distorted patterns, attempt to communicate all of this. As a collagist and painter, fortunately, the technique allows me this freedom of expression… What I am doing is not new though, as there are other artists before me who painted jazz pieces. For example, Gerard Sekoto, Romare Bearden and Henri Matisse.”
Nhlengethwa’s work has been included in key exhibitions such as Seven Stories About Modern Art in Africa at the Whitechapel Gallery in London and major publications such as Phaidon’s The 20th Century Art Book. He has had several solo shows in South Africa and abroad, exhibiting in the 12th International Cairo Biennale (2010) and in Constructions: Contemporary Art from South Africa at Museu de Arte Contemporanea de Niteroi (2011) in Brazil. In 2018 Nhlengethwa was included on the group exhibition Beyond Borders: Global Africa at the University of Michigan Museum of Art.