Goodman Gallery Cape Town
11 November – 1 December 2018
Waiting is an exhibition of new work by Sam Nhlengethwa exploring the myriad ways in which we find ourselves occupied by this state of being.
What are we waiting for? In certain works, the answer appears self-evident: an empty stage of instruments on stands overlooking a packed audience, a person loitering beside a pole, a group of commuters on the side of the road. But upon closer inspection of these quotidian scenes, more questions arise. Who is doing the waiting? What qualities do these people share?
For Nhlengethwa this theme emerges from universal experience. ‘We all see people waiting and sometimes we become victims of waiting,’ says Nhlengethwa. By depicting these scenarios through the rich figurative mediums of lithographic prints, mixed media collage and tapestry, Nhlengethwa vividly draws our attention to this distinction, making us acutely aware of the stories of waiting experienced in the everyday lives of South Africans. And through his ongoing depiction of mineworkers, also reflecting the harsh lived realities more hidden from view.
As one of South Africa’s preeminent artists, Nhlengethwa has established himself by conveying this sort of nuance through his work. Over his several-decade career he has employed a signature style of collage that brings together archival material and painting to tackle subjects ranging from cityscapes to jazz musicians, artists and political figures.
This latter subject matter features on Waiting in the form of a collaged sepia photo of a young Winnie Madikizela-Mandela seated in a brightly painted living room. ‘When black and white creeps into the paintings it recalls the past. It is a form of worlds colliding,’ says Nhlengethwa. By incorporating this poignant historic reference into this exhibition, Nhlengethwa reminds us that our past needs to be constantly reevaluated. In this sense we are all waiting for our present history to unfold.
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.