Critics’ Picks

Nicholas Hlobo, Elizeni Ienkanyiso, 2021, acrylic,  ribbons on linen and cotton canvas, 51 x 51 x 2."

Nicholas Hlobo, Elizeni Ienkanyiso, 2021, acrylic, ribbons on linen and cotton canvas, 51 x 51 x 2."


Nicholas Hlobo

Lehmann Maupin | London
1 Cromwell Place
March 11–April 23, 2022

In the exhibition “Elizeni Ienkanyiso” (Xhosa for “On the Wave of Enlightenment”), the South African artist Nicholas Hlobo breathes life into a bestiary of animal forms, emblems of both instinct and survival. In the show’s titular painting (all works 2021), stripes of thick yellow and maroon acrylic surf across the circular canvas, which the artist has further embellished with tentaclelike ribbons stitched into the surface. They unfurl in pinks and dark greens, endowing the composition with an undeniable sense of propulsion, as if it were perched on the crest of a wave.

On the opposite wall, two larger canvases depict iguana-esque creatures locked in a kind of courtship. In Ndange Cilikishe, a reptile’s torso explodes in a colorful tangle of turquoise and red ribbons trailing behind it like party streamers. One beady eye, a spot of green paint, fixes on its neighbor, Sondela maCilikishe. In this work, a lizard’s alert, tensile body is rendered in brooding purples, a flash of orange adorning its belly. The installation creates an amorous dance in which the subjects, while tantalizingly close, remain permanently bound by the limits of their canvases. It’s a curious mirror to the push-pull of our own pandemic condition, the uneasy suspension between isolation and contact.

Two of the largest works in the exhibition return us to the ocean and nature’s eternal rhythms of destruction and rebirth. In Iqokobhe, a sea turtle glides upward, the linen canvas itself ruched and puckered to suggest a shell’s bony casing. Egg-shaped pouches of blue leather stitched across its fins suggest future life to come. On the facing canvas, Amakhos’abomvu, a squidlike form flashes in alarming reds: an emissary from nature’s deep, as vivid and unmistakable as a warning flare.