Critics’ Picks

View of Nicholas Hlobo's Umthamo, 2017, copper, dimensions variable.

View of Nicholas Hlobo's Umthamo, 2017, copper, dimensions variable.

Cape Town

Nicholas Hlobo and Cinga Samson

Maitland Institute
372 Voortrekker Rd, Maitland Unit 15
February 14–May 18, 2018

Initially billed as a presentation of a new work in copper by sculptor Nicholas Hlobo, this exhibition—staged in a retrofitted meat-processing warehouse that opened in early 2017—was expanded to include a single piece by Cape Town painter Cinga Samson. The late insertion, prompted by a conversation between the two artists, productively shifts the mood of the exhibition, whose formal concerns with space are encompassed by its title, “Umthamo,” which translates from Hlobo’s native Xhosa language as “volume.” Unlit and hung in a corner near one of Hlobo’s three mound- and tendril-like conglomerations of copper piping (collectively titled Umthamo, all works 2017), Samson’s oil portrait Diced Pineapples II depicts a shirtless young man standing in a wooded landscape, holding a bouquet of red, purple, and white blooms. Named for a boastful 2012 song by Rick Ross about heterosexual love and cunnilingus, Samson’s painting—unlike the song it references—confidently explores male vulnerability in his darkly toned, oneiric painting style.

Hlobo, like Samson, is a cosmopolitan with an acute awareness of traditional Xhosa culture and rites. In 2011, for instance, speaking about the ambiguities of Xhosa male identity, he remarked on the lowly place of boys before the all-important circumcision practices marking the transition to manhood. Drawn to soft and pliable materials including fabric, hide, and rubber, Hlobo’s early sculptures and ritualistic performances were equally informed by traditional Xhosa culture and gay pageantry; his most recent solo exhibition, “Sewing Saw,” attempted to deconstruct his attraction to malleable raw materials. Copper, while new to his repertoire, is well suited to Hlobo’s method of abstractly shaping media to create works resonant with personal biography and cultural metaphor. The excesses of this method—such as the giant dragon the artist created for the Fifty-Fourth Venice Biennale—are here held in abeyance, allowing a sublimated conversation about contemporary masculinity to energize his experiments in form.