Nicholas Hlobo

Galerie Pfriem

Although some might think of the works in his new series as assemblages, Nicholas Hlobo refers to them as “Paintings” because he creates each piece on a stark white canvas. He begins by using a box cutter to slash the canvas—what he calls a “harsh approach to bring in new elements, change things, a painful process.” This trenchant action cannot be reversed. Hlobo then binds materials such as tire rubber and ribbons to the canvas by stitching, adding texture through puckering and embroidering. As he experiments with these materials rife with symbolism related to the culture of postapartheid South Africa, meanings proliferate. Rubber, for instance, represents masculinity, urbanization, and the male status symbol of car ownership, as well as alluding to condoms and thus the fight against the aids epidemic. In contrast, Hlobo elegantly weaves and embroiders using satin ribbons, suggesting domesticity and the role of women in holding the family or clan together—the ribbons form connections within the compositions. Hlobo leaves much of each canvas blank—the white is part of the story—recalling the vastness of landscapes and of being alone within them.

Hlobo’s titles also contribute to the layers of meaning surrounding language, gender, race, and ethnicity produced by his images. They are written in Xhosa, a tonal language, rich in idioms, possessing consonants formed by making clicking sounds. His narrative titles reflect South African stories, some told to him as a child by his grandmother, as well as games and rhymes. Icephe ifolokhwe nebhoso yifive Pounds ten isitulo samaNgesi sihlal’ iBhulukazi, 2010, translates as “A spoon, a fork and a knife is £5.10, on an English chair now sits an Afrikaner woman,” evoking a popular children’s game from the time of the Anglo-Boer War. Hlobo’s private narrative for this painting begins with the fairy tale of a bunny in an arid space, wondering why the chair is melting, then realizing that beyond the chair is a larger garden. The artist covers the canvas with meandering lines of his signature baseball stitching in brown, red, and blue, making paths all around the material; the trails sometimes wind back across one another, bunch up, form curlicues, like patterns made by yarn, unraveled and spread out across the surface. One part of the canvas is crumpled into high relief, forming a vulvalike shape; elsewhere a piece of black rubber has been stitched in the shape of a spearhead, while the bottom right corner of the canvas bulges out over the edge.

The diptych comprising Phalela mgama (Move Forward, Gallop) and Wanyus’ msila (She Lifted Her Tail), both 2010, includes a creature with the gist of a human form composed of puckered and punctured black rubber, stitched with bright orange ribbons, with orange, brown, and aqua ones dangling from the swelling form. In the lefthand panel, the dark figure rears back, one limb firmly planted beneath it, the other delicately winding across into the diptych’s right side, reflecting a visionary experience, one that might guide a diviner, say, leading his tribe through psychological and physical travails. Through gouging and then suturing the canvas, like the wounds of a nation or a human soul, the artist attempts to unify disparate parts.

Lauren Dyer Amazeen