In a solo exhibition of new drawings, prints and paintings at the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg, Sam Nhlengethwa pays homage to trumpeter and composer Miles Davis and celebrates the recent 50th anniversary of his groundbreaking album Kind of Blue. The record, which is universally known as one of the most influential and best-selling jazz albums of all time, has been as significant in South Africa as it has been everywhere else.
Described by many musicians and music-lovers as a bible – “something everybody owns” – Kind of Blue could be found in the record collections of everyone Nhlengethwa knew growing up. “When I was a youngster,” the artist reflects, “on Sundays when people were relaxing, from street to street people would sit with a portable vinyl player listening to Miles Davis.”
And, he says “unlike with the other vinyls where we picked tracks, Kind of Blue was played repeatedly from the first track, ‘So What?’ to its last track ‘Flamenco Sketches’”. With its experimental modal sketches, the album’s initial and ultimately enduring success came as a surprise to Davis and his sextet, which consisted of pianists Bill Evans and Wynton Kelly, drummer Jimmy Cobb, bassist Paul Chambers, and saxophonists John Coltrane and Julian “Cannonball” Adderley. “Evans is quoted as saying when they did the album, they had no idea it would become so important,” explains Nhlengethwa. “As a painter, I drew a parallel to that – when I make a new painting I never know how important it will be.”
Much of the musicians’ astonishment at their own success lay in the album’s commercially precarious experimentation. While Davis’s albums Milestones (1958) and 1958 Miles (1958) featured modal elements, Kind of Blue was based entirely on modality, marking a major departure from his previous albums and their highly popular hard bop style. Influenced by pianist George Russell, Davis provided each performer with a set of scales rather than a complete score, which determined the framework of their improvisation and technique. This musical process, with its focus on scales and modes, embodied what Davis famously called “a return to melody”. Recorded in only two short sessions in 1959, Davis and his sextet reached a new level of ingenuity through an eagerness to relinquish popular approaches in the quest for something new and compelling.
The universal nature of the album, its maverick edge and the significance of its 50th
anniversary prompted Nhlengethwa to devote his entire upcoming solo show to Kind of Blue; the exhibition adopting the album’s title as its namesake. Featuring a series of etchings and lithographs produced at Mark Attwood’s Artists’ Press studio in White River as well as mixed media collage drawings and paintings all the size of vinyl record covers; Nhlengethwa’s new works are stark, mostly monochromatic and affectingly vivid, echoing the emotion of Davis’s melody. Black and white rendered silhouette figures recall another era, an age when taking risks was central to cultural development. The images are – in a smooth yet sketchy technique that takes Nhlengethwa’s characteristic style to new heights – a homage to music that is urbane and transcendent, minimal yet multifaceted and ultimately pioneering.
The show will consist of over 30 mainly small scale works, as Nhlengethwa wants “the show to breathe, I don’t want it to be too cluttered”. The gallery space will, however, be infused with the modal sketches of Kind of Blue, as the album will be played on a loop for the duration of the show. This pensive, musing show will be the last of Nhlengethwa’s to focus on the theme of jazz, something he has dealt with for decades. Presenting a distinctive series, which is at times sombre and at times celebratory, Nhlengethwa’s Kind of Blue maintains a sophisticated character suited to the thematic closure he is pursuing.
Nhlengethwa was born in the mining community of Payneville in 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 throughout 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. His 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 and has been a resident of the Bag Factory Artists’ Studios in Newtown, Johannesburg since the 1990s where, he says, “a week never passes without me listening to Kind of Blue”.
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.