In his third (and final) tribute show Sam Nhlengethwa portrays the imagery of famous artists who have made an impression on him, and whose work places before us questions about progress and the limits of representation.
Tributes are paid to four deceased artists who collided with the mores and values of their times, and whose work continues to inspire others beyond borders of geography or duration: Ephraim Ngatane, Romare Bearden, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Henri Matisse.
A fifth name is added, completing the tribute. The sole living artist is David Goldblatt who, in his photography, has often explored the mining locations of the East Rand, the very region where Nhlengethwa was born, and still lives today.
Each artist’s oeuvre is exhibited in a suggestive milieu – an imagined space void of people where the work-as-tribute is the primary figurative suggestion. Nhlengethwa wants us to see these great works his way. Elsewhere he has spoken of endeavouring to understand the “mental space” of these iconic artists through placing their works in environments composed in his distinctive style.
“In doing these tributes and in doing the interiors I am taken down memory lane to a time when I was a set designer in broadcasting,” Nhlengethwa says. “Because there we were dealing with space – vacated space. So the tributes are just like that empty space, but they get some sense of vibrancy with the hanging paintings of these specific individuals.”
The works are in stark contrast to his 2012 exhibition Conversations, in which Nhlengethwa sought to evoke the architecture and human flow of the South African city streets. Some Final Tributes then is not about urban noise but about silence, creativity and the domestic space. The emptiness of the interiors reflects what Nhlengethwa claims is the sense of loneliness one encounters as an artist working alone while family and friends are out living their lives.
But the tributes are the antidote, and in portraying the work of Bearden, Nhlengethwa is going back to once again experience the spark that ignited his love of collage. “Around 1977 Bill Ainslie (the art teacher) saw my collages as experimentation,” Nhlengethwa says. “He asked me if I knew of Romare Bearden and I said, ‘no’. Then he pulled out this big book of Bearden and for the first time I saw an artist doing collage in such a professional way. When I saw Bearden’s work I found comfort in doing what I thought was nonexistent.
The largest work in his new exhibition is Homage to Romare Bearden, an outsize tapestry produced by the renowned Marguerite Stephens studio. Also on show will be large- scale works in oil and collage on canvas, studies and a series of lithographs.
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. 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 recently exhibited 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. He has been a resident of the Bag Factory Artists’ Studios in Newtown, Johannesburg since the 1990s. From February to June his solo exhibition Life, Jazz & Lots of Other Things travelled to the Museum of Art at the Savannah College of Art and Design. The show is due to open in Atlanta, Georgia next month.
Born in Springs, South Africa in 1955. Lives and works in Johannesburg, South Africa.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.”