Sam Nhlengethwa / The Past and the Present ... Now is the Time / 2016 - Installation View
15 October - 05 November 2016
Goodman Gallery Johannesburg
15 October – 5 November 2016
Goodman Gallery is pleased to announce a solo exhibition by Sam Nhlengethwa titled The Past and the Present… Now is the Time.
Nhlengethwa is undoubtedly one of South Africa’s most distinguished artists. His singular style of collage combined with archival elements is recognisable beyond the gallery walls. His series of subjects ranging from cityscapes to jazz musicians, to artists and political figures, has brought to life the themes of the evolution of the African city, and the assertion of diverse individual identities within our changing living environment.
In his new exhibition the artist has chosen to create five major series which deal with memorialising past events that define and epitomise historical South African political discourses, in order to illustrate the underpinnings and foundations of present activist efforts. Nhlengethwa suggests that although he sees himself as being fortunate in having a space and opportunity through which he can freely and actively express his ideas and understandings, there is no real difference between an artist and an ordinary citizen. For Nhlengethwa, all citizens should be equally concerned with the current socio-political climate and contexts of the South African vernacular. This exhibition ultimately challenges us to question and examine actions taken in the construction of democracy.
A set of works based on Drum evoke the famous magazine that ran from 1951 and which was responsible for exploring the zeitgeist of the 1950s and 1960s. Drum has come to symbolise the sense of abandonment that Black Johannesburg denizens experienced at the height of apartheid, the ramifications of which can still be felt in the present. Underlying the images is the narrative of identity and citizenship articulated through dynamic ideas on belonging, equality and universality.
A Recycler series is central to this exhibition, in which the artist examines the characters seen on the city streets – those eking out a living by dragging the detritus of modern life from garbage deposits to cash transactions. Through illustrating the tasks of these characters, Nhlengethwa attempts to grapple with the fragmented debris that has come to describe poverty.
In a series re-examining the 1976 township uprising, Nhlengethwa looks at how his contemporaries paved the way to finding a new voice through political activism. As a series, the works focus on celebrating the triumphs of these activists, whilst simultaneously examining how these narratives have inspired and influenced South African’s youth in an ongoing way to find and articulate their political voices. These are Nhlengethwa’s brave subjects, both past and present, who dynamically engage with the country’s socio-cultural and socio-political contexts.
A large work comprising seven panels titled Long Walk to Freedom recounts the events making up Nelson Mandela’s life from when he left the Eastern Cape to the time he was liberated from Robben Island.
Correspondingly, the series entitled Mzansi Legends, of prints on the theme of legacy documents commemorates the accomplishments of various South African heroes, including Helen Suzman, Bill Ainslie, Ernest Cole and Nelson Mandela. The juxtaposition of black and white political activists invites and exemplifies Nhlengethwa’s vision for a universal and collective effort on the part of committed activists to advance our society. These ideas are reiterated in his charcoal drawings on the theme of leadership, which include portraits of Mandela, Robert Sobukwe, and Steven Bantu Biko.
With the large mixed media work titled 27 April 1994, Nhlengethwa re-imagines the queues of voters on the cusp of democracy. In it we see the ordinary citizens of the country who sought change from the ballot. Through Nhlengethwa’s re-imagining of a globally-iconic moment for democracy, the artist re-evaluates the role of activism, and suggests that the true spirit of activism is found in ordinary citizens.
The exhibition features lithographic prints, linocuts, mixed media collages and tapestry – all of which deal with ideas of courage, voicing identity and exerting valour in the face of adversity in both past and present social discourses. The exhibition also includes some archival objects on display as well as a performance at the public opening.
Ultimately, The Past and the Present… Now is the Time captures the energy of the decades preceding – and asks us to consider the history that has led us to the predicaments of the present.
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.