Goodman Gallery presents Interiors continued, a new series of painting-collages created in recent months by South African artist Sam Nhlengethwa in his home studio in Benoni, an hour outside of Johannesburg.
Over the course of his career, Nhlengethwa – dubbed “one of the country’s most celebrated living artists”1 – has developed a distinctive collage and painting practice while exploring themes of Interiors and Tributes. These bodies of work have become a primary space for the artist to tap into his deep passion for jazz and pay tribute to cultural icons, such as Miriam Makeba and Ron Carter – figures writ large in South Africa’s cultural consciousness who recur throughout Nhlengethwa’s work.
According to the artist: “In doing these tributes and the interiors I am taken down memory lane to a time when I was a set designer at SABC. There we were dealing with space – vacated space. The tributes ape that empty space, but with the hanging paintings of these specific individuals, they are injected with a sense of vibrancy.”
Earlier Interiors works dating from the early 1990’s reflect this emptiness which the artist describes as “a distinct sense of loneliness one encounters as an artist working alone while family and friends are out living their lives”.
The suite of seven painting-collages that make up Interiors continued were made under the unique circumstances of a nationwide lockdown, confining the artist to his home studio but with his family surrounding him. Works such as Bathroom and My daughter’s grand piano carry direct references to Nhlengethwa’spersonal domestic space in this unique time.
Critic Thuli Gamedze highlights meditative quality found in Nhlengethwa’s practice, turning his canvases into “a deeply philosophical thinking space […] holding all possible futures upon its surface […] the place for all potential universes – the place before it all comes crashing down.2”
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.