Conversations is an exhibition of new work by Sam Nhlengethwa that portrays the exuberance of the city of Johannesburg and its people.
To Nhlengethwa, this show is an instinctive thematic progression from his earlier work and he describes it as a review of his previous subjects in the context of conversation. Nhlengethwa uses the large-scale cityscape, Cyclists Mural, as the core vision for the show. It was the first piece in the series that he worked on and it took him more than three months to complete. The elevated view eastwards of the city, from his apartment in Newtown, inspired the piece. First, he began mapping out the architecture of the city and then, as he peopled the scene, the theme for Conversations, he says, “began to flow”.
This, as well as a range of new work, focuses on conversation as a basic human interaction in a selection of social contexts: ebullient schoolgirls on a bustling city street, a couple intimately sharing an umbrella, a group of men smoking together after dark. Several of the pieces depict conversations between young men, some located at an initiation school, wrapped in their characteristic grey blankets. These are images of ritualistic communion, charged with anxious anticipation. In the context of conversation, the ceremonial and the everyday comfortably hang alongside each other.
In Nhlengethwa’s last solo show at Goodman Gallery Johannesburg, Kind of Blue (2010), he paid exclusive homage to the landmark Miles Davis album of the same title. Consequently, his work was constrained in terms of subject matter, location and the use of a subdued colour palette. In contrast, Conversations has allowed him complete chromatic freedom. The boisterous use of colour animates the works and lends a levity to the exchanges that they depict.
There is a continued focus on interiors in this show, with the distinction that the stark emptiness of his former interiors has now been populated. Whereas, in the past, Nhlengethwa did not want to “disturb the quietness of the interiors”, he has ushered people into these rooms and allowed their voices to fill the space. As part of his representation of these communal spaces, Nhlengethwa has also included several pieces inspired by a meal shared at his parents’ home, during which he noticed the shadows of his family talking, reflected on the wall.
The titles of the works came to Nhlengethwa as snippets of overheard conversations; some topical, some trivial. He has “always been inspired by people and their surroundings” and these images represent the vitality and humour of the people of Johannesburg. According to Nhlengethwa, to read the titles is to hear the conversations and to think, “This is us”.
The show is comprised of a works in a variety of media including etchings, lithographs, lino prints, tapestries and Nhlengethwa’s hallmark collage, oil and acrylic works.
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 (Re)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.
Sam Nhlengethwa was born in the black township community of Payneville near Springs (a satellite mining town east of Johannesburg), in 1955 and grew up in Ratanda location in nearby Heidelberg. In the 1980s, he moved to Johannesburg where he honed his practice at the renowned Johannesburg Art Foundation under its founder Bill Ainslie.
Nhlengethwa is one of the founders of the legendary Bag Factory in Newtown, in the heart of the city, where he used to share studio space with fellow greats of this pioneering generation of South African artists, such as David Koloane and Pat Mautloa.
Despite Nhlengethwa’s pioneering role in South Africa art, his work has received rare visibility in London. A major survey exhibition, titled Life, Jazz and Lots of Other Things, was hosted by SCAD Museum of Art in Savannah, Georgia in 2014, which was then co-hosted in Atlanta by SCAD and the Carter Center.
Other notable exhibitions and accolades in South Africa and around the world include: in 1994 – the year South Africa held its first democratic elections – Nhlengethwa was awarded the prestigious Standard Bank Young Artist of the Year award; in 1995, his work was included in the Whitechapel Gallery’s Seven Stories About Modern Art in Africa in London; in 2000, he participated in a two-man show at Seippel Art Gallery in Cologne.
Other significant international group exhibitions include Constructions: Contemporary Art from South Africa at Museu de Arte Contemporanea de Niteroi at in Brazil in 2011, Beyond Borders: Global Africa at the University of Michigan Museum of Art in 2018.
Nhlengethwa’s work has featured on a number of international biennales: in 2003, his work was included in the 8th Havana Biennale, Southern African Stories: A Print Collection, the 12th International Cairo Biennale in 2010, the 2013 Venice Biennale as part of the South African pavilion, titled Imaginary Fact: Contemporary South African Art and the Archive, and in the 6th Beijing Biennale in 2015.
Nhlengethwa’s practice features in important arts publications, such as Phaidon’s The 20th Century Art Book (2001).