Archive: Issue No. 86, October 2004

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Artist Nicholas Hlobo discusses the impetus for his inaugural 'Art Talk'
by Kresta Tyler Johnson

All too often people in the South African arts community discuss problems, issues and ideas among themselves, but then forget or neglect the importance and need to share these with others in order to resolve the problems, create solutions, and realise ideas. Then again, others will argue that when people in the arts do meet to talk, all they do is talk without creating results.

Nonetheless, artist Nicholas Hlobo decided in the altruistic manner that drives much of his work, that he would embark on just that: creating a talk. The debut 'Art Talk: The Importance of Writing and Preserving our Arts Heritage' was held on August 29 at Gallery MOMO. The list of guest speakers included Pitso Chinzima from JAG, Sipho Mdanda from Freedom Park Museum and artist, curator and critic Kathryn Smith.

The description for the talk and the calibre of speakers piqued my interest, so I sat down with Hlobo prior to the event to find out more about his initiative.

A buoyant individual, Hlobo possesses a unique spirit and ability to eloquently convey his desires and visions. I began by inquiring why he created another seminar and how it might actually succeed. He responded by explaining that he envisioned accomplished individuals in the arts sharing their stories and experiences with the aim of inspiring young writers. The idea is to motivate more and more new talent by showing them that they too can participate in the writing and creating of the history of art in South Africa.

Hlobo contends that the lack of arts writers, particularly black arts writers, is compounded by the minimal media attention allocated to the arts, as well as the lack of institutions offering specific courses for writing or curating.

Hlobo described how fine arts courses push artists to create art but fail to teach them how to write about their art. Upon completion of a degree, students may leave with the ability to create a phenomenal work of art, but they are clueless when it comes to describing, writing about or promoting that very same work.

Not trying to play the race card, but recognising the reality, Hlobo said he wants to 'start addressing what I find as a problem. Blacks leave writing and art critiquing to whites, saying 'that's a white thing''. Until that mentality can be abolished it will be difficult 'to develop ourselves and re-dress our past. We have to act on that and not wait for someone from the outside. A lot of us can write but feel it's not our duty. Hopefully the view can change with talks and how we look at things.'

During our entire conversation there was never a note of blame, guilt or an inclination that I should feel sorry for anyone. Hlobo was being honest and describing reality as he sees it, while trying to determine what he could do to improve in areas where he sees faults.

Hlobo was preaching for the entire practice of art theory to be elevated and taken seriously by everyone, but especially blacks. He is trying to find a way for blacks in particular to stop being disgruntled and learn how to benefit from their own art and artistic practices without relying upon others to speak and write for them.

'Life is about competing,' Hlobo said, 'I want to help artists engage and write 'our' (translated to me as largely black but also South African) arts heritage and then 'we' won't be complaining.'

Acknowledging the importance of oral histories in so much black culture in South Africa, Hlobo said it is important to maintain that but you 'need a balance'. He argues that among many black artists he knows, there is 'good critic but it stays within us. We need to write about our art, and our impressions'. Then an accurate and fair translation or critique will be available.

The initial seminar in the 'Art Talk' series took place under the umbrella of Imbazo, an organisation that Hlobo helped to found last year. Imbazo is intended to be a group that looks at inner-city public art intervention and education.

As we sat in the caf´┐Ż at JAG, Hlobo expressed his frustration looking out into the park behind the building. He said, 'likely not one individual out there even knows what happens in here'. He wants to correct that: 'Art should not always be difficult, it should be accessible because that is what freedom is.'

Hlobo is certainly focused on the bigger picture and he wants to engage the public and promote other artists. He poignantly described his work saying, '(T)rying to help improve lives improves me too'.

A genuinely devoted artist, Nicholas Hlobo is certainly one to watch. Next up is a second seminar, but hopefully prior to that there may be a follow-up writing seminar in light of the successful turn-out at the debut 'Art Talk'. Future writers, especially black writers are out there and Hlobo is determined to reach them.

Hlobo continually impressed me as he is well grounded with a realistic perspective and a recognition that to foster change you must first change the embedded mentality and allow people to realise what is possible. He is a visionary without being an idealist.