Nicholas Hlobo at Michael Stevenson
by Katherine Jacobs
Much contemporary art remains somewhat inaccessible; too sacred for a sense as profane as touch. A 20th century aesthetician, Frances W. Herring referred to touch as the neglected sense; one which has been associated with the erotic and therefore frowned upon by those with what Herring refers to as 'a Puritanical upbringing' (1949:208). Indeed, 'Do Not Touch' is the silent cry that issues from the cold, unfriendly, inaccessible, sacred art object we are familiar with.
Writing on the subject of Modernist painting, Richard Shiff argues that the use of the materiality of the paint works against this distancing effect, activating a sense of touch. Instead of a 'centralised, abstracted and distanced' visual sense of knowledge - that 'totalised panoramic image' - the activation of touch forces the viewer on a slow journey around the territory of the painting (Shiff 1991:42) like a walk on foot through real terrain, instead of an illusion of a bird's eye view on an impersonal flat map. Nicholas Hlobo's current show is a similarly tactile one, in need of a similar level of personal engagement from the viewer.
The title, 'Kwatsiykw'iziko', or 'crossing the hearth', refers to the custom of walking across the floor to lie with one's spouse in Xhosa traditional custom, an activity which, I would suggest, Hlobo's viewer is also encouraged to undertake. The works seduce the viewer to get up close, making one's fingers itch to get to grips with the rubbery inner tubes, sewn with ridges of satin ribbon, and flounces of slippery organza. With an aesthetics of physical attraction rather than distancing smooth perfection, the works take the viewer from passive observer to a reader with a physical relationship to the works.
Ndimnandi Ndindodwa is perhaps one of the most appropriate works to demonstrate this kind of tactile aesthetics. A voluptuous rubber form is slumped onto a leather armchair, its edges flowing out like tentacles or flappy, flobbery fins, onto the floor. An exaggeratedly large phallic protuberance pushes up through the elastic rubber, while a web of silicone sealer glistens like a spider's web caught in the morning sun under one of the chair legs. Stitched together with red ribbon and plumed with sconces of iridescent orange organza, the surfaces are all seductive, tempting one to touch, though the colours orange and black signal something slightly dangerous.
Ndimnandi Ndindodwa, 'to lay one's hand on oneself' as it euphemistically translates, is, of course, all about touch. Here, the index of the artist's touch, left behind in the deliberately large stitches in hyper-visible ribbon, leaves tracks around the form, inviting the viewer's curious fingers to explore the same paths. As Shiff suggests, in a tactile aesthetics, the viewer is addressed 'as collaborator and equal'; the common sense of touch reminding us of our own bodiliness (1991:47). Far from being able to remain aloof, an invisible voyeur, the viewer enters into the erotic act, their desire to touch the tactile surface implicating them.
Another particularly seductive, welcoming work is Chumisa. Swathes of crinkly red organza shot with blue are draped from tensile wires, forming a warm, red, tent-like structure, open to the viewer on one end, and tapering off in white gauze to form a thinning, chrysalis-like tube on the other. The warm red space is somewhat womb-like, and welcomes one to enter in childlike wonder; it could be a magical childhood tent, a playhouse or a place of safety. Indeed, the vision comes complete with cuddly organza forms, stuffed with batting to form engorged, humorously large tadpoles, their tails tapering off with ribbons in fairground pastels and reds.
This sense of welcome, this invitation to get inside and come into contact with Hlobo's installation, functions to get one to personally interact with Hlobo's more heavy terrain. Seduced by the physicality and tactile nature of the shimmery organza, one almost wants to wander inside the enormous testicle, to enjoy the quality of the light suffused through the thin membrane pumped with the red blood of veins, and blue of arteries and crêpey flesh-like folds. Before one knows it, one has wandered into the mountainous terrain.
The texture of the organza, which Hlobo used also in his 2005 'Izele' show, suggests for Hlobo 'sex without a lubricant among men', 'dry sex'', as it is 'slippery when dry' (Hlobo 2005:online). The visual connotations are equally heavy; apart from the obvious reference to the testicle, the warm cosy little space could be an anal cavity, fertilised, as the title suggests, with cuddly sperms and/or disease, tapering off into an intestine-like form. Or maybe it is a womb, the tail an umbilicus. Do we read homosexual sex in the same light of fertility as the heterosexual variety? Possibly, the tail is also a DNA strand; a challenge to the power of tradition and one's heritage.
Thus a fundamentally masculine space inside a testicle can speedily transform; a transvestite, dressing up as a womb-like feminine cavity complete with a débutante's coming-out organza dress. Hlobo's visual play reminds us of the things we have in common; the bodiliness that is common to both genders, to both artwork and viewer. Though machine-sewn by and large, this piece is still thoroughly bodily, containing indices of the artist's touch in the holes in the organza in places, the threads that have not been removed, or finished off as a seamstress might. Like brushstrokes left behind by a self-conscious painter these small mistakes or imperfections serve to make the work all the more friendly and human.
In the pieces that are handsewn, Hlobo's 'brushstroke' is even more visible. Using satin ribbon instead of thinner, more illusionistic sewing thread, Hlobo repeatedly makes the index of his touch, his procreative act, visible for the viewer. In Izinqanda Mathe, a leather saddle fitted with a pair of drooping, exaggerated rubber sacks and rather proudly erect rubber dildo, the stitching serves to bring together two different skins. The leather, a cow's skin made to fit a horse, the rubber a car's (the horse's replacement, and index of industrialisation for Hlobo), and where the rubbery man-made quality of the inner tube fuses with the smoothed old leather, little ridges of satin ribbon are pushed up (Hlobo 2005: online). Like heavy saddlebags or bulbous feet or enlarged testes, the union of the traditional with the contemporary makes something of a weight for this cowboy to carry.
As is evident on Hlobo's wall-size visual diary opposite, the title comes from a deconstruction of the artist's own name. One of his names, 'Bathandwe' is
translated as 'beloved', leading presumably to the title which means 'the Loved One', while 'Nicholas', whose Greek root means 'victory of the people', leads Hlobo into a meditation on slave names: 'Most South Africans have a problem about their foreign name, slave name, Christian names', Hlobo writes on his visual diary, 'I feel it's part and parcel of my heritage since it's our history'. Indeed, here Hlobo's meditation on tradition and relationships, is one of stitching together, bringing together different influences. The 'Loved One' here, a product of a crossing of the hearth, a physical sexual interaction which might be his own creative artistic act or the procreative acts of ancestors.
Hlobo's drawings however, are perhaps the place where the index of his touch is most evident. Here the stitching which previously served a joining function as well as decorative purpose is used for its own ends - as a drawn line across the paper. These lines, however, still operate in three dimensions and act in a tactile sense. They form plait-like ridges across the paper, the tension of the sewing distorting and curving it scandalously out of its austere flatness. Far from gazing at a distance, one wants to get up close and run one's fingers along the ridges and slowly trace the abstracted forms Hlobo outlines.
The connotations of doing so would of course implicate the viewer. Injeke, or 'offal', (perhaps a suggestive reference to the 'inner tubes' Hlobo works with) contains two pairs of legs which seem to fuse around one torso, yet the material is also used for its own ends, dripping off the edges of the paper in plaits and knotted cords, a tactile play which expands the medium to its most three dimensional. Another ribbon drawing, Umphokoqo, (the equally tactile and somewhat suggestive foodstuff, 'dry mieliepap') also contains rubber, which bends the surface into a wave. Hlobo of course is aware of the single-mindedness of his rubber noting that it 'tends to take on a shape of its own despite being cut into a particular shape' (Hlobo 2005:online). As a living, active element which is activated 'in the making' then, the rubber creates a living fleshy surface not unlike the paint which drips or creates hills and dells, forcing the viewer into the particular 'intimate conversation' which Hlobo is holding (Shiff 1991:47).
The materiality of Hlobo's medium, and his ability to play with its connotations, are complementary and bring the viewer into a more open conversation around sexuality. A far cry from the isolated sculpture on a pedestal, Hlobo's amorphous flowing forms enter the visitor's space as the visitor gazes at them and as such ask some pretty candid questions of one's conceptions of gender, sexuality and tradition. As Shiff points out, 'obviously a hand that touches is also touched by whatever it contacts - touch, in other words, is reciprocal' (1991:43).
This effect is perhaps heightened for those viewers who will not have instant access to his isiXhosa titles. As Herring points out, 'Only the blind have developed a language of touch', (1949:201) and perhaps being forced to actually look at the work instead, for a change, is not a bad thing. Having said that, Hlobo's titles are of course equally layered, textural pieces of language, using the nuances and connotations of the isiXhosa language, and it is a pity that many viewers miss out on this. Some may of course be tempted to find out the meaning of the words, but I suspect this will be a minority. However, I really appreciate that Hlobo has not translated (and thereby simplified or flattened the work) for his non-isiXhosa speaking viewers. Apart from anything else, there is pride in that. Equally I hope that an isiXhosa-speaking critic will take up Hlobo's call to arms in his 'Art Talk' in which he calls on black writers to engage in art criticism too (Johnson 2004:online), and that someone will read the richly textured surface of Hlobo's language, and balance out what is here: an overly sensual interpretation of Hlobo's forms, with a bit of intellect.
Herring, F, W. 1949. 'Touch: the neglected sense' in The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 7(3). 199-215
Hlobo, N. 2005. 'Ungayindoda - one who looks almost like a woman'. [online] Available:http://www.michaelstevenson.com/contemporary/exhibitions/hlobo/index2008.htm Last accessed: March 20, 08
Hlobo, N. 2005a. 'Artist's Statement on materials and process'. [online] Available: http://www.michaelstevenson.com/contemporary/exhibitions/materials/hlobo.htm Last Accessed: March 20, 08
Johnson, K, T. 2004. 'Artist Nicholas Hlobo Discusses the Impetus for his Inaugural 'Art Talk''. [online] available:http://www.artthrob.co.za/04oct/news/hlobo.html Last Accessed: March 20, 08
Michael Stevenson 2008. 'Nicholas Hlobo Kwatsiyw'iziko' [online] Available: http://www.michaelstevenson.com/