Nicholas Hlobo’s ‘Ulwamkelo’ at Lehmann Maupin
Ulwamkelo, which runs through Aug. 24, is Nicholas Hlobo’s second exhibition at Lehmann Maupin in New York, following his debut last year with Umkhokeli. The titles, both in Xhosa, a language of South Africa, translate respectively as, “the welcoming,” and “master” or “leader.” The latest exhibition’s title is a greeting addressed to some of the works on view, which were recovered from a robbery that took place in the artist’s Johannesburg studio in 2017. The works in Ulwamkelo echo Hlobo’s last exhibition at the gallery in terms of their formats. For example, Hlobo continues to employ materials like ribbon and leather, using techniques like sewing and puncturing stark white canvases to produce sculptural wall works.
In the work Phantsi Komngcunube (2017, Xhosa for “underground”), for example, the artist assembles four identical white canvases together as a square, with a few inches’ border between them. He marks the resulting overall plane as if it is one continuous drawing, puncturing small holes to delineate organic, twisting lines, that emanate from a central form. Hlobo uses these small holes to string white ribbon like a needle and thread, attaching black leather as flat shapes, or building it up into a three dimensional, abstract figure with appendages that extend out towards the viewer and down beyond the picture plane, piling onto the floor. Similarly, in Intlantsana (2017, Xhosa for “tricky”), Hlobo uses the same technique but works the white ground of the canvas into a sculptural form, bending it using the same hole-and-ribbon technique to produce an abstract pattern that resembles a mysterious, topographical map.
Hlobo has been open about the ways in which his work is anchored in his South African identity and in his sexuality. His materials are symbols for feminine and masculine dualities between which he struggles to locate his subjectivity within his own part of the world. Between Xhosa, his mother tongue, and English, the language he uses to speak about his work (and also the predominant language of the art world), he uses materials and gestures to work out ideas and tell stories that he cannot express in any of his tongues. Hlobo is also explicit about the sexual nature of many of his works, which he achieves through the use of leather, binding, and playing with the phallic quality of musical instruments.
For instance, in his sculpture Mphephethe uthe cwaka (Element 2) (2017), he elongates a small, classic horn in copper and twists the long end like a balloon animal into an abstract shape. He adorns the horn end with some sort of metal emblem and two tassels, then closes the other end (which would usually be pressed to the musician’s mouth) with a phallus-shaped bead. The works’ effects come together through the interplay of materials, form, and the language Hlobo uses to name them in his titles. In this work, the silence associated with matters of sexuality — particularly homosexuality in South Africa — remain outside of language, yet find a clear mode of expression.
Ulwamkelo by Nicholas Hlobo runs through August 24 at Lehmann Maupin, 536 West 22nd Street New York, NY 10011.
July 23, 2021
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