Through his large, colorful canvases, Johannesburg-based artist Sam Nhlengethwa asks us to look again and again at individual moments that collectively form a picture of daily life and culture.
Nhlengethwa has dedicated his career to exploring the movement of people in space through figurative painting and collage. From images of life under Apartheid, homages to jazz icons, or scenes from daily life in South Africa’s townships, his semi-abstract paintings unfurl the ever-changing world of innercity life before us.
“Bringing together different materials and techniques is a form of worlds colliding.”
‘Johannesburg Construction Workers’ (2010) is a layered, almost panoramic view of a street in the capital city. Stacked against a backdrop of skyscrapers, laborers work diligently on an expansive building site. Filled with bodies in action, the canvas buzzes with the activity of a city street, leaving very few places for the eye to rest. Yet, the neon hues of the road dividers and construction workers’ uniforms, the cool blue shadow that washes over them, and the almost-teal of the sky reflected in the glass buildings evoke a sense of calm.
Forging his distinctive visual style in the late 1970s during the Apartheid regime, when the government was violently repressing the Black Consciousness Movement, Nhlengethwa shifted his focus from making work that primarily focused on human suffering to more overtly political content. In ‘It left him cold – the death of Steve Biko’ (1990), the artist imagines the scene of the death of anti-apartheid activist, Steve Biko, after being tortured and incarcerated without trial in 1977. Using multiple perspectives and collage, Nhlengethwa gives us a flattened view of the room with Biko’s naked, isolated, and vulnerable body at the center. This powerful piece speaks to Nhlengethwa’s ability to take on political issues while still centering the humanity of his subjects.
Nhlengethwa’s combination of collage and painting is not just a choice in style. Bringing together different materials and techniques “is a form of worlds colliding,” he says. The artist often works with archival images he finds in old posters, newspapers, and magazines in order to recall the past. Nhlengethwa’s work is rhythmic, figures repeating over and over, each time adding more complexity, blending together different styles and voices to produce something unique and of the moment. It focuses on interstitial moments – moments of waiting, before or after action – and is concerned with the transition between what has happened and is about to happen.
In these moments, there is a sense of freedom that opens up so many possibilities.
An article by Rachell Marie Morillo
Featured image : Sam Nhlengethwa, ” Another Jim comes to Joburg in the 60’s”, 2015. Collage, Oil and Acrylic on Canvas. 150cm x 180cm. Courtesy of the Artist and Goodman Gallery.
This article was written for The Art Momentum | ART X Lagos 2019 Artpaper. [French version inside]
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