The artist combines anthropomorphic imagery and cultural symbols and traditions to create amalgamated forms that feel at once familiar, alien, and ancient. Hlobo’s practice engages themes of self-discovery and explores the intersections of his race, gender, and cultural and sexual identity within the context of his South African heritage. In his newest body of work, the artist introduces colorful acrylic paint for the first time, returning to a classic fine art medium that he has not employed since he was a student. Hlobo’s combination of acrylic with his signature leather and satin ribbon interventions unites craft and fine art materials within a single canvas, reflecting his enduring interest in resisting strict dichotomies and hierarchies in favor of fluid hybridity.
The works in Elizeni Ienkanyiso comprise a menagerie of reptilian and aquatic animals, including turtles, lizards, snakes, and hatchlings. Hlobo described the experience of creating these pieces as a process of “finding joy or warmth” after the effects of the global pandemic, and this sentiment is echoed in these animal’s cold-blooded nature and their need to seek heat to survive and flourish. The show’s title, which translates from Xhosa to “on the wave of enlightenment” is taken from the only circular canvas in the exhibition. In this work, the artist interprets the abstract forms and swirls as resembling a human-like figure surfing a giant wave. Considering the many metaphorical “waves” of the COVID-19 pandemic, here Hlobo implies recent demands to navigate global uncertainty and hardship and suggests that through traversing these difficult waters we can come to a new, more profound understanding of self and society.
Image: Nicholas Hlobo, Untitled (TBC), 2021 (detail). Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin. Photo by Anthea Pokroy