Sam Nhlengethwa's metier might be art but his inspiration is undoubtedly jazz. "Jazz simply inspires me," the Johannesburg based painter and collagist once revealed in an interview. "Of all the subjects that I have dealt with, none has been re-visited like jazz. Jazz is second nature to me." Jazz, characterised by its syncopated rhythms and individual or group improvisation around a basic theme, also suggests some useful, if rather loose tangents for exploring the output of an artist who has long concerned himself with the specificities of place - Johannesburg - and the sounds that have animated life in it.
But Nhlengethwa's output is far too wide-ranging to simply hold to the jazz conceit. It is useful in explaining his iconographic lithographs celebrating the achievements of musicians such as Abdullah Ibrahim and Miriam Makeba, but there is far more to the artist's accomplishments than studied jazz portraiture. Nhlengethwa is an artist curious about the intimacies of home, an artist drawn to the immediacy of his surroundings, and - importantly - an artist whose work has sometimes reflected upon the epochal moments defining recent South African history.
"[The show] 'Jozi People' realises Nhlengethwa's long-time ambition to image the diverse human rhythms of inner-city Johannesburg, the morphing urban realm where he himself is based, and which he considers one of his greatest inspirations."
Brenda Atkinson, 'Sam Nhlengethwa - 'Jozi People' at the Goodman Gallery, ArtThrob, October 2001
"Sam Nhlengethwa's collage is even starker. Where [Paul] Stopforth's [Elegy, 1980-1] suggests the monumentality of the martyr's corpse, Nhlengethwa presents the vulnerability of [Steve Biko's] body and its decimation through torture. The multiple perspectives are more than the mere formalities of the cut, paste, draw and paint techniques of his assemblage. They are the inscriptions of torture and dismemberment."
Andries Walter Oliphant, 'A Human Face: the death of Steve Biko and South African art', from Seven Stories About Modern Art (Whitechapel, 1995), p.258
Renowned for his collage cut-ups, Nhlengethwa's use of photomontage is noteworthy for its restraint. Whereas Berlin Dadaists Hannah Hoch and Raoul Hausmann employed photomontage in a somewhat aggressive manner, Nhlengethwa's usage is sparing, and often far less visually jarring as a result. In effect though, his works share the self-same ability of the Dadaist's, to suggest "a provocative dismembering of reality", a phrase which translates very well in explaining the prevailing mood of Nhlengethwa's pivotal 1990 collage work, It left him cold - the death of Steve Biko.
The artist however explains his method somewhat differently. "Like a jazz musician who can depart from the original melody altogether and improvise on its harmonic base, I create a well-balanced final product with interesting textures, perspective and dimensions from juxtaposing pieces from different original backgrounds."
Nhlengethwa was born into a family of jazz lovers; his two brothers both collected jazz music and his deceased eldest brother was a jazz musician. "Painting jazz pieces is an avenue or outlet for expressing my love for the music," he once said in an interview. "As I paint, I listen to jazz and visualize the performance. Jazz performers improvise within the conventions of their chosen styles. In an ensemble, for example, there are vocal styles that include freedom of vocal colour, call-and-response patterns and rhythmic complexities played by different members. Painting jazz allows me to literally put colour onto these vocal colours.
"Jazz is rhythmic and it emphasizes interpretation rather than composition. There are deliberate tonal distortions that contribute to its uniqueness. My jazz collages, with their distorted patterns, attempt to communicate all of this. As a collagist and painter, fortunately, the technique allows me this freedom of expression... What I am doing is not new though, as there are other artists before me who painted jazz pieces. For example, Gerard Sekoto, Romare Bearden and Henri Matisse."
Nhlengethwa will shortly depart for Havana, Cuba, where he will be taking part on the 8th Havana Biennial. For this event Nhlengethwa has decided to focus on relatively new subject matter: farm labourers. The artist exhibited four preliminary drawings from this series at Melville's Art on Paper earlier this year. Although somewhat uncharacteristic given the urban setting (both literal and implied) of his previous works, the East Rand locality from which he has drawn his subjects is not entirely unfamiliar.
"There's a farm around Brakpan, Wadeville side," the artist explains. "Sometimes when I go to see my sister in law, I go that route and, each time, I'd look at these farm labourers busy in the fields. One day I said to myself: I've got to give myself some time to focus on this. They first caught my eye about three or four years ago and then at the beginning of this year the time finally came and I parked my car, sat down and sketched them."
2001 was a productive year for the artist. 'Jozi People', his second solo show at the Goodman Gallery, moved the artist's focus from the cool dispassionate interiors of his previous works (the hand-printed lithographs of 'Interiors') to the outside world, to the newly appropriated spaces of urban Johannesburg. Although a resident of Benoni since 1993, Nhlengethwa has his studios at The Bag Factory in Fordsburg. "I was drawn� to movement around the city," he says.
Commenting on the muted optimism characterising his 'Jozi People' series, critic Brenda Atkinson noted that "the relative scale of the figures beside and in front of [the buildings] gives visual emphasis to the buildings' looming, inscrutable facades, distorting conventional perspective and conveying an unsettling sense that all is not as it seems. In addition, the people� seem to have nothing at all to do with each other. Some smile out at us; others hunch under caps into the collars of their jackets; some are even positioned for conversation. But the sense of their individual histories and trajectories undercuts the initial impressionistic gestalt of the bustling and connected collective."
Also in 2001, Nhlengethwa worked on a series of collaborative pieces with the photographer Zwelethu Mthethwa, works also exhibited at the Goodman. While such a pairing had the potential to produce wayward results, Nhlengethwa's familiarity with the photo image seemed to come in useful. The completed series mixed collage, canvass and photographic process, capably melding the aesthetic concerns of these two seemingly incongruous artists.
In 1995 Nhlengethwa's collage work, It left him cold - the death of Steve Biko (1990) was selected by David Koloane for inclusion on 'Seven Stories About Modern Art', an important pan-African show at London's Whitechapel Art Gallery in which South Africa was represented by a selection of explicitly political artworks. Where colour predominates in many of Nhlengethwa's works, here he allows a solemn monotone to prevail, the out-of-proportion, cutout head suggesting quite the magnitude of the brutal assault perpetrated against it. It is interesting to note that Nhlengethwa utilises a similar restraint in his depiction of mineworkers. See, for instance, Team Leaders I, 1996.
At the somewhat mature age of 39, Nhlengethwa became the recipient of the prestigious Standard Bank Young Artist of the Year Award, for 1994. That it coincided with the inaugural year of the new democracy must have simply sweetened the pleasure. In many respects this somewhat belated accolade acknowledged the tenacious spirit of an artist who, like many of his contemporaries, had been ghettoised for much of his early professional career, forced to live off scraps and the patronage of liberal artists and galleries. The award also - again belatedly - acknowledged the achievements of the Rorkes Drift Art Centre and Bill Ainslie's studios, institutions that both played important roles in Nhlengethwa's formative years as an artist.
In February 2004, Nhlengethwa will hold his third solo show at Johannesburg's Goodman Gallery. Linda Givon, of the Goodman, is very enthusiastic about his output and will also be hosting simultaneous shows in New York and Cape Town (the latter to be confirmed). A somewhat nostalgic look back, Nhlengethwa will investigate the 1950s and 1960s, and attempt to highlight some of the issues that affected people's lives back then. Commenting on how print media then predominantly used sepia and black and white, Nhlengethwa says, "the whole show will be in those colours, giving the work a more social documentary feel, like the Steve Biko piece I did in the past.
"It's going to be a serious show," he adds, "but in a more retrospective way. It's about how life affected us in those years. All kinds of things were happening then. It could be things like the Sharpeville Shooting and the Rivonia Trial, but it could also be soccer� or weddings and schools in the townships� Life was going on in the townships during those times. And some of the things were very inspiring. When I look at photos of my uncles, I'm inspired by the way they used to dress; the cars people were driving� These are things that will be coming to life on the canvas."
Born January 9, 1955, in Payneville, Springs, a mining community situated a short distance east of Johannesburg.
1977-8 Completed a two year Fine Art Diploma, Rorkes Drift Art Centre
1981 Group Show, Civic Centre, Kwa-Thema, Springs, Group Show, Haengi Gallery, Johannesburg
1983 Group Show, Shell Gallery, Johannesburg
1984 Group Show, Fuba Gallery, Johannesburg
1985 'Tributaries', Group Show, Africana Museum
1986 'The Thupelo Show', Fuba Gallery; Group Show, Frankfurt, West Germany with Gerhard Sekoto, David Koloane, Tony Nkotsi, Durant Sihlali and Dumisane Mabaso; Academy Gallery, Paris, France
1987 Two-man show with Madi Phala at the Fuba Art Gallery; Thupelo Show, Gaberone, Botswana; Group Show, Art Foundation, Thupelo; Group Show, Cassirer Fine Art, Johannesburg; Gallery 409, Euby Blake Cultural Centre, Baltimore, USA with Dumisane Mabaso, W. Koboka and M. Sibanda
1988 Group Show, Cassirer Fine Art, Johannesburg;
1989 Two Man Show with Gerhard Sekoto, Cassirer Fine Art
1990 Group Show, Fuba Gallery; Group Show, Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg; Two Man Show with D. Phaladi, Cassirer Fine Art, Johannesburg
1993 Solo Exhibition, traveling show, Market Gallery, Johannesburg and NSA Gallery, Durban
1994/5 Solo Exhibition, Standard Bank Young Artist Award Travelling Show
1995 Solo Exhibition, Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg
1996 'Mine Trip', Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg
1997 Group Exhibition, Kohn-Turner Gallery, Los Angeles
1998 'Interiors', Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg
1999 '<>FAST FORWARD.ZA', Van Reekum Museum of Modern Art, Appeldoorn, Netherlands; 'The Paper Show', Group Exhibition, Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg
2001 Collaborative show with Zwelethu Mthethwa, Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg
2001 'Jozi People', solo show at the Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg
Mobil, Cape Town; Johannesburg Art Gallery; Anglo American, Johannesburg; Botswana Art Museum; Sasol, Johannesburg; The German Art Museum, Frankfurt, Germany; National Gallery, Cape Town; Durban Art Gallery; Tatham Art Gallery, Pietermaritzburg; SABC, Johannesburg; Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC
NOMINATIONS & AWARDS
1988 AA Vita Awards Nominee
1991 AA Vita Awards Nominee; Triangle International Artists Workshop, New York, USA
1992 Delfina Studio Trust Summer Award, London, UK
1993 Bertrams VO Art for Africa Finalist, Johannesburg; Standard Bank Young Artist Award Winner for 1994
1994 First National Bank Vita Awards nominee, Johannesburg; TENQ African Workshop - Senegal, West Africa