Stevenson, Cape Town
08.12.16 – 21.01.17
So, full confession. I missed the opening of Nicholas Hlobo’s ‘Sewing Saw’ at Stevenson last week. Crowds overwhelm me and the event – Hlobo’s first solo at the Cape Town gallery since 2009 – was packed. As a result I lost out on some of the works as they were intended to be seen, animated and inhabited by a cast of one-night-only performers. To me, in an otherwise empty gallery on Saturday morning, Sewing Saw seemed monumentally still and curiously reticent. The past tense of the artworks on display, not their present.
The show pivots on an installation centrepiece, UmBhovuzo: The Parable of the Sower. Three sets of desks and chairs tower above the viewer on legs like stilts, delicate but not flimsy. Each carries an antique sewing machine from which spills a swathe of fabric that knots and distends as it descends to the floor. On opening night black men in white gowns stooped over these machines, meticulously mending the cloth. Now de-peopled, the scene is cleanly excised from time; the gowns sloughed off and shoes kicked to the floor in a way that suggests not so much an end to labour as its suspension. It’s a generative pause that forces the viewer to perform the reparative gestures in their imagination – to project into and through the objects – but also succeeds in keeping us at a distance. The scale plays a big part in this. At two metres high, the furniture is both ordinary and impossible, disrupting expectations in a way that demands we see them anew.
Hlobo has always had a knack for this sort of evocative storytelling. He’s a master of sense-memory, using a range of formal stimuli to inspire a subversive affective response whose exact cause and object remains enigmatic. The title of this work hints at this tactic. The parable of the sower is told in all three synoptic gospels. It’s essentially an agriculture analogy for the nature and value of faith, with a fairly well-known punchline: that is, that God’s word can only take root in fertile soil (read, a receptive mind) and only there will it bear fruit. Hlobo is using the reference to prompt thoughts of growth, healing and renewal and for the superficial charm of the sew-sow (so-so) pun. But there’s more to the parable’s message. In its original telling, the story is so opaque that Jesus has to explain it to his disciples, but he withholds this explanation from a wider audience. Before understanding can be reached, Christ says, work must be done. Nothing comes easily, especially not God. In a way the parable of the sower is also a story about the labour of interpretation and its shortcomings. It makes for an elegant metaphor for Sewing Saw as a whole, really, because of the show’s strategic elusiveness, more rewarding in some works than others.
The counterpoint to UmBhovuso is Intsimbi edlezinye, the saw in ‘sewing saw’. A circular saw has partially severed an umbilical cord of fabric, which transforms first into a leather sleeve and later into industrial plastic piping which winds across the gallery floor. Like much of the artist’s sculptural work, the effect is quasi-figurative – there’s something uncomfortably organic about the swollen leather and thus viscerally upsetting about the cut. Paired with UmBhovuso the metaphor is self-explanatory, destruction and creation as opposing ends of the same process. The title, roughly translating as ‘a metal that eats other metals’, doubles as an idiomatic reference to the power of God, making it a near-perfect conceptual inversion of UmBhovuso. Religion loves a dyad, and so does Hlobo.
But I found myself wondering about the stillness of the blade. Without the presence of performers or the inclusion of any kind of documentation, the piece is oddly impotent. There’s something interesting in this – neither the stitching nor the sawing are fully realised, both are incomplete – but it also feels counterproductive; a point proffered but partial. The balancing act at the heart of the show, the stitch vs. the blade, depends on deferred action, however direct its tools.
There’s another dichotomous tension running through Sewing Saw, this time between the literal and the deliberately enigmatic, which is most apparent in Hlobo’s formal choices. The wall-works, especially the paper ground Obangulwa ngubani xa equlungene kangaka (‘Who will be able to take them out if they are deep down like this’), exemplify Hlobo’s oblique approach, and they succeed on every level. The surfaces has been cut and then lovingly re-stitiched, combining destruction and healing in a microcosm of the exhibition’s larger themes. The cuts are meandering and imperfect, more like hesitation marks, but the stitching is precise. Leather and ribbon bulges obscenely through the seams, disrupting the smooth, pale surface. There’s nothing descriptive here, nothing but an action embedded in material, yet the result is equally seductive and grotesque.
Scattered below UmBhovuso, Hlobo’s anarchic assemblages share this effect, but some are more heavy-handed in achieving it. Literally so, in the case of Uvuko (The resurrection of the dead), where a plastic mannequin’s hand has been inserted into the black fabric below a Singer sewing machine. This struck me as almost hammy, literalising the body that Hlobo invokes so subtly elsewhere. His selection of found objects, each radiating history and patterned by wear, accomplish much the same thing with greater pathos. Perhaps this is where I most needed to see the works activated by bodies, even if only by proximity, to change the way each configures presence.
There are moments in Sewing Saw that are as compelling as anything Hlobo has produced so far; more so, even. That said, I wished – longed – for the inclusion of documentation of the show’s earlier performative iteration, and the additional layer of meaning this would afford the works independently and collectively.