Maitland Institute, Cape Town
14.02 – 18.05.2018
There’s a scene in Annihilation (a recent psychedelic, sci-fi flick featuring Natalie Portman living her best, bad-ass, soldier-scientist life) where a team of soldier-scientists stumble upon the remains of what may once have been human but has now undergone a kind of reverse anthropomorphisation into something that bares little likeness to anything mammalian. The bones are there, yes, but the trunk and extremities are spliced with various other organic matter: moulds and fungi that dazzle in rainbow hues; roots and tendrils that fan outward in intricate and profane arrangements. The skull sits atop the monumental structure in a frozen scream as though imploring god or, simply, beholding the sky. It is a sight at once fantastic and horrifying. An unholy harbinger, signalling the end of the Anthropocene. In Umthamo, Nicholas Hlobo and Cinga Samson manifest something almost approximate, though leaning more toward the fantastic than the horrific.
For me, Hlobo’s work has always veered toward the delightfully morbid and fantastically grotesque. A visual language typified by a fixation on rendering and un-rendering form. Allusions to entrails melded with human forms to create apocalyptic beings, denizens of the underworld or some unimaginable future. And it is this particular macabre mythos that gives Umthamo a truly otherworld quality.
Upon entering the Maitland Institute one is met with Samson’s Diced Pineapples II: a somewhat, gothic portrait of a young man with flowers cradled in his arms against what I initially took to be an enormous moon but may also just be an empty sky. The man is rendered in near pitch black, his stare both solemn and serene and almost sensual. “The Man Who Saw the End of Time” I thought. I wasn’t initially convinced by the supposed “intergenerational dialogue” this piece was meant to symbolize in the space in juxtaposition with Hlobo’s copper sculptures. However, on further consideration, and upon being lured into the scenery in the portrait that was so eerily reconfigured in such tactile forms in Hlobo’s sculptures, I soon began to appreciate the allegory. The natural scenery in the background- branches, leaves, trees and long grass- are meant to echo the movement dynamics of Hlobo’s sculptures and vice versa. However, I found the throughline between these works in their shared quality of alluding to a kind of sombre, post-apocalyptic future/past. It is in the sombre and severe serenity in the young man’s eyes that I see the world Hlobo has made manifest. As though the man we see depicted is watching the end of time and the dawning of an unimaginable age of copper fauna and flora. A final chapter to our age of industry and ecological plunder.
In this world, the copper pipes which Hlobo has wrought are given an unwieldy sentience. Bursting from the ground – as if of their own volition – they sprawl across the floor and toward the sky, as any organic matter would, as though seeking sunlight. What Hlobo gives us is a snapshot of an explosion of life. The sheer magnitude and velocity of movement the copper tendrils evoke almost keeps one at bay lest they should be taken out of stasis and absorb all life in its path. Hlobo frames Umthamo as a meditation on “volume within volumes”, a reference to the voluminous space the exhibition inhabits in the Maitland Institute. The space does a lot to enhance the scope of the work as one cannot help but look upward at the industrial architecture when confronted with the mammoth copper constructions.
The air above and between the sculptures almost becomes a third material that Hlobo manipulates into a witnessable entity manipulated by the presence of the copper construction. Hlobo makes the air densify in response to the voluminous constructions it seems to almost hold aloft. It speaks to Hlobo’s spatial sensitivities that he can construct objects that can inhabit a space in such a way that they increase the appreciation of volume within that space. It takes a deft hand and a crafty eye to appreciate how to make space while taking up space. The air between and above the sculptures seems itself to be held in some kind of stasis.
Alongside the sheer voluminous mass of the copper constructions, I was also struck by how austere the exhibition was. The industrial aesthetic of the Maitland Institute architecture does much to heighten this austerity. There is none of the material excess I associate with Hlobo’s work but the experience of excess remains. Perhaps due to the volume of the objects and the way in which they sprawl into the space. This is a quiet kind of excess: the lushness of expansive wheat fields as a breeze runs through them, silent as a stream. And perhaps this is the “stepping stone” Hlobo alludes to in the write up of the exhibition: manifesting excess through minimalism; holding multiple incongruences through rigorous congruence.
Umthamo holds something of a mystery though its declarations are, seemingly, bold and forthright. The magic lies in that mystery as it is a kind of everyday alchemy. A precise configuration of mundanity elevated to the magical. I remember walking into the space as the sun was streaming through one of the windows and having an unnameable sense of nostalgia settle upon me. There was something almost church-like about the serenity of the space making me, the uninvited parishioner, cautious of my steps and conscious of even my breathing. Both a crypt and a place of worship; a graveyard for a bygone era and the threshing grounds of a new age dawning.