Goodman Gallery, Cape Town
11.11 – 08.12.2018
In 1994, fresh off of the high of the declaration of democracy, Sam Nhlengethwa was awarded the Standard Bank Young Artist of the Year. His piece, ‘It Left Him Cold (Steve Biko)’ resonated and became synonymous with his name at the time. Now, years later, at 63, Sam has a host of artwork under his belt, and accolade after accolade to his name with international recognition that has also steeped him in reverence locally. His is a world of texture and of time. The opportunity to sit down with him and dive into his latest exhibition ‘Waiting’, was as insightful as it was compelling; with every aspect of the artworks coming to light, making way for complex conversation.
Misha Krynauw: Indulge me, and take me back to the beginning. What started your artistic career, was it something political? Personal, or both?
Sam Nhlengethwa: Truly speaking, it’s something that’s been following me for a long time…it started when I was young, from primary school to when I was in high school. I would doodle in my books. Then in 1976 with the riots, I said to myself, “With all of this happening, the riots, I need to focus on my education, it doesn’t matter which kind of education I get.” So I applied at Rorkes Drift and in ‘77, I just packed my things and went.
Nhlengethwa went on to complete a two year diploma in Fine Art, and then to exhibit extensively both locally and abroad, a journey that resulted in inclusions in London’s White Chapel, as well as Brazil’s 12th International Cairo Biennale Museu de Arte Contemporânea de Niterói 2011. His style is a collection of collage, coal and colour; making use of archival material to layer the depths of what he’s observed, what he’s lived and loved.
MK: When it comes to the concept of ‘Waiting’, did this stem from your own ideas of waiting, or more from a point of observation?
SN: A bit of both. In passing, you’ll see people waiting, and you’re also waiting, but (you’ll pacify yourself) and say ag, it’s just, it’s just waiting (it’s normal way of living). But…it is not. And then, I drive out of the city, all the time, to go to my studio, and then this concern sort of, dawned on me; this is a matter of urgency. I need to get into this. Now, this exhibition has opened my eyes about people who are waiting, and those various forms…and I’d remember going home, in the winter-time and just seeing these silhouettes of people queueing for the taxis, and you know those people have been working all day. The fatigue, and knowing how long the trip will take to get home, some of them, some women, must cook for their families. So, it becomes a bit emotional…and I don’t even want to talk about the depression of going to Home Affairs.
MK: Do you think that there is a common denominator in the kind of person tasked to wait in these daily forms you’ve touched on in your work?
SN: Yes, especially with those who are poor; they are helpless, they don’t have a voice, so… that’s the part that really touches me. I think the idea of waiting, like you said, can perpetuate a certain sense of self-worth. So many things that go wrong in our country affect the masses, and the masses are not being listened to.
MK: Would you say that this too orbits around a lack of respect for the working and “lower” class? It’s something so prevalent today, and something I think that ties in quite sinisterly with waiting.
SN: Yes, I think so. I was saying to my wife, waiting; we wait for politicians to step down, but then they don’t, you know? So there’s an arrogance in the way the poor are treated, and it’s so painful because [the politicians] need those numbers, those are the numbers they need to be voted in. But they don’t give good service, they don’t value those same people. I mean, we would complain about streets, waiting for them to be fixed, waiting for this, and that, but you know – is it, are we a patient nation? Or are we just being ignored by those officials?
MK: I think it goes further as well, I think it’s also reflected in our self-respect and our respect for one another. In this sense, waiting is another form of oppression.
SN: Correct. I don’t know, I think my show could highlight some thorny issues within us, because people say, “Oh, Sam did this. And now, here I am, waiting for this service to happen.” Even with my previous show, the recycling guys; there were so many people after that show, saying “Sam you have opened our eyes because we treated these guys like they were a pain, you know?” And I said, “Those guys take themselves seriously. Those guys…I followed them, they wake up very early; around four, and they go home at about eight.” They’re very busy and I wanted to pay attention to that, to them. People applauded that, it encouraged a respect for those men. I know, because there’s a way society treats those men. And I try to put our concerns on the table, as a nation, but I don’t know if those officials are listening.
In Nhlengethwa’s pieces, ‘SASSA?!’, ‘Home Affairs’, ‘Evening Queue’, ‘Waiting for a Doctor’, ‘Waiting for a Piece Job’, we see the presence of the malignant mundanity that has infiltrated the lives of many South Africans. However, the world of waiting takes many forms in the lives of locals; there are intimacies, candids, fears, sorrows and anticipation. We see someone suspended in limbo, in ‘One More Shot’, and another, far more renowned someone, in ‘Winnie Waiting for Madiba’ as well. We see secrets move in ‘The Conversation’ and, we see tragedy in ‘…to be rescued I’ and ‘…to be rescued II’. The collective of ‘Waiting’ embodies every facet of consequence that has left us in stasis. It also brings forth the question of how we’ve managed to exist within the tension of waiting; the thought of what has pacified us for so long, and exactly what the results are of generations of South Africans silencing themselves under the guise of “that’s just how it is.”
Sam has touched on the issues around these themes before focusing solely on them in ‘Waiting’. In his 1996 series, ‘Mines’, where his pieces ‘Down Memory Lane ‘, and ‘Underground’ lingered for me. ‘Townships’ as well, highlighted the lives of those who persist despite their proximity to the nexus of waiting. ‘Lotto Q (Kwa-Themba)’, 2006, and ‘Hair Salon’, 2006 held my attention as a matter of nuances of capitalism as well as waiting in his previous works.
MK: Stylistically, for this exhibition, I noticed that there were some coal pieces, and some with collage and some without. Is there an underlying correlation there?
SN: Here, I was displaying my skill in the various mediums, so there’s nothing specific. But, I mean, I could collage and paint a night scene like the ladies of the night, but then I could also create a night scene just using charcoal, like I did with the taxi queues. So…I just, I become bored if I do a show of just only paintings. We need to spice it with print-making and with drawings.
MK: Having dedicated yourself to the spectrum of waiting for this exhibition, you must have touched on lighter themes as well?
SN: Of course, there is some humour, in my themes. There’s that piece, someone was saying, “Sam, do you know who this guy was, who was waiting for his bride?” and I say no, because it’s just one of those things – it’s one of those things that you see. And the guy, leaning against the pole, we know he’s waiting for someone. We know something’s going to happen. Of course, I always spice my themes with Jazz one way or the other, and that brought in Waiting Behind the Stage and Waiting for the Jazz Band.
MK: I know you had some time between this exhibition and the last, but is there going to be another ‘hiatus’, or what’s next?
SN: I just finished a residency in France, and there have been the usual commissions and the like, but you give yourself that gap, you try to. But it looks like I’m immediately starting on a new show, and we’re also going to put together my retrospective of prints I’ve been making since school until now.
MK: And what about another monograph?
SN: Yes, we’re long overdue on that. It should happen. I know we’re going to have a publication of this show, some prints, but we should talk about another monograph. Definitely.