Goodman Gallery Johannesburg
Sam Nhlengethwa’s work, like that of his spiritual antecedent Romare Bearden, has always incorporated references to culture beyond art. Many years ago, I took a group of kids from Crawford College to visit Nhlengethwa at an artist’s residency. I was amused by the fact that he spent most of the session talking about jazz and how it influences his thinking, and very little directly about art. In fact, a recent discussion between Nhlengethwa and William Kentridge at the Wits Art Museum focused on each artist’s passion for incorporating music and sound into their work, whether directly in Kentridge’s sprawling stage productions, or more subtly in Nhlengethwa’s subject matter and ‘sampling’ ethos.
Nhlengethwa’s works have often focused on the human figure. This has been in the form of performers (Diva on Stage, a painted collage from 2009 featuring a jazz chanteuse, and the artist’s masterful lithographs of John Coltrane from 2015 offer some examples of this); or as figures in interiors (these vary from people in homes and taverns, to the gut-wrenching It Left Him Cold, a collage/drawing from 1990 that pictures the murder in detention of activist Steve Biko).
So, it’s an interesting development to see Nhlengethwa doing a sort of recap of his time spent in and around Johannesburg, focusing mostly on buildings and spaces. The works on this show take one on a sort of tour of the city, including (of course) music and theatre venues like Kippie’s Jazz Club and The Market Square, places crucial to the cultural component of the resistance to apartheid.
Yet, the works move beyond ‘struggle nostalgia’: the artist, a mainstay of the Bag Factory Artist Studios for over 25 years, has witnessed massive changes to Greater Johannesburg. The increased cosmopolitan nature of the city since apartheid’s demise has coincided with the forces of capital flight and the transplanting of the economic core from the old CBD to the north of the city. Consequently, some of the works on ‘Joburg Selected’ take in Rosebank and Sandton, the new loci of corporate investment and commercial development.
In fact, this seems to be the central content of this exhibition: that in his time as an active artist in the city, the once-imposing monolith of the Carlton Centre and the angular glass palace on Diagonal Street have lost their lustre, literally and figuratively, and have been supplanted by even more intimidating, glittering contemporary houses of capital: the new Standard Bank building in Rosebank and the even newer, slightly preposterous The Marc in Sandton Central. Capital, and its imperatives, are mercurial, slippery even; and as one kind of living and working moves away, so the abandoned center has taken on a new, different existence.
As an adjunct to the larger works, a side gallery of ‘Sketches’ (black and white lithographs) shows places like the Alhambra Theatre in lower Hillbrow, Wits University’s Great Hall with its Greek façade, and even the fairly modest charms of Nikki’s Oasis eatery in downtown Newtown. These are some of the most engaging works on the exhibition, the slightly shaky realism of Nhlengethwa’s rendering style humanizing the somewhat bleak frontages of this mining town’s utilitarian aesthetic.
If I have a criticism of the show, it’s that one is unsure why Nhlengethwa combines paint and collage at all in a number of his works. Very often, paint is used simply to create blue skies onto which printed buildings are glued; in some cases, it is applied over sides of buildings or to paving in a way that appears cursory. The two media, pigment (sometimes Nhlengethwa utilizes pastel) and the printed image, don’t appear to have any real reason for being on the surfaces together: there’s little transformation of the photographic elements through paint, nor is there much productive tension between their physicality and visuality. Instead, they just seem to just be, in a way that seldom reveals anything of the experience of the city. Even View of Transwerke from Constitution Hill, one of the more overtly chilling images, has only a touch of scumbling in the paint on the artwork’s left side to hint at the fear and turmoil that must’ve gripped new arrivals at Johannesburg’s most infamous jail. One senses here, as in Johannesburg Art Gallery and Ponte at Night, that the artist misses some opportunities to reflect on the titular buildings’ contested histories, and their strain under the weight of neglect.
A somewhat redemptive large work, and one which rounded off my visit, is Ascot Corner a woven mohair tapestry made in collaboration with Marguerite Stephens (Stephens has work with a host of luminaries of the SA art world). This piece works wonderfully because the medium of tapestry both dissolves and complicates the little snippets of narrative that Nhlengethwa is so adept at photographing and choosing. The woven image seems to step out of the deadpan tone that attends some of the other works on this show, and into a mode that records something of an emotional response to Johannesburg’s harshness. To my mind, this may suggest a fertile future approach for Nhlengethwa, and one I’d love to see explored further.