In Macaleni iintozomlambo 2010 a tea stain on white watercolour paper forms the basis for the drawing. Meandering tentacles of pale brown are emphasised by intense orange and red stitches and further defined and textured by pale coloured ribbon sutures around the tea stain. The shape resembles an underwater creature, with several of the stitched lines ending abruptly, like stunted limbs. The sexual connotations of the forms, fleshy tones and slippery surfaces found in this work are confirmed by its title. Macaleni iintozomlambo refers to a traditional Xhosa belief whereby boys would throw rocks into the river before diving in naked as a sign of respect towards the river, and in order to acknowledge that they are visitors in a space that is not their own. Hlobo has cut and sewn the paper together with his signature ‘baseball’ stitch, which is not just decorative, but also very strong. The cuts in the paper are sharp and clean, determining where the ribbon sutures will be made and how they will overlap.
Hlobo always titles his works in Xhosa, an Nguni language widely spoken in South Africa. Attracted to the formal qualities of the grammar, the sounds of the words, and the linguistic flexibility of Xhosa, Hlobo’s use of the language, with all its poetic idioms, proverbs, and double entendres, is as much about defining himself as it is an effort to convey difficult truths and encourage dialogue around homosexuality, male circumcision and other culturally sensitive issues.
Hlobo typically stitches and weaves together disparate materials such as ribbon, rubber, gauze and leather to create tactile sculptures and drawings. His works are richly layered, anchored in references to Xhosa culture and the experience of life in post-Apartheid South Africa, while reflecting upon themes of language and communication, gender and sexuality, race and ethnicity. The process of making is fundamental to Hlobo’s work. By utilising techniques such as stitching and weaving, traditionally undertaken by women in South Africa, he challenges gender-based assumptions about the division of labour. His choice of materials is similarly charged. The old and punctured inner tubes of car tyres that he gathers from repair shops in Johannesburg are a symbol of industrialisation and the urban experience. Resembling condoms, the inner tubes are also a symbol of masculinity and sex, something that is made explicit by his use of phallus and sperm shapes, and forms resembling orifices, umbilical cords and internal organs. The satin ribbon that he uses to make his marks on paper suggests femininity, domesticity and unification, in contrast to the more ‘masculine’ materials that it binds together.
Nicholas Hlobo: Standard Bank Young Artist Award, exhibition catalogue, Grahamstown, South Africa 2009
Gavin Jantjes (ed.), Nicholas Hlobo, exhibition catalogue, National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design, Oslo 2010