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Artist Nicholas Hlobo has staged two performances wearing a customized outfit that references a Xhosa choral song about a dung beetle and alludes to sacred rites of passage. We asked this year’s Tollman Award winner to explain the motivations behind his performance work

Can you briefly describe the work Igqirha lendlela?Igqirha lendlela, as a performance and sculpture in a gallery space, is an acknowledgement of my South African heritage. Through the work I acknowledge both a political and cultural heritage. In some funny way the work celebrates and questions certain aspects of the past and present, at the same time making suggestions for the future. The character in the performance wears this strange looking costume: a biker’s jacket, a skirt made out of ties, boots made from the rubber inner tubing, and a mask fashioned out of gauze. The biker’s jacket has a large hump attached to, or growing out of the back. The hump makes reference to the heavy baggage we carry as South Africans – it could also suggest a person with deformity. The skirt references traditional male dress, both African and European, particularly skirts and kilts. It also references the drag queen sub-culture. The ties used to create the skirt are very masculine in origin. Ties can be beautiful but not very comfortable accessories. They are quite sexualised and dangerous. The insect-shaped mask looks like something out of a science fiction movie. Being an igqirha (or doctor), the character’s mask had to be white. White suggests a spiritual heritage. In Xhosa culture young male initiates wear white masks when camping in the bush; diviners wear white as well. Therefore the character’s head had to be pure and free of any heavy dark weight of the past.Why did you exhibit the work publicly at Sessions eKapa in December 2005? The character wasn’t just built to remain within the confines of the white space. He sees himself as being like everyone else. However, people around him remark on him being different. Igqirha lendlela takes charge of the venues he chooses to explore, and attempts to tell those he comes across that they have to move on from past, no matter how heavy it may seem. He also points out the importance for that exploration to be revisited as doing so would help lay a path for a new equal and accepting future. What type of response did the performance receive from people on the streets of Cape Town?It varied. Some people were amused and closely inspected the work while asking questions. Others preferred to keep a safe distance. Some people viewed the character as someone making a fabulous fashion statement, while others made the connection to Xhosa male circumcision. The environment, I believe, offered a useful backdrop to the performance – Igqirha lendela passed through number of initiation camps in Cape Town’s black townships. To members of the arts community, though, technique dominated their reading.You repeatedly make reference to “the character”. Presumably this means that someone other than yourself can wear the costume, and that the performance isn’t dependent on you being the wearer (size constraints notwithstanding)?The character I refer to in the performance is myself. This is because whenever I wear the costume I begin to view myself as another person. Igqirha lendlela is a performance thought and designed around me. That is the reason some items of the costume get presented in a gallery. Through this approach I give the work multiple purposes – firstly as a performance, secondly as a living sculpture, and lastly as a static, soft sculpture in a gallery space. This allows for the work to be viewed in different ways depending on the environment in which the work is presented.Nicholas Hlobo is showing at Michael Stevenson (August 17 – September 16)

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