Writing Art History Since 2002

First Title

This is Hlobo’s fate. Therein his works and his body emerge as enactments in a diorama, or as curator Jen Mergel in her contribution to the monograph notes, “a mysterious drama we’ve stumbled upon mid-scene”.

If Stendhal’s 1830 novel, Le Rouge et le Noir (The Red and the Black), was subtitled “Chronicle of the nineteenth century”, then Nicholas Hlobo’s Standard Bank Young Artist Award exhibition, Umtshotsho, a work distinguished by red organza and thread and black inner tubing, might be seen as a chronicle of the art world in the twenty-first. A theatrical sculptural exhibit, which also reads as a performance piece, the exhibition places the artist’s life at its epicentre: Hlobo’s exhibit dramatises a ritualised party which marks the shift from youth to adulthood, and with it a sense of worldliness and sexual self-definition. It is through this re-enactment of a culturally encoded yet transgressive ritual that Hlobo’s exhibition unwittingly echoes Stendhal’s narrative, a tale of a young man who seeks to free himself from cultural constraints, and, so doing, to redefine himself. In Stendhal’s novel this entails a break in social station, a mix of talent and hard labour, but then the sting – hypocrisy and deception – the end result of which proves bleak, for his hero is destroyed by his own passions.Reading Mark Gevisser’s essay on Hlobo in the monograph that accompanies the exhibit, ‘Under Covers, Out in the Open’, we find a retelling of Stendhal’s tale. In Hlobo’s case, however, the warning is posted in advance, for nothing is transparent, nothing given. Rather, the ensemble of sculptural forms withhold far more than they disclose. Of an uncompleted work of a copulating couple Hlobo remarks: “When the work is finished, all you’ll see is the blanket covering them, and just the suggestion of bodies. In my head the bodies are there, but to the viewer, they are not.” This logic sums up Hlobo’s strategy here: that is, “a lot of covering, as opposed to revealing”.At the root of this strategy lies a combination of voyeurism, detachment and fear. This displacement becomes all the more curious if one ventures, as I do, that Hlobo is also at the epicentre of the work. As Gevisser notes: “The umshotsho he has created here… is in part a fantasy, a willed reconstruction of a world Hlobo was denied; one in which he imagines he might have had the opportunity to channel his own illicit desires.” An ambivalently sexualised ritual of integration and manhood, the umshotsho embodies an age-old Xhosa tradition – one of many Hlobo utilises – which as a civilised Christian black man (by virtue of familial indoctrination) he is denied entry and charged never to embrace. Needless to say, the temptation becomes irresistible; a temptation displaced and belatedly re-enacted through art.It is this displaced and simulacral relation to a projected Xhosa culture – deemed authentic, but denied the artist – which explains the pathos I find at the work’s core. It makes the work strikingly contemporary: for the artist is present, yet he is not; or, better, he is a present absence. This phenomenon is not only the consequence of a deracinated and aborted cultural history; indeed, it is also a symptom of the contemporary art world, a world exemplified as an atheist’s religion, in which authenticity is null and void, authorship of a work beside the point, and the creator a forgotten trace caught in a half-remembered light. Art historian Serge Guilbaut expresses this state of affairs pithily in his essay, ‘Factory of Facts: Research as Obsession with the Scent of History’ (2007): “The author is no longer a god or goddess but is now understood to have constructed, or assembled, his/her work out of time specific pieces that have been collaged together in order to participate in an active contemporary discourse.”This is Hlobo’s fate. Therein his works and his body emerge as enactments in a diorama, or as curator Jen Mergel in her contribution to the monograph notes, “a mysterious drama we’ve stumbled upon mid-scene”. This diorama is three-pronged, comprising cultural, sexual, and professional art practice. Each prong is a construct, each faked in the very instant it yearns for authenticity; hence the indeterminacy of the work, and, for me, its shiftiness and deceptiveness. For if there is “a lot of covering, as opposed to revealing,” then what in fact does this cover-up reveal if not the very disingenuousness of the art world, along with the fraught and tremulous relations to a culture and sexual orientation which, to my mind, are overinflated when considering the artist’s work. My point is this: despite Gevisser’s engaging encounter with Hlobo – one which provides an illuminating focus on the artist’s ethnic, cultural and sexual proclivities – I remain wary of a given cultural or sexual box. This does not perforce mean that I expect the work to speak for itself. Rather, there must surely be a way to invoke-critique-then diffuse these by now thoroughly commodified fetishes.This gripe aside, there is, nevertheless, something compelling about the idea behind the work, if not the work itself. That is, as Hlobo hauntingly describes it, that “perhaps the darkened corners are within the robes of the characters themselves. There is very little sense of a body, no limbs, but the body is there. The idea of going to a dark space where you can hide exists, but it is within each character…” So, contrary to a culture of surveillance and transparency, there remains for Hlobo a realm within which art can intimate a further imperceptible dimension. This is romantic indeed, and worth holding onto in these jaded times. Hence the sepulchral and fluid quality of the works with their floral rhizomatic extremities; the tuber-like non-forms which, gathered in a dimly lit room, enact some unnameable congress. Who knows if they will survive or be destroyed by their passions, for the red light that bears witness – a functional lampshade clad like the rest in black tubing stitched with red thread – is a work titled Kibomvu (“Beware”).If anything, perhaps Hlobo’s exhibit is a warning to those prone to dig up old ghosts, revamp traditions, cash in on the exotic, and, through the surreal prettification of trash, dredge some significance in a world long given up to fakery.

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