Design of the week: Modern Master

2014-09-28 15:00

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I ran into the famously jazz-crazy artist Sam Nhlengethwa at the hanging of his latest show at the Goodman Gallery in Joburg last week.

I couldn’t help but notice how he looked more like a postmillennial swenka from Atteridgeville (a party-prone township in Tshwane) than a painter with a penchant for the music of Miles Davis.

Nhlengethwa wears a pair of fashionable tight blue denims with a matching stonewashed T-shirt. The man-bag that hangs at his side appears carefully chosen to complement his brown leather belt and suede Carvela slip-ons.

With his idiosyncratic easy-going tone, he tells me the show, unpretentiously titled Some Final Tributes, is the last exhibition in this vein.

Nhlengethwa has dedicated this work to artists who have made an impression in his life. They include African-Americans Romare Bearden and Jean-Michel Basquiat, the European modernmaster Henri Matisse, as well as painter Ephraim Ngatane and photographer David Goldblatt.


In this body of work, Nhlengethwa makes use of his heroes’ work as features in his own compositions. In the colour lithograph titled Tribute to Henri Matisse, for instance, Nhlengethwa includes Matisse’s The Flight of Icarus hanging on the wall of an imagined room.

It’s a blue, black, red and yellow composition of paper cut-outs, which was part of ­Matisse’s book called Jazz.

Incidentally, the same painting was also used by African-American trumpeter Wynton Marsalis on his 1989 album The ­Majesty of the Blues.

Here then is a loaded work that extends the tribute beyond the visual artist and to the modern jazz icon.

He plays a similar visual game with Basquiat’s self-portrait from 1983 called Untitled.

Like a TV set

Nhlengethwa’s pictorial trope manages to do more than just echo his idols’ creative statements.

By composing these iconic images in ­imagined interiors, he also inserts an important autobiographical detail.

He allows himself the space to show off his skills as a television set designer, an occupation whose visual language is central to understanding Nhlengethwa’s ­approach to composition and colour.

His play with surface and depth of field, along with how he populates the spaces with pieces of furniture, could easily be a screen grab from a sitcom.

Nhlengethwa’s use of light and shadow is shallow and stark. His collages, which he says he learnt much about from Bearden, are handled in a similar way.

There’s also a ghostly emptiness that ­enshrouds the interiors of Nhlengethwa’s rooms.

Though they are about a list of people who’ve inspired the artist, the work is devoid of human representations, except as a part of the works he samples. The rooms feel completely vacated.

Paying tribute

For Nhlengethwa, his list of heroes includes his granny Sophia Mokoena, for whom he made a collage in 2003.

It forms part of a long line of tributes that have defined Nhlengethwa’s work over the years.

Think here of his ode to Miles Davis’ seminal record, Kind of Blue, which saw its 50th anniversary in 2009.

Nhlengethwa produced a series of prints to celebrate that milestone. The exhibition of that work was dubbed his final work on jazz.

Having looked at the current art as it hangs, I asked him what he’s going to do now that he will not produce tributes and work inspired by his favourite music any more.

He glanced at me with a resigned look and said: “Well, I’m going to enjoy cooking with my wife and wait on some idea to come to me. I know something will come up. I always do.”

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