The Joburg-based painter-collagist, Sam Nhlengethwa, should probably be declared the king of inter-textual Blues.
His cross-referencing of jazz music into his visual artworks is perhaps the most formidable in contemporary South African art.
His earliest jazz-themed lithographs were first displayed in his exhibition as the Standard Bank Young Artist of the Year in 1994.
So it makes sense that his latest show at the Goodman Gallery in Parkwood, Johannesburg, pays tribute to jazz’s most notable album, Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue.
Nhlengethwa has produced a series of 41 prints and an installation in praise of a jazz masterpiece which saw its 50th anniversary last year.
Why? Well, to understand the album’s importance, consider that American critic Marc Myers has called it “jazz’s Mona Lisa – an unassailable icon symbolising an entire art form”.
Grand composer Quincy Jones is on record saying he “plays Kind of Blue every day. It sounds like it was made yesterday. It is my orange juice”.
Another writer, Ashley Khan, says: “Jazz musos call it the Bible and critics call it the one jazz album every fan must own.”
Nhlengethwa agrees with him, and confesses to have fallen for the record at age 15 in 1970 at his brother’s wedding party.
His new body of work also makes it clear that he did not sell himself out to fawn over Davis’s 1959 set of gems. Those familiar with Nhlengethwa’s creative voice will indeed find it intact throughout the exhibition.
His use of colour is understated and light.
Nhlengethwa uses stark contrasts between dark and light to capture the brooding mood that permeates Davis’s work.
The black and white mixed media on paper titled Backstage does this well.
It features members of Davis’s grand sextet preparing to go on stage.
There are also the individual musicians’ portraits; notable among these is a stunning sedate image of pianist Bill Evans – capturing well the reticence of the genius engulfed in cigarette smoke.
Considering that Nhlengethwa loves jazz enough to even remark that: “I think at heart, I am a non-practising jazz musician!”
One can’t help, after studying these works, but ask what is perhaps a fatal question: Kind of Blue is a seminal musical work, has Nhlengethwa produced similarly seminal artworks to honour it?
In other words, is he worthy of his heroes?