The South African artist Nicholas Hlobo has spent his life and career navigating the spaces in-between. As a child of Apartheid growing up in South Africa, he was exposed to the various ways that people define themselves as one thing or another—one race, religion, or ethnicity. Early on, he sought creative ways to expand those categories using a combination of fine artistry and traditional craftsmanship.
In an exclusive interview for Art21’s episode “Johannesburg” in 2018, Hlobo explained the title of his most recent exhibition at Sweden’s Uppsala Art Museum: “Zawelela Ngale.” The two words refer to the idea of crossing to the other side. “In the world, there’s debates around boundaries,” he says, laughing. “America is hoping to build its own wall.”
For Hlobo, though, the ‘other side’ is more than just a physical space. “Going across could be a psychological or spiritual crossing, or intellectual going across to the other side of the field,” he explains. In his works, which incorporate performance, textiles, and sculpture, he traverses the literal and figurative boundaries of what is considered masculine or feminine, traditional or modern, art or craft.
In a new show of Hlobo’s work opening at the SCAD Museum in Savannah, Georgia, the title, “Unyukelo,” translates directly to “The Ladder.” As a symbol, the ladder also represents crossing, as a bridge between two places or ideas.
One regular motif in his work is the image of a sewing machine, often considered part of the domestic sphere of femininity. This, too, is something he views in his boundary-breaking way: Hlobo points out that the actual mechanism is a symbiosis of male and female parts: “The bobbin at the bottom is an orifice and the needle is very phallic. It embodies both ideas of sex. In the end, it’s about the conception of something new. I’m just sewing ideas into your mind.”
This is an installment of “Art on Video,” a collaboration between artnet News and Art21 that brings you clips of newsmaking artists. A new season of the nonprofit Art21’s flagship Art in the Twenty-First Century television is available now on PBS. Watch full episodes and learn about the organization’s education programs at Art21.org.
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