Jessica Hemmings

Textile Writer

Nicholas Hlobo: Uhambo


Nicholas Hlobo
Tate Modern, London
December 9, 2008 – March 1, 2009

The Nigerian Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka, in an article for the Guardian newspaper penned in 1994, liken present day Africa to a  “blood soaked quilt” writing, “One hundred years ago, at the Berlin Conference, the colonial powers that ruled Africa met to divvy up their interests into states, lumping various people and tribes together in some places, or slicing them apart in others like some demented tailor who paid no attention to the fabric, colour or pattern of the quilt he was patching together.”

The large, sprawling sculpture Ingubo Yesizwe (2008) at the heart of this exhibition feels a little like Soyinka’s image of Africa: a patchwork creature of recycled rubber and leather, stitched along countless seams with brightly coloured ribbon, taking on a form that is now difficult to define. The Xhosa title translates as “clothes or blanket of the nation” and the exhibition material explains Hlobo’s practice as “anchored in references to Xhosa culture and the experience of life in post-Apartheid South Africa.” Located in the Level 2 Gallery, Ingubo Yesizwe is visible from outside through the large windows, but to enter the gallery visitors have no option but to creep up on this creature, starting with the tapered end at the gallery door.

First (or last) is a tangle of intestine-like threads and bulbous rubber shapes punctuated with little brass valves that crawl along the gallery floor before draping over what looks to be a meat hook. Turning the corner into the main gallery space, Hlobo’s creature in fact reveals itself to be far more benign than its initial tangle of entrails offers. The sculpture takes up the bulk of the room, slowing growing in mass along the length of the room and culminating at its furthest point in a hole for an absent head. Beneath, purple and apricot material leak onto the floor. Humour appears by way of a garter belt that adorns a vestigial limb. At its foot the claw of a wood chair leg alludes to the tenacious, but diminished, hold of colonial ideals.

Three works hang on the gallery walls: Phulaphulani (2008) and Iminxeba (2008), both use stitch on paper, while Visual Diary (2008) offers a record of scribbles and tests presumably charting the development of the work on display. Both stitched wall hangings use ribbon sewn by hand that suggests, in the uniformity of each stitch, the repair work of a machine. In Iminxeba, sharp cuts in the heavy paper are stitched back together as though a wound was needed before the stitch could heal. The work’s title translates as “limbs of the vine”. Here each stitched path looks to be an aerial view of snake tracks in sand, another image that is both beguiling and threatening in its beauty. Phulaphulani, which translates as “to listen”, is more literal in its suggestion of a communication network with a pair of iPod earphones trapped beneath a line of white stitch. Both culminate in a densely worked area in one upper corner, a place where layers of stitch and crochet suggest a “brain” or control centre of sorts.

Hlobo’s use of collaged elements that shift between the seductive and the shocking share similarities with the work of Wangechi Mutu. While Mutu often refers to the female body and Hlobo the male, both imbed disturbing forms within a rich palette of materials. I personally found Visual Diary to be an unnecessary addition to this otherwise engrossing exhibition. Hlobo’s process does not need to be revealed, his choice of materials is insight enough.

Surface Design Journal (fall 2009: 60-61)