Nhlanhla Nhlapo's 'Free (State)' exhibition explores dispossession

Artist Nhlanhla Nhlapo's 'Free (State)' exhibition, recently shown at Lizamore & Associates Gallery, reclaims the land of his childhood from white texts

10 March 2019 - 00:00 By Tseliso Monaheng

The journey from Johannesburg to Maseru is a well-worn one for my people. It begins when the vehicle exits Noord taxi rank and ends shortly before the Lesotho border. Countless Basotho cross the Mohokare river daily, some risking their lives in the name of livelihood. It's a generations'-worth tale, a path my grandfather would've trekked partly on foot when travelling home from the mines. He would also hail lifts along the way, my mother tells me.
The route between Johannesburg and Maseru is sustained by the income of women employed as housemaids, and of men working in the mining industry and the informal economy. Most of that four- to five-hour journey cuts through vast parts of the Free State province. When I went to see artist Nhlanhla Nhlapo's work titled Free (State), recently on display at the Lizamore & Associates Gallery, it was as though I was seeing, through his eyes, an interpretation of what my eyes see while travelling through the vast hinterlands of verkrampte Afrikaner identity. The Free State province represents decay; the last frontier, if you like.
The whole province is a fetid festival of South African dorpie-isms, with the extra feature that you're likely to get shot and killed, or dragged behind the wheel of a moving bakkie because some plaas baas thought you, the employee, looked like a monkey when they caught you "trespassing" on their land.
The portraits and landscapes Nhlapo draws and paints tell of unnamed things - the things Lesego Rampolokeng details in the book Bird Monk Seding, his spirited take on childhood trauma and generational poverty, a part-memoir of his experiences while living in a small town in the North West named Leseding.
Nhlapo names these unspeakables while walking me through his work. We're in Jozi, a day after he's arrived from an ongoing group exhibition in Stellenbosch. He says that there's another one opening soon where he'll be showing the work he created while on a three-month residency in France last year.
He's interested in "our" living conditions, in memory and discovery, in authority and subservience, and in the multiple overarching themes and sub-plots these thematic guidelines intersect with.
Nhlapo's worlds are riddled with familiarity, and with symbolism. He references Renaissance artists and injects subjects close to him. He revels in the poetic insistence of charcoal on leaving permanent marks on the surfaces with which it interacts, but also loves oil and can walk one through the technical aspects of painting such that the medium - oil on canvas, in the case of his paintings - does not succumb to natural hazards.
In your way, a life-size charcoal drawing of a naked man standing upright in the middle of a pathway that leads to no discernible location, his head assuming the form of a blue vase decorated by flowers, greets the viewer's eye and automatically takes up pole position in the exhibition.
Details start revealing themselves the longer one spends time with it; classic European architecture interrupts the posture, suggesting an intrusion, while the fantastical detail of a lone figure with a warthog head leads one to wonder what is being suggested.
"That's a classical pose. But from that peaceful space came radical developments. There are references to statues in Paul Kruger Square [in central Pretoria]. Those buildings and monuments are said to be for decorative purposes, but it's really to inflict fear on people. There's a shift in mood and energy when you get there; people start acting differently. I've juxtaposed all those things against the land itself," he says.
The footpath recurs in other featured works. It connects the town of Frankfort to the township of Namahadi, where he was born and raised by a single parent who earned a living as a domestic worker. As a child, Nhlapo would wander off to go visit his late grandmother, and still treads upon the memory-riddled walkway whenever he is home.
Of Tse sa kopaneng ke di thaba (sic) and Original blood tie to the land, a pair of paintings hung side by side in the exhibition, Nhlapo says: "These landscapes are pure Free State iconic landscapes. The skies are influenced by Dutch Masters of the 17th century, and the Dutch were the ones who colonised [the land now known as] South Africa.
"I was questioning how we are taught to view spirituality and religion through texts written by white people. When you look at the paintings, they are very quiet, but also ironic."
Elsewhere, a lone figure dressed in an orange Seshoeshoe dress with yellow flourishes and a matching doek stands looking back at the viewer, arms akimbo. Titled The soul of the land is its many mothers, the painting depicts his aunt. Hanging above her head, but seen from a distance, are partial drawings of faces, fish, and a mishmash of concepts Nhlapo wanted to explore through the work.
"I have a connection to the people who are close to me. Hence I chose to draw portraits of my cousins," he says of the two works that depict his cousins Mbhudi and Paseka. "The point was to mimic the reflections that fall on your face when you look at yourself in a reflective object (such as glass)."
Family photo albums are sites of reference; high- and low-brow Victorian-era fashion items merge to produce a simple dress; the violence of dispossession is suggested using objects such as industrial machinery and high-rise buildings.
In another charcoal drawing, Stampede, the figure of a man with the head of a ram is depicted running unclothed across barren land while an overseer looks on from the distance. It's about the tyranny exacted upon the land when intruders came, but can also be read as the tyranny being exacted upon inner-city dwellers when gentrifiers come, with allusions to the developments that render them homeless.
"I wanted to relate it to the idea of 'back-breaking'. During slavery, as during apartheid, the master would whip the strongest slave on the plantation, not necessarily as punishment, but as a means to control people; to show them that even the strongest among them is powerless in his eyes," he says.
With so much of the work suggesting dispossession, I wonder to Nhlapo, who obtained a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the Tshwane University of Technology in 2015, how we Africans go about reclaiming remnants of ourselves, and rebuilding the communities and identities destroyed by countless instances of oppression through the ages - oppressions still being visited upon us by politicians on one hand, and by the institutions vested in advancing corporate interests on the other. Additionally, with the marketplace for art being the exclusive pool of the upwardly mobile, mostly white class in society, who is the work for?
We spend time wrestling through this.
"Not everyone else is bad, at the end of the day," reasons Nhlapo.
The sceptic in me resists this answer.
Dissatisfied, I ask: how do we grow the pool of abantu who are interested in buying art?
To this end, Nhlapo gives art classes to young people in Namahadi whenever he gets the opportunity, much like tichere Motloung, who is still alive, did for him when he was a young student.
"It's better to educate them now, not only to be artists, but also that if one of them were to become one, at least they'd have peers to support them. We need education about art, so that the art is ultimately owned by our people."

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