Nicholas Hlobo’s exhibition now on at Stevenson in Johannesburg is small, but worth a visit because it seems to represent a pregnant moment or a turning point in his work. That might be interesting enough on its own terms, but Hlobo is such a startlingly original artist, and such a pioneering figure, especially when it comes to the place of African art in a global context, that a new direction in his work seems to matter more broadly.
Hlobo’s work seems to breathe new life into the possibilities of abstract art when it often seems exhausted in European and American traditions. Mark Coetzee, curator of Zeitz MOCAA in Cape Town put it well in a video interview when talking about securing iimpundulu zonke ziyandilandela, Hlobo’s huge dragon-like “lightning bird” sculpture that was suspended in the museum’s central atrium when it opened. The sculpture was originally made for the Venice Biennale in 2011, and Coetzee remembers seeing it there for the first time: “I realised that this was a seminal object of the 21st century, and it’s a seminal object from Africa.”
Hlobo’s work carries that portentousness: the idea we so often hear about that the seeds of the future lie in African ideas and aesthetics. He has taken contemporary African art to the world in with an impact very few others have managed. Around the time of the 2011 Venice Biennale, he took part in The Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative and was mentored by none other than Anish Kapoor. He’s exhibited at Tate Modern. In fact, this exhibition sits somewhere between a recent one featuring similar copper sculptures in Cape Town, and the upcoming exhibition at the SCAD Museum in Savannah, Georgia.