EXHIBIT REVIEW Organic Forms and Exploding Stitching

Using ‘Material as Metaphor,’ Hlobo’s Work Provocative

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South African artist Nicholas Hlobo uses rubber, ribbon, lace, and tassels in his exhibition for the ICA’s momentum series. The piece pictured above is part of his live performance gallery called “Thoba, utsale umnxeba” which translates into “to lower oneself and make a call.”
John Kennard—Courtesy of Michael Stevenson Gallery

Nicholas Hlobo

Momentum 11

The Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston

July 30 to October 26

Nicholas Hlobo’s exhibit at the ICA (Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston) opens with a sign blaring the words “Momentum 11” and a sculpture that seems to be emerging from a white wall. At first glance, it is as if a hole has been ripped into the wall, and the white peeled away to reveal black charred rubber, tethering off into multi-colored ravines winding their way across the white wall.

“What is it?” is not usually the first question asked but rather, “What is it made of?” For Hlobo, the materials he chooses to use in his sculptures lend meaning to the pieces themselves. An underlying pattern that runs throughout the exhibit’s five pieces is an intricate woven stitching, not unlike that commonly found on baseballs. This stitching finds its way into many of his pieces, twisting and twining across the structures. There is something beautifully primitive about the repetition of this stitching. Its delicacy also contrasts with the other materials that Hlobo uses. Everything from ribbons, car tire, soap, and zippers find their way into his pieces. Despite his incorporation of many unconventional and man-made objects, Hlobo’s art is both organic and living.

The room that houses the majority of the exhibit is roseate-lit, a soft pinkness that embraces the corners of the walls and produces a downwards gradation. The roseate glow is almost flesh-like, as if the viewers were inside a body. The first thing that catches one’s eye is an 18-foot black monstrosity that hangs, suspended in midair. Almost pod-like in shape, the structure appears to be made of wrinkled rubber with thick white lines running horizontally across the body. Stitchings of neon green, blue, and red sprawl across the form haphazardly. What is most intriguing about this sculpture, entitled Umphanda ongazaliyo is the way one end of it dwindles into a canal that attaches itself to a wall and emerges out the other side (which is also the first thing one sees before walking into the roseate room). Umphanda ongazaliyo translates as “a vessel that never fills up,” suggesting an insistent need and inability to be satiated. If one examines the sculpture carefully, there are carefully chosen gapes and open seams placed throughout that may partly explain the title of the piece. The shape of the sculpture easily brings to mind that of an organ, like the stomach. Its tenuous suspension in midair makes one ponder its placement in relation to the space around it. There is a quiet uncertainty in the way it floats towards the ceiling but doesn’t quite touch it. The way Umphanda ongazaliyo extends beyond and through the gallery walls seems to suggest the permeability of art beyond the confines of the museum.

The titles of Hlobo’s pieces are all in Xhosa, his native tongue, which lends to the hints at the social messages beyond the physical complexity and creative usage of materials. Many of his pieces seem to emphasize connection and growth. The explosion of colored tendrils across one of his tapestry-like pieces, Uzifake zatshon’ iinzipho, and the rips across the surface make one wonder if his view of connection is a nurturing one or a violent one. The sinewy stitchings are everywhere, snaking and splitting into even finer tendrils. Is Hlobo suggesting connection as a flourishing growth or a chokehold that threatens to result in eventual demise? His elegant combination of his own culture and his reflections on society result in intricate and thought provoking pieces that one could look at for hours on end. Where does one thing end and the other begin? His curling, flowing forms reverberate with life and — in the middle of the pink-lit room — provide an unforgettable experience.