Art and the politicization of African bodies
The painter Thenjiwe Niki Nkosi speaks to Drew Thompson about the evolution of her practice and how she locates herself in contemporary African art.
- Interview by
- Drew Thompson
The painter Thenjiwe Niki Nkosi doesn’t appear disappointed that the public did not get to view her first solo show Gymnasium at Stevenson Gallery in Johannesburg. Nkosi is someone who, in her words, likes to “undermine the exclusivity of the art world.” The Instagram version of the exhibition provided audiences an opportunity to see her paintings “in the same way.”
A profound interest in how people inhabit space and how certain spaces come to occupy people’s historical imagination have animated her practice; first as a designer and now as a painter. In Gymnasium, there is an interrogation of the art market’s valuation and validation of figuration instead of abstraction and formalism as modes of expression adopted by African contemporary artists. As someone who is fluent in the visual language of abstraction and formalism, but mindful of the politicization of African art and black bodies, Nkosi poetically and tellingly invites audiences to see a predominantly white space, like that of gymnastics, through the color brown. Spectators, gymnasts, and judges display brown skin color and are depicted interacting with each other and the space they occupy through wonderfully vibrant and intricately mixed pastel colors. Nkosi displays a unique comfortability in rendering spaces in the absence of actual figures. In so doing, she asks her viewers to consider what it means to stand directly on the floor mat used by gymnasts. Other scenes feature crowds of spectators and judges or of gymnasts at work, tumbling, high-fiving and hugging. As a painter, she feels excited by a new generation of South African artists, including Bonolo Kavula and Mmabatho Grace Mokalapa, who do not feel compelled to follow the trends of the art market.
Nkosi spoke to Drew Thompson from Johannesburg about the evolution of her practice and how she locates herself in contemporary African art as a painter interested in abstract forms and experiences.
What is your relationship to abstraction, formalism and minimalism? How did you come to these visual languages as modes of expression?
I had a small design practice that ran parallel to my studio practice, and design was the commercial part of my work. Abstraction and minimalist art would inform my design work. Then, it started to infiltrate my painting practice. I was starting to pare things down to their essential forms and see what are the basic elements that you need to understand a human figure or to describe a space. [This process] coincided with my interest in architecture, which was at the beginning of my painting life. I was painting architectures, specifically buildings that were apartheid architectural designs, so built between 1948 and 1980s, in Johannesburg, mostly banks, apartment buildings and monuments. I started to think about how the figure and geometry work together to make an architectural space.
In art historical discourses, especially as they relate to Africa and the diaspora and other non-white contexts, design is often a missing element. Were you able to explore things in painting that you couldn’t explore in design?
In my first paintings I was thinking about African architecture and looking for what is an African architecture in South Africa. At the time, I was really interested in Ndebele art and design on houses and the link to storytelling. Also, I was thinking about Zulu beads, which similarly use geometric shapes for communication. Those works for me were really a perfect midpoint between art and design. They were aesthetic for aesthetic reasons but also had this ability to communicate complex ideas. And there was great regard for the people who made the designs, which for me links back to this idea of artists being valued in a way that designers aren’t. To me I feel it is important to remember that the categories—craft, art, design—are not natural, but rather are inherited from a particular European mode of thinking that make these distinctions. Maybe these things are not so different.
Some of the paintings in the Gymnasium series you have labeled on your website as “architecture” and others as “figures.” How are you thinking about the series in terms of architecture and figuration?
When I started the Gymnasium series about three years ago, I’d been immersed in portraits for a long time; the move from faces to wider scenes and architectures felt like a real break, a very different interest. But soon after that, figures emerged in these spaces—gymnasts and judges. When they did, I began to read about the history of gymnastics, and started to learn about the role race has played in that history. I immediately started to feel resonances between the series, a sense of continuity as opposed to rupture. Beneath their surface differences—the specificity of the faces on the one hand, and the facelessness on the other—lie the same questions I’ve been wrestling with for years: about blackness in historically white spaces (portraiture and elite gymnastics), and about the role and meaning of the individual.
What the Gymnasium paintings offered me was a chance to explore an interest I’ve had for years, which is the relationship between the human figure and the space around it. Since my early days of painting I’ve been thinking about the different levels that architecture works on. Architecture is about physical structures—planes and angles, etc—but it is also about the less tangible structures created through our perceptions and ideas. I like to remain conscious of how architecture is used as a tool of social control. The structures we live in, and with, deeply affect how we feel and act. The dynamic that is created on the canvas when you place a human form inside a particular architecture therefore interests me on many levels: visual, psychological, ideological. Inside the Gymnasium I have the opportunity to work through these ideas in different ways.
Building on that, it is very easy to forget that you do have a larger body of work that you have been doing for some time. What kinds of questions did Gymnasium allow you to answer that you developed in your larger body of work, like “The End of History” and “What it is you keep forgetting?”
I think what came together here [in Gymnasium], and what is the apex for me, is thinking about my own identity as an artist, as a woman, [and] how people perceive me as a black woman of color. Finally, I found a way to deal with the discomfort I feel in having that be such a large part of the narrative around my work and even about my work. I had never painted black women in my work [until Gymnasium]. I never painted myself in [that] way. I think the other work was about being sure to sort of paint that part of who I was—those obvious markers—out of the work. It was very much an effort to not paint that part of myself. There was always this feeling that I should be making work that was around my racial and gender identity, but I never wanted to do that in this very forward way. Not that I was not interested in people who were making work like that. It was very useful for me to see myself reflected in that kind of art, in art that was dealing with blackness and black girlhood or womanhood. I felt like I had so many other things I was also talking about, and I wanted to be able to talk about them without having this signature: this is my identity. Gymnasium was the first time I was addressing this question, this is the work where my identity is most apparent, and I am also making a comment about that.
I think what is so interesting is how you are making a critique about that identity that is being thrusted on so many artists who identify as black American, African and/or of the Diaspora. In Gymnasium, such a critique comes to the fore. In so many ways, we could read this work as about “black” girls, the spaces they travel, and how they are looked at in particular spaces. But I think here you are asking a certain set of new questions.
For years there has been a question for me about what people do with the paintings when they don’t give you the figure. How do you read this work? In terms of the market, it has been interesting to see which works sell and which works don’t. The biggest painting in the show, “Spring Floor,” is an abstract painting with almost nothing in it. It is a large painting that is a lot wider than the other big paintings in the show. I really like that painting. It has not sold. Conceptually it is one of the more interesting ones for me as it implicates you as a viewer. When you stand in front of it you are on the implied floor, which extends beyond the bottom of the painting. In this moment, when black figuration is really desirable, I wanted to test to see: can a smart figureless painting in this body of work compete at all? I felt like this was a bit more challenging. Will it be valued as much? And, I am not sure.
I was interested in your treatment of the gaze, the choice not to paint eyes or mouth—features that allow one to identify figures. Here, I was reminded of how American portraitist Amy Sherald uses the painting style grisaille as an identifier of blackness. How did you arrive at this point, this decision not to paint the facial features of certain subjects?
That pretty much started with how I started to paint. It was something of an intuitive thing. I wanted to take people and places out of context, and sort of create some universal figuration. It started when I was using historical photographs for my paintings, and I wanted to remove any contextual markers and leave basic information about people. I felt it would assist in people creating their own narratives and identify[ing] with characters that they would not immediately identify with. I have used that technique very deliberately in the “Heroes” series of portraits, which I paint in high relief and remove information. But those portraits still need to resemble their subjects. “Heroes” [an ongoing series] is about expanding the idea of which names and faces are memorialized. So specific faces play an important part in that. In Gymnasium I could remove even more information, including facial features. This then has brought other ideas into play. The faceless figures have a broader symbolic potential. I am interested in the idea of a black woman standing in as the “every person.”
I know in the “Heroes” series you embark on portraiture and the relationship to ID photos in South Africa history. What was it like for you to explore portraiture and painting together—a seemingly different subject matter from design?
I stumbled into portraiture. I was at the Bag Factory [artist studios] at the time, 2012, and as part of a project some of us were involved in, we were given a square canvas to do something on. I looked at the square, and it immediately made me think of ID photos. I started looking around for ID photos that I was interested in. I’d recently watched a film about Thomas Sankara and I was looking for still images of him. I found this picture of him as a cadet, a beautifully washed out, barely in color photograph of him as a young soldier. I decided to use that image as a source for a painting, and once it was done, I realized that this could be a perfect project for me: to begin working on painting people into history—people that I wanted to memorialize. This format would work both formally and metaphorically. This idea of picking up everyone’s ID photo and taking this pretty valueless thing and making it into something that you wanted to keep.
What kinds of questions of identity and representation surfaced as you were thinking about exhibiting these works?
So as the first few portraits leaned against the wall of my studio, I had this feeling that I hadn’t had until then with any other paintings. I felt like I was doing something important for myself, most of all. It was this “personal pantheon.” These were people I was thinking about, reading about, dreaming about. So then when these portraits started to find public recognition, particularly when they were chosen to be part of the “Being There” exhibition at Foundation Louis Vuitton’s “Art/Africa, Le nouvel atelier”, it felt strange at first. What were these very personal paintings doing in that space? What do they mean now? Do they lose their original meaning? Are they compromised? I felt torn, in a way. But soon I realized they might be working in another way out there, doing something else now, beyond my studio, beyond me. I liked that visitors to the exhibition in Paris would be asking themselves: Should I recognize this person? Should I learn about that person? That’s where the title of the series also played an important role for me. “Heroes,” [but] whose heroes are we talking about? And what is a hero in the first place?
How do you find yourself complicating blackness through color in your paintings?
I ask myself this question every time I start mixing browns. Maybe it is something that is still in progress for me. I have these mixes that I use to depict brownness. I have been thinking about the work of Amy Sherald, Meleko Mokogosi, Kerry James Marshall, and others who work in figuration and complicate how to paint black people. I am trying to create a wide range of browns that is close to skin color. I will [often] stand next to my paintings and put a hand out, and say: Am I in there, and are people with darker, richer skin color in there, and are people with lighter skin color in there? Maybe it has to do with my own strange position here in South Africa. I spent my childhood in the United States, where my blackness was not in question in any way. I knew I was black; we did not use the word bi-racial in my house. I knew I was Zulu and Greek and black. And when we came here, to South Africa, suddenly there was this question around my identity—my blackness was constantly questioned, but I was not exactly “coloured” either. This inability to be neatly categorized, while also still feeling “black” was something that I wrestled with (inwardly and with others) for much of my teenage years. I think that in some ways, the range of skin colors that I’m painting has grown out of that experience. To make sure we are all included in there, in my image of blackness.