Sam Nhlengethwa’s 40 year Journey in the Arts World

S“I listen to music so deeply when I paint.” This oop-pop-a-dah scene is painted by Alex Dodd regarding his encounter with artist/collagist, Sam Nhlengethwa at the Bag Factory in Fordsburg – in a segment titled, Jazz and the Retrieval of Lost Histories, a 2006 independently published monograph by Goodman Gallery Editions.

Dodd’s scenario a choog-chooged as of a locomotive of memory as I showed up at the Payneville’s “Last Dorp” native’s 40-year retrospective exhibition titled, Leeto: A Sam Nhlengethwa Print Perspective, at the Wits Art Museum, on a winter’s eventide in Braamfontein.

On the crowded night, one of the speakers, Associate Professor at the Wits Institute for Social & Economic Research at the University of the Witwatersrand, Hlonipha Mokoena in an address titled, There is something about John Coltrane – had the following to offer:

His eyes are tightly shut. His whole face is contorted and wound around the chord that his fingers are playing. He presses his fingers firmly on the keys even though they look as if they are hovering above the instrument.

His dark tuxedo jacket envelops his lopsided shoulders as he leans into the soprano saxophone. Where his eyes should be, there is a visor of charcoal darkness. There is something about John Coltrane. He is present in an absent way and absent in a present way. Maybe he is thinking about the musical grammar of his ancestors; he is blowing into the ether the future of be-bop, hard bop, free jazz. Maybe he is thinking about his ‘favourite things’ sorting through the noise of the club goers, the beatniks and the admiring imitators. Maybe he is thinking about what comes next — the drummer’s rhythm is daring him to go further, while the piano player is swinging to keep up with his neck-breaking speed. Maybe this is the moment of his spiritual awakening — after Christianity, after Naima, after hedonism.

There is something about John Coltrane. His screwed-up face doesn’t give us the hints we need to work out the tune. His concentration tells us that we should just listen and make as few judgements as possible. He knows that he is just warming up; the best is yet to come.

His inscrutable face tells us that he is also attempting to unravel the mystery — how much does this music move him; how much does it test him; how much does it dash him and then resurrect him; how much does it swallow up his whole life. There is something about John Coltrane. He may be the soloist, dancing in and out of the tune. He may be playing in a trio, waiting for his moment to dazzle.

Maybe he is in someone else quintet, illuminating the greatness of other rising stars. Perhaps he is trying not to think at all. Mind blank, slate clean, time standing still. He is already anticipating the brooding and blue notes that are going to move jazz forward. His sound limns those moments of revelation that he has been a part of. He is already playing his legacy.

There is really something about John Coltrane.

If jazz didn’t function as the inspiration and colour code of Sam Nhlengethwa’s work, I don’t know what would. In the same way that the jazz pioneers of the 1950s and 1960s wanted to take jazz beyond the speakeasy and the dance floor and into the orchestra pit and the recording studio, the concentrated effort of Nhlengethwa’s work is also about progression and ascent.

Each work functions as an ancestor, begetting the others that are to come, beckoning the viewer to expect more, follow the line, think through the changes. In the same way that jazz functioned as entertainment, then as protest and then as the soundtrack of left-leaning radicals, Nhlengethwa’s work has also been through its transformations, holding each historical moment up to our gaze.

We examine and read our past through his alternating monochrome and colourful phases. We know where we’ve been when we can look with a certain remove at the protest-infused photographic lithographs.

The historical subjects jostle for attention with the light-hearted homages to vocalists, instrumentalists, artists and legends.

There is no escape from the sensation of the vertiginous pace of our own history. It’s like that piano player chasing the horn player; the art is constantly outpacing our imagination and we struggle to keep up.

There is respect for the medium; each image reminds us of the limits of the process. At every turn of the historical wheel, Sam Nhlengethwa has had to find a new modality in which to push the limit of his chosen instrument. In the same way that the musical score functions to guide the jazz player’s performance, the lithographic stone imposes its own limits on the printmaker’s art.

The image that is then produced is in its own way an improvised image, exemplifying both the original intention of the artist, and the vagaries of the process. If jazz is the muse, then Sam Nhlengethwa is the composer who pries open the depth of the colour plates in order to give us the object in its best incarnation.

In the same way that no two renditions of a tune are the same, no two lithographic prints can be exactly the same. Repetition does not lead to perfection; it leads to more possibilities for variation.

In the final analysis, what makes Sam Nhlengethwa’s retrospective a kind of composition, is the fact that as in jazz music, no jazz player ever claims to be an inventor or originator, each jazz musician starts with an already given tradition.

There is no John Coltrane without Lester Young, no Thelonious Monk without Duke Ellington.

Sam Nhlengethwa is a custodian of a tradition; his improvisations and radical departures start from a root and this exhibition is a testimony to the power of that descent. Every image that you will see tonight, speaks to a long line of artistic sensibilities that have tracked the South African condition even while changing it.

Here on the walls are our country’s blues, hymnals, anthems, ballads, riffs, wailings and lamentations. Here too is the celebration of the fire that propels the creative genius that undergirds jazz and Nhlengethwa. Here too is the crucible through which our future is forged.

Having said all that, I need to add two disclaimers. The first one is that the refrain, ‘…something about John Coltrane’ is not original but borrowed from a composition by Alice Coltrane and recorded in the 1971 album Journey in Satchidananda.

The second disclaimer is that the John Coltrane image I just spoke about is not part of the exhibition, so don’t look at the other Coltranes and think to yourself, these are nothing like her description.

Insofar as plaudits go, Mokoena couldn’t had delivered a more apt a biography regarding the Jatniel-based artist and jazz aficionado. 

Experiencing his genesis in 1955 of the Freedom Charter, the Drum magazine monochromatic 50s of Sophiatown of smoke-filled jazz sessions, daddy-o’s of soup-n-fish two-tone brogues – the 1994 Standard Bank Young Artist Award recipient had certainly come a long way to occupy the position he does among the stratum of South Africa’s internationally-acclaimed creatives. 

Art and jazz have been parallel constants in Nhlengethwa’s existence and an earlier factor in his affinity for the musical aspect of his lifestyle stemmed from the bond he shared with his musician brother, Ranki.

Recalling his influence on him, the artist offered in the Goodman Gallery publication: “We were the two people who really understood each other because we were both active in the arts.  I would take a taxi after school on Fridays and hit it straight to Katlehong to visit my brother, just to be there with him in that house for the weekend and to listen to him on the piano.”

Nhlengethwa’s early steps into the arts world can be traced back to the period himself and best pal, Madi Phala, ventured on tours of cultural events with a cultural group known as Bayajula. 

Hosted at community halls, the duo would display their artworks – with the hope of being mentioned in the prominent art journal at the time, Staffrider.

In the aftermath of the 1976 students’ uprisings, whilst attending classes at Bill Ainslie’s Johannesburg Art Foundation in Saxonwold, Nhlengethwa got to learn about a two-year fine art diploma offered by the Ecumenical Lutheran Church Art and Craft Centre at Rorke’s Drift, in KwaZulu-Natal. 

Accepted alongside his buddy Phala, Nhlengethwa then had to defy his mother’s reluctance of letting her son trek far away from home.  His mother eventually relenting on the day of his departure, the artist described the train ride to his destination as “quiet a sad journey” but added that “it was the beginning of my new life.”

At Rorke’s Drift he found himself amongst fellow creative such as Dumisani Mabaso, Pat Mautloa Kay Hasan, to mention but a few who were to share the working space at the Bag Factory in Fordsburg, later on in life.

Offering a hint of a background on how he came to foray into the medium he is mainly synonymous with, the collage, Nhlengethwa recalled that it was Ainsley who, having caught a glimpse of some of the collages he had made, introduced him to the work of American artist, Romare Bearden.  “From then on there was no looking back,” declared the Ekurhuleni-based artist.

The monograph further quoted the collagist in explaining one of his techniques, thus, “I have a list of the things I’ve seen in my life in my mind.  I don’t sketch.  I know exactly what to do because I’ve seen it.”  

Typical of Nhlengethwa’s touch, at his exhibition’s opening, jazz strains issued forth from a vinyl whirling on a gramophone situated among some of the eye-lolly hanging on the walls of the two-tiered WAM space. 

Furthermore, the duo of Herbie Tsoaeli (on bass guitar) and Sydney Ace Mnisi (on saxophone) entertained viewers with an impromptu live jazz performance.

A few day on I reacquainted with the artist at the Wits Art Museum, this time around, for his walkabout – just as considerably subscribed as were the case with at the opening night. 

Serving as a talkabout too and attended by the country’s pre-eminent artist, William Kentridge, I got to inquire of Nhlengethwa whether he used a camera pending the creation of his miners’ series.  Clicking away at my camera as he spoke, the man who admits to also working from memory responded that he made use of a sketchbook to record scenes before later working on the actual product back at his studio.

Nhlengethwa is what in poet Don Mattera’s parlance is known as, ‘n manotcha tussen ouens (man-amongst-men); a globe-trotting hustler for his impressive vinyl collection and a suave host who has entertained the likes of then US Ambassador Patrick Gaspard (pending whose tenure, Nhlengethwa’s works decorated the official residency, Hill House in Waterkloof, and the Consulate-General in Sandton) and veteran radio presenter, Brenda Sisane, among others!

Possessing the lifestyle versatility to shift from matters art wise to just reveling in the company of his most treasured buddies at monthly jazz sessions he attends when not on overseas travel, he can switch to wearing the quintessential socialite cap to indulge in a very, very excellent bottle of wine.

The artist-cum-jazzophile’s eyeline for the finest things in life also extend to the choice of wheels he moves around in – boasting enviable possessions in the form of two vintages, viz, a rare Beetle and a black Ford pickup dating back to the early 20th century.

A trademark of Nhlengethwa’s is his habit of paying homage to fellow artists in the form of tributes and in his current show, he has works acknowledging the likes of photographer, David Goldblatt and artist, Helen Sebidi.

Goodman Gallery are to release a catalogue of his retrospective.

Image Jacob MAWELA (Snapped with the featured artist on the opening evening of LEETO – A Sam Nhlengethwa Print Retrospective, at the WITS Art Museum, in Braamfontein –Johannesburg- recently).

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