Sam Nhlengethwa | Artist Statement


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The title of this series is ‘Glimpses of the Fifties and Sixties’. I have chosen to work in the style to which I have become accustomed (collage) and to also explore my printing via the photogravure process. I think one of the reasons I like this process is that it has an element of collage in it, but the process is more physically involved and delicate. It entails digitising an initial collage and working through at least five plates before even considering the trial print to be used for the series. 

I sourced material from the Drum magazine archives and I also looked through my own family albums. The use of my own archive was important because I wanted to reflect an intimacy and a familiarity that would make the images accessible. Looking through the albums I reminisced about growing up in my grandmother’s house and how I always found the dining room with the wedding photograph so intriguing. I also recalled enjoying a softball match in Westonaria (a small mining community on the West Rand) amidst the many dompas and curfew laws. Today these images have now been revived in the music videos of Mafikizolo and the ‘Stoned Cherry’ fashion label. I think I’m lucky in the sense that I have used art as an outlet for the frustrations I encountered during this time. My visual expression through painting was therapeutic and has now been transformed into what I believe to be a historical retrospective

On Jazz and Art
Jazz simply inspires me. Of all the subjects that I have dealt with, none has been re-visited like jazz. Jazz is second nature to me. I come from a family of jazz lovers. My eldest brother, Ranky, was a jazz musician. I used to hang around with him and his friends a lot. I still play the flute that he gave me. I think at heart, I am a non-practising jazz musician! Painting jazz pieces is an avenue or outlet for expressing my love for the music. As I paint, I listen to jazz and visualise the performance. Jazz performers improvise within the conventions of their chosen styles. In an ensemble, for example, there are vocal styles that include freedom of vocal colour, call-and-response patterns and rhythmic complexities played by different members. Painting jazz allows me to literally put colour onto these vocal colours. 

Jazz is rhythmic and it emphasises interpretation rather than composition. There are deliberate tonal distortions that contribute to its uniqueness. My jazz collages, with their distorted patterns, attempt to communicate all of this. As a collagist and painter, fortunately, the technique allows me this freedom of expression. Like a jazz musician who can depart from the original melody altogether and improvise on its harmonic base, I create a well-balanced final product with interesting textures, perspective and dimensions from juxtaposing pieces from different original backgrounds. What I am doing is not new though, as there are other artists before me, who painted jazz pieces e.g. Gerard Sekoto, Romare Bearden, Henri Matisse. 

The jazz musicians I chose inspire me. Their music is educational. Nina Simone for instance, sings about the suffering of African Americans. I enjoy her music and message. Modern Jazz quartets music is instrumental but meaningful.

I buy jazz CDs and DVD’s as part of my career. Miles Davis, Keith Jarrett, John Coltrane feature highly in my collection and I also have their autobiographies. Ron Carter made me love acoustic bass especially in his album with Roberta Flack “The first time I ever saw your face” – I was 17 when I first listened to it and knew pretty little about love but I enjoyed the instruments played.

In addition to the international jazz musicians in my collection, I have a number of locals like Miriam Makeba (or Mama Africa as she is affectionately known), Lemmy “Special” Mabaso, Abdullah Ibrahim etc. Their early music reminds me of Keith Jarrett’s words: “Jazz is like a vehicle that transports various traditions…” Lemmy Maseko played the penny whistle with skill; Mirriam Makeba’s “Malaika” backed by overseas musicians became a hit. Abdullah Ibrahim is a well-respected pianist. You can bring together jazz musicians from different backgrounds to perform and they will produce a stunning piece of music!