Jazz and art transcend language and culture in the work of Sam Nhlengethwa
“Jazz, I think, is a universal language and expression,” says artist and one of the founders of the Bag Factory arts organization in Newtown, Sam Nhlengethwa.
The artist is best known for his figurative paintings and collages exploring themes of social history and art, jazz, mining and domestic life. Nhlengethwa was born in 1955, in the mining community of Payneville, Springs, southeast of Johannesburg. After studying at Rorke’s Drift Art Center in the late 1970s, he attended the Johannesburg Art Foundation.
Jazz is an integral part of his creative process – legends like Abdullah Ibrahim, Miriam Makeba, Nina Simone, Hugh Masekela and Cannonball Adderley feature regularly in his work. “I always play jazz in my studio while working,” he says. In an old interview with the international art magazine Apollo, he described it “like oxygen. “It completes my life. I grew up listening to jazz music that was played to me by my two older brothers; from the age of 15, there was jazz in the house.
When he uses jazz as his inspiration, he sees it as a tribute to his late brother, Rankie Ramponeng, who was a jazz collector and musician. “I feel like every time I do a jazz piece, I pay homage to it.” “Jazz enthusiasts realize what a powerful tool it is. American jazz musician Keith Jarrett said that jazz is a means of transportation, it is a universal language that speaks to different tribes of people around the world. “Jazz music, like art, transcends all linguistic and cultural barriers,” says Nhlengethwa. A jazz musician may come from South Africa and play jazz in the marabi style, but that speaks to you whether you are from China or Cuba A Cuban artist may play a clave, a rhythmic arrangement that conjures up images of clubs dark in Havana Alley, swirling bodies enveloped in cigar smoke, and immediately the listener will be transported to that same club.
Like jazz music, Nhlengethwa’s work has the same universal language that speaks to the viewer on a deeper level. His compositions – usually mixed media collages – have harmony and rhythmic arrangement similar to a jazz composition, but also possess a spontaneity and playfulness associated with an improvised jazz riff.
South Africa’s leading auction house, Strauss & Co, is also delighted to offer four outstanding works by Nhlengethwa at its virtual live auction, which will take place from May 16-17, 2022. One auction lots, Abdullah Ibrahim and Johnny Dyani (R120,000 – R160,000) is an evocative multimedia collage featuring South African jazz legends Ibrahim and Dyani. The work shows the two musicians against a pitch black background, lost in their melodies as the rays of studio lights fall on them. The work immediately evokes a lugubrious marabi, punctuated by the sound accents of Dyani’s double bass.
The creative process
Nhlengethwa uses magazine clippings, her family albums and her own photographs, as well as books, fabrics, steel and other found objects. “A lot happens before I can even start the actual collage. I have to think of a theme and conceptualize it. Then I think about how the image I have in mind should be executed, how much acrylic or oil paint I need, compared to other materials. The perspective in the image is determined by the size of the images,” he explains. “I am inspired by my environment and where I come from. Street scenes are a big part of my art, my admiration for other artists is a factor, music and my own experiences all play a role,” he explains. “Studying at Rorke’s Drift in the late 1970s had an impact on my art – living with the villagers, studying their rural life and comparing it to the urban life where I come from.”
Nhlengethwa also worked for the SABC as a studio decorator, a craft that contributed to his popular “bedroom collages”. “I think I’ve always had a latent interest in ‘dressing up’ my creations. I would always have an idea of what I thought the final product should look like. One of these works The piano (R150,000 – R200,000) features a mid-century Scandi-style lounge chair, juxtaposed with a grand piano and an abstract artwork. Above the piano hangs the image of a musician.
Nhlengethwa is also known for his protest art, which depicts the plight of black people under the apartheid regime.
Hacking the Roots of Apartheid
“During the struggle, art and music played an important role in protest art. Artists were participating in various ways, showing their disagreement with the struggle – both locally and internationally,” he said in an interview with Khaya FM. Artists produced works that visually showed the suffering of black people in the country, while musicians like Abdul Ibrahim’s legendary song, Mannenbergbecame a worldwide hit and an anti-apartheid anthem, played at anti-apartheid rallies. “I believe that in this way, musicians and artists have contributed a little to slashing the roots of the apartheid government,” he concludes.
For more information on the sale, visit www.straussart.co.za.
The exhibition is open to the public until May 17, 2022, at 89 Central Street, Houghton Estate, JHB. Strauss & Co’s May auction in Johannesburg, which focuses on surrealism in South Africa, begins with a sale of fine wines from the private collections of Peter Veldsman and Dirkie Christowitz on Sunday May 15 at 11am. Modern Art, Post-War and Contemporary Art sessions will take place on Monday May 16 at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m., as well as on Tuesday May 17 at 7 p.m.