Award-winning artist Thenjiwe “Niki” Nkosi’s debut solo exhibition, ‘Gymnasium’ (26 March – 30 April 2020), opened virtually, and uses gymnastics as a metaphor to interrogate the notion of excellence and the politicisation of bodies.
By: Thanduxolo “Thandz” Buti
Main image: Supplied
After participating in countless group exhibitions, nationally and internationally, the multi-form painter has finally presented her solo exhibition through Stevenson Art Gallery.
In 2019, Nkosi was the receipt of the coveted Tollman Award for the Visual Arts, which comes with a R100 000 grant, and helps critically acclaimed artists hindered by limited resources expand their artistic practices.
Past recipients of the award include artists like Zanele Muholi, Nicholas Hlobo, Sabelo Mlangeni and Mustafa Maluka, to name a few.
Nkosi’s opening on 26 March, in Johannesburg, was one of the highly anticipated events in 2020, but the same week South Africa found itself in an unprecedented crisis.
The very same day of the opening, the country was set to go on a 21-day nationwide lockdown – which has since been extended till end of April – in efforts to flatten the coronavirus (COVID-19) curve.
“Some people have been feeling sorry for me that the exhibition opened during this time,” says Nkosi. “However, I would not say that I am disappointed. While it’s been a stressful time, I think it’s almost surreal and important that it opened now.
“I feel like it confirms these ideas that I grapple with, of being the centre of attention. Especially this notion of a solo show – this singular focus – which is something I never had before.”
“Also, putting the show together was a great reminder of the power and necessity of a community. Even though the focus is on my artistic voice, the coming together of the show was a group effort. Because of that, there are also other voices to be heard within the work as well.”
In order to comply with the social distancing regulations, which prevent gatherings of a hundred and more, Nkosi hosted a virtual opening on Instagram Live (IG Live) .
She describes the experience as symbolic to her. “It signified the end of one moment and the beginning of another.
“As everything shut down physically, the virtual space allowed me to connect with an even wider audience, beyond just South Africa.”
The Johannesburg-based artist was born in New York and lived in Harare for a couple of years, before eventually settling in South Africa.
Nkosi holds a Bachelor’s Degree (BA) from Harvard University and a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) from the School of Visual Arts in New York.
Blacklight: What sort of meaning does “Gymnasium” carry for you?
Thenjiwe Nkosi: The work has multiple meanings. It’s very personal to me, and it also explores my politics and the politics I am interested in. Often as a black artist or as an artist of colour your work is immediately read as autobiographical. That is why so many people ask me, “Are you a gymnast?” Or “were you a gymnast?”
The work is purely conceptual. The sport is just a metaphor for the experience of being a person, the idea of performing yourself (your identity), your skill and talent, and being witnessed and judged, succeeding and failing, in the face of onlookers.
BL: Was there a particular incident or moment in your life that inspired the concept?
TN: I wouldn’t say there was a particular incident or moment; it sort of unfolded over time. I painted the first image of the series around 2012, and there was something that spoke to me about the source image, which was a gymnast performing in the centre of a gymnasium surrounded by judges and spectators.
In my painting I translated the image into my own mythological world. There was something powerful about this performer who had just completed a routine. In a way, it was sort of defiant, and saying, “I have done this, and whether or not you approve, or whatever score you give me, I persist – regardless.” As an artist this is something that I had to contend with and learn from, which is to be no matter what.
BL: You were born in America and raised in the East Coast of the US, and eventually lived in Harare. How has your eclectic cultural background influenced you as an artist?
TN: My father was part of the PAC (Pan African Congress of Azania) leadership, in what was then the Witwatersrand, working directly with Robert Sobukwe. He was exiled in the 60s.
Even when he met my mother, who was originally from the USA (United States of America) with Greek roots, the idea was always to return to South Africa when the political climate had stabalised. In 1989 we moved to Zimbabwe for a couple of years and, in 1992, like many people who had been exiled, we returned to South Africa.
I believe that all black people have to deal with the questions of double consciousness, which is something that has been at the fore of my life experience – how I perceive myself and how others perceive me. There are complicated questions around race, nationality and belonging, which underpin my work, whether consciously or unconsciously.
BL: When did you truly know that you wanted to be an artist?
TN: I think maybe in Matric, but I didn’t know what it would mean professionally. I knew that I wanted to make art but I could not envision what that would look like. I knew I wanted to make things but, I had no idea what it meant to be an artist (laughs).
BL: How did being an artist work out for you?
TN: After graduating from university I knew that I would need to think quite literally about how I could turn this into a profession, something I could sustain myself with. I am now 39, and it was only in 2019 when I did not have to teach or have other alternative jobs to sustain myself. At some point I was teaching both at Wits University and UJ (University of Johannesburg), doing design and illustration work, while also trying to have a studio practice.
BL: During that period, did you believe that at some point things would eventually come together?
TN: No. I had to accept the reality that I would have to sustain this [art] practice through other work. I thought my attention would always be split and I would have to work extra hard, forever. I accepted that as my reality. It was not particularly sad but rather cynical. I accepted the compromises as the means to keep creating and maintaining my practice.
BL: Was your family ever concerned about the route you were taking?
TN: Luckily, my parents were very encouraging. They saw me working hard and they knew that I was trying to make something of myself. However, my dad was also concerned about the sustainability of an art career, especially considering that I was working extra hard just to keep it going.
Despite the general concerns, I did have support. I guess part of it was that my parents came from realistic families who did not support their dreams. So maybe they saw a part of them that was denied in me pursuing my dream and that allowed them to be more supportive.
BL: How gratifying was it to win the Tollman award in 2019?
TN: It was an honour. It was also helpful to my practice. It’s always encouraging to be recognised for your hard work, but, I have a complicated relationship with prizes. I don’t know how one can truly judge art – how they are able to come to the conclusion that this great art and that’s bad art.
BL: Is that because your journey as an artist was a bit complicated?
TN: I think so. Perhaps in the hustle of it all, I had to validate my own work and not worry about the praise or adoration from others. You have to let all of that go in order to get the essence of creation. It is nice to get likes on Instagram and Facebook, along with media coverage, but, you cannot get caught up in that. You want to touch and move people with your work. So, whether there is praise or criticism I have to keep creating.
BL: What do you know now about your evolution as an artist?
TN: I know that what you put in – to your soul, spirit and consciousness – will affect what comes out. Even when I was creating this work I was conscious about what I poured into my consciousness. And I feel like that is what enables me to create work that I can stand by.
BL: What is it that you are consciously narrating though your art?
TN: How to love and be at peace with yourself.