“What does it mean to perform?”: Thenjiwe Niki Nkosi on witnessing as a part of becoming
The Johannesburg-based artist’s work is stirringly of the time; it speaks to perceptions of identity and life’s existential realities.
Born in New York City to a South African activist father in exile and a Greek-American mother, the artist Thenjiwe Niki Nkosi’s early life was framed by the comparative realities of race relations in both South Africa and the United States. Besides growing up with parents who were not only “involved in the struggle to dismantle white supremacy,” she tells It’s Nice That, “but who often voiced their thoughts about it, it impacted the way I viewed the world. It was inevitable that this would find its way into my artistic expression.”
After Thenjiwe and her parents returned home at the end of the apartheid regime in South Africa, the new freedom in the air brought about an explosion of various forms of art in the country, and the budding artist’s impressionable mind witnessed creatives making their voices heard. It was at this point that she chose art as a medium to lend her voice. Still living in Johannesburg, South Africa, where she runs a flourishing art practice, the artist is involved in social projects centred on collaborations with people. Her activities have earned her both local and international recognitions.
The artist is cautious about the “limiting nature” of labels in art practice. “I don't consider myself primarily a painter, even if it’s the medium that I have been working in most recently. The ability to work across disciplines and be agile in doing so is important to me,” she says. The fluid facets of Thenjiwe’s art practice are observable in her bodies of work which include Gymnasium, Heroes and other genres such as performance, installation and video art. Yet her work retains a distinctive character, which as she notes, enables “whatever you create to reflect whom you were at a particular moment in time. But we are always changing, and our ideas may not be static either,” she says. Art theorists may argue for or against autobiographical art, but, says Thenjiwe, “art is always autobiographical to some extent... because in the process of making, the artist decides what should be in or out.” And that is why artists often feel vulnerable when putting their work out.
Through her work, Thenjiwe deliberately speaks to identity, “the structures that have defined racial visibility and representations, and how these contexts are navigated as a Black woman, a child of a political activist and a citizen of the world.” She does this with the frankness that is common in today’s contemporary society, with a confidence that art is a medium for continuing the process of becoming. “I once thought that to ‘grow up’ meant to finally settle on a fixed identity,” but as the artist reflects, “it's helpful to remember that the process of making art mirrors life. You always have an opportunity to find and be something new.”
Having earned a BA and an MFA from Harvard University, Massachusetts, and the School of Visual Arts, New York City, respectively, Thenjiwe says that apart from formal education, growing under her parents, who were both academics, helped her develop the ritual of looking at subjects intently. For her, research is fundamental to, and a major strand that runs through her creative processes and its impact is often evident in her work. It helps to stretch ideas to extensive possibilities. For instance, before embarking on the making of Gymnasium, Thenjiwe not only read about gymnastics, she physically visited gymnasiums to observe and talk to professionals and amateurs in order to have a multidimensional experience of the environment; taking in the smell and the sound of the games, as well as the dynamics between players, officials and audience. “You cannot experience such energies from only the books or screens,” she says.
Another evident thread in the artist’s work has its beginning in her second year of art school when she developed an interest in painting South African architectural monuments. Researching on the subject, she stumbled on the Voortrekker Monument – a building that commemorates the Afrikaners journey from the Cape to the northern part of the country. “It’s like a heavy-handed statement that sits on a hill as you drive into Pretoria. It is a piece of fascist architecture that contains horrible depictions of Africans inside,” she explains. In painting the Voortrekker Monument, Thenjiwe hit the cusp of artistic discovery, marking the beginning of a style. “I learned how to paint in thinned-out layers, and I liked the feeling that it gave to the images – something between a memory and a photograph. And that layering has become part of my painting technique.” she says.
The only student of colour who had grown up in Africa in her class, she remembers a particular teacher who singled her out and was destructive in doing so. “He liked to point out the gaps in my knowledge of European art history, and finally said to me ‘you shouldn't even be here’.” Thenjiwe said it happened in front of the whole class. “I felt humiliated.” But this distress caused her to reach deep, to paint the Voortrekker Monument on a big canvas. “I used my anger as fuel, and what emerged was my first work confronting white supremacy.”
In 2012, Thenjiwe stumbled on an image of a gymnasium on the internet. She painted it, supplanting the images of white girls in the picture with brown girls. She would revisit this concept years later. Gymnasium is Thenjiwe’s first solo exhibition which was held during the global lockdown, from 26 March to 27 June 2020 at Stevenson Gallery in Johannesburg. A few months earlier in the United States, from September 2019 to January 2020, Gymnasium was commissioned by The Africa Centre, New York City. In the form of installation, this impressive work turns the space into an arena of sorts, where the gymnast sways in her performative acts. It marked an outstanding and career-defining show of 2020, encompassing key elements that appear in the artist’s range of work which perhaps explains the wide reception it has enjoyed at home and abroad. The artist is also the recipient of the Phillippe Wamba Prize in African Studies and the Tollman Award for the Visual Arts amongst others.
Thenjiwe Niki Nkosi: Kanati (After James Kanati Allen) 2019, 50x50cm, oil on canvas (Copyright © Thenjiwe Niki Nkosi, 2019)
Thenjiwe Niki Nkosi: Okino (After Betty Okino) 2018, 50x50cm, oil on canvas (Copyright © Thenjiwe Niki Nkosi, 2018)
In Gymnasium, Thenjiwe comments on how the sport is historically white-dominated, but the artist chose to subvert this, making a statement on how we understand hegemonic notions of excellence. The artist combines research, a signature technique of applying paints in multi-layers, and her love of architectural features throughout the series. The body of work also owes its lauded reception to the artist’s skilful handling of racial symbolism, particularly the way she playfully comments on the charged topic of identity.
The paint-layering technique used for Gymnasium portrays a sense of opacity and flatness about the work. She had previously used this technique in painting Heroes and it conveyed the idea of transience for the individual figures. “I wanted to draw attention to the relationship between the individual and the collective,” says Thenjiwe. There is little or no focus on the star-athletes or the high-points of victory, “the works in Gymnasium, instead, bring to attention those in-between moments, which are often overlooked and undervalued as part of the processes of victory, as part of the performance” says the artist.
The pieces that make up Gymnasium are powerful as they leave the viewer with a vivid essence of the intended statement. In turn, the series is a way of navigating Thenjiwe’s increasing visibility in the art world while speaking to her personal experiences at the same time. It is also a way of connecting to universal sensibilities and to ask questions like, “Can anybody see themselves in this figure, in her moments of ‘triumph’ and ‘failure’? What does it mean to be visible, to be hyper-visible, to be watched, to be witnessed and to be judged? I want to say, well, what does it mean to perform? Are we always performing who we are? Is identity a form of performance on some level? These are questions that I am posing to myself and to anyone interested.”