What everyone knows
28 January – 18 February 2012
Opening Saturday January 28 at 14:00
Musician/artist Stompie Selibe will play a tribute to Nhlanhla Xaba at the opening
Preview by appointment
Exhibition catalogue available
It is almost ten years since Nhlanhla Xaba, a young, promising artist died in the fire that destroyed the Artist Proof Studio premises in President Street, Johannesburg on 9 March 2003. He was working on a new body of work for his solo exhibition at GALLERY AOP later that year. This exhibition honours his memory and his work.
Xaba’s artistic output ranges from depictions of life in rural South Africa, torn apart by political forces, to images of resistance to oppression, the challenges of reconstructing a new nation, and the squalor and overcrowded living conditions of urban people, even after democracy. These political and economic realities have become all too familiar and indeed ‘common knowledge’ for all South Africans. His work was, however, not merely an amalgam of typical images that readily captured the political and economic hardships of South Africa: it also captured what everyone feels about these atrocities and is intensely personal.
“In my art I attempt to convey a painter’s struggle. I am concerned with shifting boundaries, mental and physical. On the canvas, and in life, these boundaries are continuously shifting and are complex, revolving around the politics and economics of time and place and physical space; history and geography, in other words. These boundaries are also the urban and the rural, the contemporary and the traditional.
'I don’t attempt to convey the simplicity of representation. I am interested in a more complex and layered process. Neither the painting nor the approach I adopt in my art is an attempt to surprise the viewer – instead it recreates what everyone knows. It reflects the processes of life and of living.” (1998)
The title of the exhibition is taken from the above excerpt from Xaba’s artist’s statement in the catalogue that accompanied his Standard Bank Young Artist exhibition, In Between, in 1998. What everyone knows captures the vast body of knowledge and insight into human nature and circumstance that is contained within his oeuvre, created before his untimely death.
Xaba represented the quintessential post-apartheid dream: he epitomized the self-tailored artist paying his way as a common worker while training as an artist, assisting young underprivileged artists and finally being awarded the highest accolade by the art establishment when he was named Standard Bank Young Young Artist in 1998.
Between 1977 and 1979 Xaba worked as an ordinary worker at Jabula Milling Company in Springs, funding his Matric studies with his wages, which he completed in 1981. Madi Phala, an artist and designer, acted as his artistic mentor at this time, the two of them living and working together for the sake of their art. In 1981 Xaba went to Rorke’s Drift, the famous Evangelical Lutheran Church Art and Craft Centre in KwaZulu-Natal, only to experience the closure of this illustrious institution. Back in Gauteng Xaba took up manual labour again, working at Van Leer, an egg container manufacturing company in order to save money for tertiary studies. In 1985 he went back to KwaZulu-Natal, to the Mangosutho Technikon where he enrolled for an Architectural Drafting diploma. His funds, however, dried up too soon as anticipated and he had to leave after one year of studies. Xaba then enrolled at the African Institute of Art at Funda Centre in Diepkloof, Soweto in 1986. (The arts education programme was originally linked to the Fine Arts Department of Unisa, and later to the Wits Fine Art and History of Art Departments, for accreditation purposes.)
At Funda he met two of the most important people in his life: Charles Nkosi, who took artistic leadership at the Institution and Matsemela Manaka, who awakened in Xaba his deep-seated political awareness at the time of the State of Emergency in South Africa. Nkosi, in a way, compensated for the disappointment Xaba suffered for not being able to study at Rorke’s Drift by imparting many aspects of his own training at Rorke’s Drift, and his artistic skills in printmaking to his Funda students. Manaka directly and indirectly stimulated many of the political themes that are readily observable in Xaba’s art.
Xaba is often described as an artist-activist and the period immediately following the elections of 1994, saw him wrestling with the complexities of the fledgling democracy, such as the squalor and over-crowded living conditions of many people, as well as the rise in HIV/Aids cases in South Africa. He was compelled to participate in creating awareness about these and other socio-political issues in and through his participation in various public print portfolio projects and campaigns. In 1991 Xaba became co-founder and co-director of the Artists Proof Studio where he helped nurture a new generation of printmakers and where he also benefitted in his personal artistic capacity from the new, improved facilities for printmaking. Between 1978 and 2003 Xaba participated in close to 30 group exhibitions and held four important solo exhibitions: at the Luca Gansser Studio, Lugano, Switzerland (1990), at the Berman Gallery, Johannesburg (1992), at the National Festival of the Arts, Grahamstown (1998), and at Art on Paper Gallery in 2004.