Who is the South African artist Nicholas Hlobo? by Lillian Gray

Hi, I am artist Lillian Gray, and today I would like to share the art of Nicholas Hlobo. 

Introduction to artist Nicholas Hlobo

Nicholas Hlobo is one of South Africa’s leading contemporary artists. Over the last decade, he has exhibited mixed media artworks and striking performance art worldwide. He uses a variety of materials to construct giant sculptures and installations. He is best known for using rubber, leather and silk ribbons – all held together with his trademark stitching. His sculptures often reference large creatures or organs, but what do they mean? In these works, Nicholas explores his cultural identity and life as a Xhosa man in Post- Apartheid South Africa. Come with me as we explore Nicholas’s life and the Xhosa culture.    

Xhosa Culture 

Did you love the famous movie “The Black Panther”? Wakanda might be a fictional place, but its language is very real. The on-screen spoken language of the Kingdom of Wakanda is isiXhosa. It is the language that the Xhosa tribe of South Africa speaks, and artist Nicholas Hlobob is part of this Tribe. 

South Africa has 11 official languages. Xhosa is one of the most recognisable ones, mainly due to the prominence of its click consonants. It is a complex language that employs three basic click sounds. To get an idea of how Xhosa sounds, you can listen to Miriam Makeba’s famous song, Qongqothwane, also known as The Click Song. 

Xhosa culture has a particular hierarchy and structure. Each person within the Xhosa culture has their place, which is recognised by the entire community. From birth, a Xhosa person goes through graduation stages which recognise their growth and assign them a place in the community. A specific ritual marks each stage to introduce the individual to their peers and ancestors. From birth imbeleko, a ritual performed to introduce a newborn to the ancestors, to homecoming, which is different for boys and girls., umphumo, from inkwenkwe (a boy) to indoda (a man). These rituals and ceremonies are sacred to the identity and heritage of the Xhosa. They are performed to mark the transition from childhood to adulthood. All these rituals are symbolic of one’s development. Before each is performed, the individual spends time with community elders to prepare them for the next stage. The elders’ teachings are not written but transmitted from generation to generation by oral tradition. 

A high value is placed on masculinity in the Xhosa tribe. Xhosa men traditionally filled the roles of hunters and warriors; therefore, animal skin forms an important part of their traditional wear.  One traditional ritual still regularly practised is the manhood ritual, a secret rite that marks the transition from boyhood to manhood, ulwaluko. Boys are painted with white clay, each given a blanket and sent off the mountain for several weeks. During the process, they observe numerous customs. Girls are also initiated into womanhood (Intonjane). They, too, are secluded, though for a shorter time. 

Respect between younger members of the tribe and the elders is vital. Young boys are deliberately not given much respect at all. In an interview with Kaleidoscope Magazine, Nicholas explained that Xhosa boys are basically treated like a dog.  The treatment is to instil fear, and respect and, most of all, create a desire to achieve. They must work at becoming a man and being respected in society. 

In Xhosa culture, boys are not given that much respect. You are treated like a dog. I think it was a way to instil anxiety and desire among boys to want to become a man, to acquire status.

– Nicholas Hlobo. 

Perhaps one of the most interesting members of this intensely traditional society is the seer, the witch doctor, more colloquially known as the ‘sangoma.’ They act as fortune-tellers and healers and are effectively the living channel between the people and their ancestors. This task generally falls to the women. They are ‘chosen’ by their ancestors when plagued with bad dreams and visitations. This is the ancestor’s way of awakening the chosen one to their role, and every apprentice must undergo at least five years of training before they are fit to wear the ‘sangoma’ mantle.

The Xhosas are intensely religious, with their ancestors acting as intermediaries in their relationship with their god. Dreams, rituals, initiations, and feasts are an essential part of their worship, and even though many have embraced Christianity, they have not forsaken their traditional belief systems. Instead, they tend to fuse the two into what is now known as the family of African Independent Religions.

Some famous Xhosa people include the great Nelson Mandela, Bishop Desmond Tutu, who coined the phrase ‘Rainbow Nation,’ former President Thabo Mbeki, assassinated Communist Party leader Chris Hani, Africa’s Queen of Song, Miriam Makeba, and the actor John Kani are all Xhosa. 

Ok, now that you know more about Nicholas Hlobo’s culture and traditions, let’s look at his journey. 


To understand Hlobo’s art, we must go back in time and look at the Zeitgeist. Zeitgeist is a fancy word that means the spirit of the time. We must ask, “What happened while Nicholas Hlobo was growing up?” When it comes to Zeitgeist, the date is always our first clue. Nicholas Hlobo was born in 1975 in South Africa. 

By investigating this period in history, you will soon realise that during this time, it was Apartheid in South Africa. Apartheid is an Afrikaans word that means separateness.  The system separated people by race into four racial categories: White people, Coloured people, Black people, and Asians. This system was super unfair. It aimed to protect white South Africans’ domination over non-whites in every aspect of life. Apartheid started in 1948 in South Africa and lasted for nearly 50 years. The Apartheid System implemented the Group Areas Act.

They created demarcated areas called Homelands non-whites had to live. At the time of Apartheid, only 20% of South Africa was white people. 70% were Black, and the other 10% were Asians and Coloured people. On this map, you can clearly see only a tiny amount of land was restricted for the other three races. The rest was all given to the white people, even though they were the minority in South Africa.  In 1987 South Africa had a lot of international pressure to change its ways and free Nelson Mandela, who was in prison for fighting against apartheid. 

The life of Nicholas Hlobo

Nicholas Hlobo was raised in one of these homelands in the 1980s. He had a rural upbringing in the Transkei in the Eastern Cape, where he lived with his grandmother. Nichola’s grandmother was strict and had a massive guiding influence on him. She always taught him to be honest and seek life’s truth. Nicholas grew up in a house without a male figure.

His grandma often used to say she wears both the bra and the pants in the house. From a young age, Nicholas started identifying with both traditionally male and female traits. With such a strong emphasis on masculinity in the Xhosa culture, he often felt different, like an outsider. He soon realised he was born gay. Being a gay Xhosa man has come with many challenges for Nicholas Hlobo. Being gay is a massive taboo in his culture. Homosexuality is deeply offensive and unsettling to the Xhosa tradition. Great emphasis is placed on the ritual surrounding manhood.

Gender and cultural identity are core themes in my work. Where I grew up, we can have a very rigid notion of masculinity: “A man is this. A man is only this.” 

Nicholas Hlobo

I think I had the wonderful blessing of not having been brought up by a man. I grew up in a house led by a woman, my grandmother, who was separated from her husband and raised me. That made me a rather different man from the traditional man. She preached to be friends with yourself and be self-reliant.

Nicholas Hlobo

Moving along in our timeline, Nelson Mandela became South Africa’s first democratically elected president in 1994. It was the official end of white minority rule. A new South Africa was born—a Democratic Country with equal rights for all regarding race, gender, and religion. Everybody came together to celebrate the birth of a new nation, the Rainbow Nation, consisting of 11 different official languages and even more tribes and nationalities. People were united, anxious, and excited about the new Rainbow Nation. Groups who were suppressed during Apartheid were free to flourish and encouraged to explore their different cultures.  

In 1995 just a year after the first democratic elections in South Africa, Nicholas moved to Johannesburg. He moved from a Mono-Culture to a Multi-Culture. Living in the diverse Johannesburg, he soon realised that other tribes disliked the Xhosa people. Some even despised them. They regarded them as a cunning, devious tribe that should not be trusted. They are sometimes seen as enjoying playing mind games with people. This made Hlobo question what it really meant to be Xhosa. What did they stand for? What were their defining traits and rituals? He came to appreciate his culture deeply. He decided to make art that honoured and preserved his culture and stories.  

Hlobo initially studied art to get a job in the film industry but later decided to pursue a career as a visual artist. At first, he explored art-making independently but enrolled at various institutions to start building his art career actively. These included the Artist Proof Studio, Johannesburg (1998), the University of Johannesburg, and obtaining a BTech in Fine Art in 2002. 

Hlobo was an artist-in-residence at the Thami Mnyele Foundation in 2005. He launched his career as a solo artist in 2006 with ‘Izele,’ an exhibition at Michael Stevenson in Cape Town.  This is where Nicholas’s big break came with his sculptural object that included colonial chairs layered with melted sunlight soap. 

Nicholas Hlobo Izele
Izele 2006 Nicholas Hlobo

The chairs are the old “Bal en klou,” meaning “Ball and Lion Paw” chairs associated with Middle-Class South Africa during the Apartheid Era. Sunlight soap was a product brought to South Africa by the colonialists and then sold throughout South Africa. It is used to wash almost everything, from hair, clothes, and floors to dishes. Some gogo’s “grandma”s even washed your mouth clean from swearing. The soap has a distinctive smell and often conjures up childhood memories. This soap has become entrenched in various cultural rituals in the Xhosa culture. Often bodies have to be cleansed with Sunlight soap as one of the steps in a particular ritual. Today Sunlight soap is no longer sold in Europe but is still immensely popular in South Africa. In Hlobo’s artwork, it is clear that the soap was melted and then sat on, imprinting the shape of a buttock. The soap cooled and dried, leaving the clear presence of someone. This installation carries various meanings. 

This incredibly striking object gained much attention and success, launching Nicholas Hlobo’s career as an artist. He won the Tollman Award for Visual Art in 2006. Then another residency followed in 2007 when he spent two months at the Ampersand Foundation in New York. During this year, Hlobo was also invited to show at the Aardklop National Arts Festival in Potchefstroom, where he produced the exhibition, ‘Umdudo.’ In 2009 he won the prestigious Standard Bank Young Artist Award. In 2010 he was chosen as the Rolex Apprenticeship winner to be mentored by Sir Anish Kapoor. All of these achievements have catapulted him onto the world stage. It has taken just a few short years for Hlobo to rise to fame. He has even exhibited at the Tate Modern in London. 

Now that you know more about Hlobo’s background, let’s look at the main themes in his artworks.

7 Themes in artist Nicholas Hlobo’s artworks 

1. The medium as the message 

Nicholas Hlobo combines various materials to create his sculptures and installations. He often combines ribbon, leather, wood, and found objects that he fuses with weaving and stitching. He creates both two- and three-dimensional art using these materials. Each material relates to the Xhosa culture and Nicholas’s life. 

He ensures that every piece of his project has meaning and connects to the narrative. He chooses materials that tell a story of his people, South Africans, and himself. The use of rubber in his artworks references township living and the pain of Apartheid South Africa. Tyers was often burnt during protests. They were also used in the infamous Necklacing deaths.  So the rubber references South Africa’s past; however, the material is also associated with cars and represents masculinity.  It also refers to modernisation. 

Leather, another recurring material in Hlobo’s practice, references cattle’s economic, social, political, and spiritual significance to Xhosa culture. In Xhosa culture, wealth is measured by cattle and the size of a chief’s Kraal. It is also often used as a currency to trade specific items. Cattle are also often slaughtered as part of various rituals. In Hlobo’s art, leather refers to Xhosa practices and values. 

Hlobo never lets a piece of material go to waste.

z He often uses a lot of everyday objects that are discarded and thrown away in the streets of Johannesburg. He was using the trash of South Africa to tell its stories. He recycles and rehashes materials giving them new meanings and associations. 

The use of bones in his sculptures refers to the sangomas in his culture. Sangomas use bones, vertebrae, and other objects for bone-throwing rituals. In these rituals, the healer scattered the bones and other objects in front of the client. The healer then reads the groupings and positionings in which the objects fall. The sangoma personally chooses each item, often because the healer feels led to the object.  The bones and objects can be read to diagnose the client’s illness or to discover what is missing from their life.

In the case of bones, sangomas carefully select them based on the animals they originate from. For example, a hyena bone is associated with a thief and may assist someone in finding a hidden or stolen object. A baboon bone falling that faces the person is a sign of favour; however, pointing in another direction could indicate death. Carnivore bones can predict the outcomes of trials. Two female bones, both facing up, indicate a conspiracy between women in the home. It is not just the objects that have meaning but also how they fall.  The indigenous healer must first identify the fall, interpret it and then prescribe medication based on the interpretation.

Once you understand all the references behind his mediums, you will soon realise Nicholas Hlobo’s artwork depicts complex stories of what it means to be an international-modern-Xhosa-black-gay-man in South Africa. 

The contrast between the materials he selects for his artworks brings me to the next theme.  

2. Juxtapositioning 

Juxtaposition is when you put two words or objects next to each that are contrasting or opposite. You do this on purpose to create contrast. For example, Nicholas places rubber next to satin ribbons. The materials highlight each other’s differences. Ribbons are soft and pretty, often used to decorate hair or gifts, unlike rubber which is hard and used in tires. The ribbons represent femininity and rubber masculinity. 

By Juxtapositioning specific materials, Hlobo plays with certain conflicting contrast and ideas. He often refers to and plays with the differences between  

  • Ancestry Worship vs Christianity 
  • Strength vs Vulnerability. 
  • Foreignness vs Familiarity.  
  • Dominance vs Submission.
  • Mental vs Physical. 
  • Traditional art and craft vs High art. 
  • Masculine vs Feminine
  • And Old vs New

He takes all these materials, cuts them, pierces them, and pieces them together with his repetitious ‘baseball’ stitch. He deliberately leaves the gashes, cuts, and stitching visible in his art.  The unravelling, stitching, mending, cutting up, weaving, and knitting together are a metaphor for the process of trying to build a new culture. He says,

We are stitching pieces of history together to build something new. A new South Africa.   The stitching can be seen as the healing of South Africa’s old wounds.

Nicholas Hlobo

Stitching, sowing and embroidery is also traditionally female craft. By combining it with masculine rubber, he explores the gender expectations within his culture.  

3. The use of Creatures and Organs 

Hlobo creates various creatures inspired by Xhosa folklore, songs, and rituals. They are usually huge and monstrous; they loom overhead or fill the entire gallery floor. His creatures are hybrid ambiguous beasts that are difficult to identify; sometimes, they could be an animal or organs. Their organic forms make them feel fleshy – some have been displayed with red lights to enhance the viewer’s feeling that they are inside a body. Often stitching and ribbons erupt from the figures evoking blood and bodily fluids pouring out. Slaughter is part of Xhosa culture. Rituals are often accompanied by slaughtering cattle. This act of violence, however, also announces a rebirth, a new beginning, or celebrates a specific milestone. 

4. The use of Musical Instruments

In Xhosa culture, you are meant to know your place within society. It is generally frowned upon to blow your own horn. As a young man, you are meant to blend in, not stand out, respect your elders, and wait your turn. Nicholas often conflicts with the expectations of his tribe and his inner desires. He uses the trumpet as a metaphor to capture his feelings regarding this.

Like most instruments, the trumpet can either stand alone or together. Nicholas creates trumpets that stand alone. Their elongated forms are also almost creature-like. It reminds me of kelp washed up on a beach in the Western Cape. The kelp was once part of a mighty kelp forest. Now it is on its own and slightly out of place on the shore. Nicholas explains that he is often seen as too ambitious. He is a Xhosa man, yet he has a deep desire to be a world-famous artist, to be seen, to be noticed, to be heard, and to share his stories and culture with the world. 

5. Blurring the boundaries between Art and Craft 

Over many years, there has been tension between art and craft. The boundaries between the two are sometimes blurred, especially regarding African Art. 

There is a general feeling of looking down at crafts with an arrogant attitude which generates remarks such as “That’s cute” For many years in Europe, most African Arts were regarded as a craft. It was not seen as high art. Even though famous European artists such as Picasso, Matisse, and the German Expressionists drew inspiration from African art, they are still celebrated for their high art. 

Today the differences between art and craft are as follows: 

  1. Art is described as an unstructured and open-ended form of work; that expresses emotions, feelings, and vision. Craft involves the creation of physical objects with a specific use. 
  2. Art relies on artistic merit, whereas craft is based on learned skills and technique.
  3. Art is well known for serving an aesthetic purpose. On the other hand, craft serves human objectives.
  4. Art gives particular attention to ideas, feelings, and visual qualities. Conversely, craft stresses the correct use of tools and materials and the application of technique.
  5. Craft can be quantified easily, which is not the case with art.
  6. Art is the consequence of an individual’s innate ability. On the contrary, the craft results from learned ability and experience.

Nicholas uses craft techniques in his artworks, blurring the boundary between art and craft. When asked about his stitching and embroidery, he says,

It’s labour-intensive work. When you stitch, some people think it’s a craft, it’s not important, but it is so demanding.

Nicholas Hlobo

6. The Rites of Passage 

As previously explained, Xhosa culture is filled with various rituals marking rites of passage. It has specific ceremonies that accompany a transition from one stage to another, such as from adolescence to adulthood. 

Each culture has events or ceremonies which mark milestones or important points in a person’s life. In Christianity, babies are baptised, or they may be confirmed when children are a bit older. Girls and boys who follow Judaism celebrate their Bar Mitzvah when they are 13 years old. Samskaras in Hinduism are sacraments that begin with one’s birth, celebrate certain early steps in a baby’s growth, and welcome them to the world.

In Western tradition, the 21st birthday is supposed to be the occasion upon which a young person becomes an adult. This was traditionally when a child was given a key to the front door of the home. In Afrikaans, the term mondig is given to young people when they turn 21, as this is when they are considered adults and can legally sign a contract.

Hlobo often references this in his work. He refers to himself, his own milestones, and South Africa, the country’s journey and rite of passage. 

7. Word Play

Most of Hlobo’s artwork titles are Xhosa. It is a language rich in idioms, puns, and layered meanings. His narrative titles reflect South African stories, some told to him as a child by his grandmother, as well as games and rhymes. Many titles are ambiguous and have deeper meanings. Nuances are lost on non-native speakers.  He titles his work in isiXhosa to firmly anchor it to the Xhosa culture and does not dumb it down or make it easier for others to pronounce. 

3 important artworks by artist Nicholas Hlobo you should know. 

1. Iimpundulu Zonke Ziyandilandela –  The Lightning Firebird (2011). 

Iimpundulu Zonke Ziyandilandela translated means “All the lightning birds are after me,” is an enormous sculpture created by Hlobo out of various materials such as tyres, ribbon, wood and an animal skull.

The artwork was first presented and created for the Venice Biennale and is an example of one of Hlobo’s creatures. The artwork is a beast with large extended wings and a horned skull head attached to a body of discarded tyres and inner tubes. 

This is a Mythological Creature from the Xhosa culture. It is associated with witchcraft and darkness in both Xhosa and Zulu cultures. It is a bird-like creature that can transform into a beautiful young man. The beast refers to an isiXhosa song about the ‘iimpundulu’ vampire. It is known to be the servant of a witch doctor, sangoma. 

Parents often used the story to scare young children into obedience. Hlobo’s impression of the mythical beast is as ominous as the song suggests.  A fleshless skull forms the head of an enormous dragon-like bird. The black wings cast the exhibition hall into deep shadow and create a sense of dread. The shorter appendages seem hurriedly attached, like the mismatched limbs of Frankenstein’s monster. The creature’s skin is rubbery, looking sickly. Red ribbons drip from the bird as it is usually drenched in blood. 

I’m telling a South African story,” explains Hlobo. “I’m not the only one who’s told it—they’re old stories—but through that, I’m celebrating my identity as a South African. 

Nicholas Hlobo

Looking at the sculpture, it is unclear whether it is male or female, and that was done intentionally. 

Through my artworks, I attempt to create conversations that explore certain issues within my culture as a South African… The conversations become a way of questioning people’s perceptions around issues of masculinity, gender, race and ethnicity. 

Nicholas Hlobo

iimpundulu zonke ziyandilandela was proudly and prominently displayed at the art world’s most prestigious 54th Venice Biennale, representing South Africa on its own – completely independent of the South African pavilion. Chief curator, Mark Coetzee, described the work as a Biennale highlight and wasted no time securing its purchase.  It has been displayed at the Zietz Museum of Contemporary African Art in Cape Town. He said 

The social value of ”limpundulu Zonke Ziyandilandela” is undeniable. lt has the potential to shift prejudices problematic to South African (and global) society; it celebrates South Africa’s cultural heritage and preserves a story designed to be lost as oral tradition fades away.

Mark Coetzee – Curator

After independently representing South Africa at the Venice Biennale and being included in an important museum collection, Hlobo’s artwork has literally and figuratively positioned itself among the greats.

2. Ingubo yesizwe, 2008 – Blanket of the Nation

The title translates to ‘clothes or blanket of the nation.’ It is an artwork of hundreds of stitched pieces of leather and rubber sewn together to create a large animal form. It is a lunging, headless beast that could have been decapitated as a sacrifice for a ritual. Plastic, ribbons, and organza spill out of the beast, depicting the ceremonial slaughter.

The title of this work relates to a commemorative practice in Xhosa culture whereby a cow’s hide is used to cover a corpse before burial, protecting the individual in their passage to the afterlife. The top part of the sculpture is made of leather, and the bottom is predominantly rubber. The top represents Xhosa practices, while the bottom rubber could also represent modernisation.  It is stitched so that the transition from one to the other is not too apparent. 

The materials used in this artwork were collected from the streets of Doornfontein, Johannesburg. Here Hlobo is stitching together pieces of leather in an attempt to heal. The combination of stitching these materials together is a metaphor for the healing of South Africa. He deliberately leaves the stitching visible. Hlobo suggests that the damage of Apartheid cannot be concealed; recovery should be celebrated instead of disguised. 

3. Igqirha Lendlela, 2007 – Backpack 

Hlobo staged a performance where he wore a customised outfit referencing a Xhosa song. It is commonly known as the ‘Click Song’ and famously sung by Miriam Makeba. It is about the tok-tokkie beetle, which, in Xhosa mythology, symbolises good luck and travelling or going on a journey. The title translates to the journey doctor or the road doctor. It also refers explicitly to the dung beetles’ journey being uphill. 

The hump suggests a burden that needs to be carried and is the historical baggage of South Africa. The idea is that an invisible backpack follows all South Africans. Hlobo explains, 

Being South African means we all carry an invisible backpack around. Sometimes it is heavy, sometimes not. Whenever you mention that you are from South Africa, people mention politics or Apartheid.

Nicholas Hlobo 

Dung Beetles are beetles that collect faeces. They gather them and roll them into a little ball. Their behaviour inspired Nicholas Hlobo to create this artwork.  Like a dung beetle, South Africa as a nation gathered faeces and moved them around. South Africa has collected trauma over the years. However, like in all things in life, there is a careful balance between good and bad. The dung beetle also needs these faeces to survive. They lay their eggs inside the dung ball, and once the eggs hatch, the ball breaks open, and a new generation of dung beetles is released.   

The journey of the dung beetle is a metaphor for South Africans in the post-Apartheid era.

Being South African, and coming from a country that is often described as the third world, we have to show that we are proud of our country and create art that demonstrates this, ” he said. “The Xhosa culture is not respected as much as it deserves. Referencing the Xhosa culture is a way of telling a story, a South African-human story that many have told before, in a way that is fresh. –

Nicholas Hlobo

Louis Vuitton Collaboration

In 2019, Nicholas Hlobo was chosen as one of six artists to redesign the famous Capucines bags. The items are sought after by many and are high fashion items. Louis Vuitton notes that the House’s close ties with the arts are woven into its DNA. Over the past decade, they have often collaborated with various artists. 

When Hlobo was asked, “Have you created fashion with this bag or art?” 

He said,

 I believe it’s a bit of both. That’s completely dependent on the person in possession of it. From my side, my interpretation of it, it’s art. The bag before the artwork is different; it’s about purpose. When it’s in my possession, it’s art. 

Nicholas Hlobo

Each piece in the Artycapucines collection was available in limited editions of 300 and retailed at $8600. 


In summary, Nicholas Hlobo is one of South Africa’s brightest art stars. His use and choice of materials make his artworks so unique and fascinating. His work is a great example of the diverse cultures in South Africa. Through his art, he strives to bring awareness of the Xhosa culture and keep it relevant. Hlobo believes that the hardships and bitterness of the past will drive the people of South Africa toward a better future for all.  

Sign off 

And that’s it for our video on the South African artist – Nicholas Hlobo. I am artist Lillian Gray and I love teaching art and art history. Remember to subscribe and ring the bell to get notified when a new video is released. This is a reminder to shop various worksheets for all ages online on our TpT website. Connect with us on social media, and let us know what video you want to see next. 

Until next time. 

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