Sam Nhlengethwa has been making paintings and collages since the 1970s. Born in 1955 in Payneville, a mining town east of Johannesburg, the artist studied at the Mofolo Art Centre in Soweto, and later at the Johannesburg Art Foundation under its founder Bill Ainslie; along with the painters David Koloane and Kagiso Patrick Mautloa, Nhlengethwa was a co-founder of the Bag Factory Artists’ Studios in 1991, which provided space and resources for Black artists in the city. Since his teens, Nhlengethwa has also been obsessed with jazz music, frequently incorporating images of performers and record covers into his paintings, textiles and collages. On the occasion of his latest exhibition at Goodman Gallery, London, Nhlengethwa spoke to Apollo about his enduring passion for the world of jazz.
There are many visual artists who cite jazz music as an inspiration, you seem particularly devoted to jazz and its personalities – as they appear in record covers, posters and on stage. What does this music mean to you?
Jazz to me is like oxygen. It completes my life. I grew up listening to jazz music that was played to me by my two eldest brothers; from when I was as young as 15, there was jazz around the house. It became part of me – as I went through high school, and then decided to go to art school, and found that jazz was my tool. I find it very awkward and odd if I’m painting in my studio without listening to it.
The show in London is my largest on the subject of jazz, and I think of the way I’ve worked to create these pieces as a kind of collaboration. Without all the composers, the players themselves, the photographers who provided all the wonderful images in the archives, the collages I make would not exist.
The exhibition includes collages of record covers, gig posters and images of performances – but there’s also an installation that is a replica of your living room, complete with an LP player. Is jazz a private passion, or does it also have a public function?
I would say it’s public – but, selfishly, I make it private. That installation in the show reflects me in my spare time, when I’m not working, sitting on a comfortable couch and calmly listening to jazz.
But jazz is also public, of course. When I make artwork inspired by European or American musicians like Miles Davis, or Ron Carter, it’s a bit different to doing painting or collage with the inspiration of [the South African musicians] Todd Matshikiza, Miriam Makeba or Hugh Masekela – because I know their struggle. Some of them had to leave the country for political reasons – it all becomes a bit emotional when I touch on the jazz of South Africa.
You have spoken previously of jazz as being above all an art of ‘interpretation’ – the same could be said of your paintings and collages. How are visual art and jazz music connected, for you?
Jazz and visual art are like the head and tail of a coin. There are musicians who are also practising artists – Miles Davis was one; Joni Mitchell was also a great painter. In that spirit, the collages I make with jazz covers are a way of paying homage to the artists who made them, but also to the musicians who chose these images to be on the front of their album, who took inspiration from them. So there’s a very strong relationship between visual art and jazz. Particularly here at home in South Africa – photographers, musicians and artists are so close together, all under the same umbrella.
Jazz lovers and art lovers also share something of an urge toward building collections – on display at Goodman is a portion of the extensive record collection you’ve amassed over the years…
Yes, it wasn’t that easy! When I started collecting I was staying with my parents. From time to time, when I went to a record shop to buy something, when I came home I had to hide it, because to my mother it didn’t make sense that I go and feed my passion – I could have contributed or donated that money to my family. So it was very difficult. But as I said, jazz has been part of me for so many years.
I used to carry in my bag – I still do, in fact – an A5 sketchbook, and I would go to jazz clubs, sit in a corner and sketch the performers. We went often to [the jazz club] Kippies on a Friday evening. Once on a Saturday night, outside a restaurant near my studio, there were some guys busking. I opened my bag, realised I didn’t have my sketchbook, so on the back of an envelope I did a sketch – I still have that sketch. When I pulled out my sketchbooks [for the exhibition], I realised I’ve done and seen so much, sketched so many musicians, over the years.
What’s the greatest concert you’ve ever been to?
It was about three or four years ago, in the south of France, at a place called Saint-Émilion where I was a visiting artist. I saw Charles Lloyd – he was playing with some youngsters, but it was such a beautiful show. Two or three days later there was a concert there – Kyle Eastwood, playing with Jean-Luc Ponty. I saw Richard Bona, I saw Stacey Kent… I’ve been spoilt all these years to see top musicians. In Cape Town, I’ve seen Hubert Laws, Ron Carter, Nina Simone… yeah, I’ve seen quite a few!
‘Sam Nhlengethwa: Jazz and Blues at Night’ is at Goodman Gallery, London, until 25 September.