Q&A With Artist Sam Nhlengethwa

INTERVIEWED BY Lindi Brownell Meiring IMAGES courtesy of Sam NhlengethwaWits Arts Museum

Wits Art Museum is currently hosting a retrospective exhibition, curated by Boitumelo Tlhoaele, that highlights the extensive body of print work created by iconic South African artist Sam Nhlengethwa.

With jazz as an underlying theme, the exhibition, entitled Leeto: A Sam Nhlengethwa Print Retrospective, focuses on work created between 1978 and 2018.

We caught up with the renowned artist to find out how his journey began, what he loves most about printmaking and how jazz has inspired his work.

How did your artistic journey first begin?

I can trace my artistic journey back to when I was at primary [school] in Ratanda Location in Heidelberg where I grew up. I used to illustrate my classmates’ books.

Your new exhibition at Wits Art Museum celebrates your work since 1978. Is there a highlight from your career that stands out for you most?

It has been a leeto, a journey, indeed. I have enjoyed working and experimenting with different types of prints. I did printmaking in Rorke’s Drift, but it took a back seat when I started doing collage. As the winner of the Standard Bank Young Artist of the Year award in 1994, I had to prepare a new body of work. I decided then to exhibit different types of media under the theme of jazz. Prints were part of the media I exhibited. I worked with Mark Atwood of The Artists’ Press on lithographs. Since then I have enjoyed the process of lithography and have ventured into other types of prints too.

The underlying theme of the exhibition is jazz. How has jazz inspired your work over the years?

I grew up around a brother that listened to jazz – my late brother Rankie was a jazz musician. I always play jazz in my studio while working and at home when entertaining friends or just chilling. Jazz simply inspires me. It’s my chill pill. The sound of jazz just pumps my creative juices, which then get translated onto the canvas.

Then take the first solo (2012)

As mentioned on The Artists’ Press website, your work often deals with the movement of people, paying homage to people and places. Why is this important to you?

I paint what I like. I paint what I see around me. To me, interaction with one’s surroundings is important. I connect with my surroundings and they impact what I produce. I live in Johannesburg. It is a vibrant city. Every day there are gems to feed the eyes. It deserves to be appreciated and documented.

You’ve created 163 prints with The Artists’ Press. What do you love most about printmaking?

I particularly like lithography. The process is laborious but fulfilling. I begin by making an original artwork, mostly in collage. I bring together different pieces to make one piece. During the printmaking process, I kind of “dismember” the piece through different colour plates. In the end, I put the colours on the plates together and reproduce the image.

Precisely my point (2012)

What advice would you give to emerging artists?

Be patient. Focus. Experiment with different media and themes. Stay disciplined.

Leeto: A Sam Nhlengethwa Print Retrospective at Wits Art Museum runs until 17 August 2019. For more information, visit wits.ac.za/wam.