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Fridge wrapping becomes a giraffe… and other visions — artist Lwazi Hlophe on his ‘automatic’ inspiration

Fridge wrapping becomes a giraffe… and other visions — artist Lwazi Hlophe on his ‘automatic’ inspiration
'Nkosi Sikelela iAfrica': This artwork is a visual prayer inspired by the resurgence of Africa, drawing from the essence of a song penned by Enoch Sontonga and later adopted as South Africa’s national anthem. It encapsulates a prayer of gratitude. (Photo: Lwazi Hlophe)

His work comes through visions that are based on human experience and memory, but it also touches on identity.

I first met Lwazi Hlophe when we were studying photography at the Market Photography Workshop in Newtown, Johannesburg, in 2003. He was well-mannered, hard-working and had no difficulty expressing himself, especially when it came to his work.

He subsequently started touring with the Afro-pop music group Malaika, when they were still a trio and not yet famous, as their photographer and tour manager. In 2004 he became chief photographer for the now defunct Y-Mag, which targeted the Y-generation, with an emphasis on urban street culture and post-apartheid black South Africa, especially kwaito.

In 2008 Hlophe’s work gradually started disappearing from the public domain, only to resurface years later as a different form of art.

Visiting the artist

Late in 2023 I discovered his work online and was again flabbergasted by the amazingly compelling and delightful drawings, paintings and sculptures that he has been producing since 2010.

Eventually my curiosity led me to his house in Kensington, Joburg, which he and his wife Zola have been revamping since moving in with their teenage children, Langelihle and Thembi, about eight years ago.

We caught up for a bit about life and family matters, and then delved straight into how it all began.

Lwazi Hlophe

Each one teach one: This delves into and accentuates the black oral history of indigenous knowledge that often finds itself marginalised and, at times, appropriated by colonialism and capitalism. (Photo: Lwazi Hlophe)

“You know, it is so weird, I never look for inspiration,” said the 44-year-old interdisciplinary artist while preparing ingredients to cook pancakes in the kitchen, which is next to his office.

He then explained that touching a surface of anything – wood, cardboard, a piece of paper or a pen – might trigger creativity for him.

A month ago he bought a fridge that came wrapped in cardboard and plastic for protection. While unwrapping it, a vision came to him, and hours later the cardboard had been turned into two tall stunning black-and-white giraffes. The beautifully framed pieces are now among the many at the gallery space-lounge awaiting potential buyers.

“So, I never yearn for inspiration. For me it’s automatic,” he said.

His work comes through visions that are based on human experience and memory, but it also touches on identity. He is a spiritual vessel for his ancestors and feels honoured for the connection with them.  

Background

As the only child to parents who were both teachers, Hlophe had plentiful materials with which to practise his drawings at home in Vosloorus. When visiting his grandparents in Katlehong he would watch his grandmother embroidering Ndebele blankets, while his carpenter grandfather would make ostrich sculptures.

However, his most memorable moments were watching gogo Skosana, who used to care for him sometimes after school, making beautiful mats from discarded plastic bags and long dry grass.

His break came when he moved from a township school to affluent schools that offered art classes. He later studied interior design at Wits University before dropping out to pursue photography.

Working independently

During different phases of his life Hlophe continued to create art, and his incredible charcoal-on-paper pieces he calls The Puppet Master’s Hands and Illusion of Freedom were mistaken for works by William Kentridge.

“I took them to Silverton to be scanned and they [later] put the photos on their social feed. When an art collector from Australia saw them, he immediately contacted them, asking why he did not know about William Kentridge’s latest production.”

The following week the collector flew to Johannesburg and paid Hlophe handsomely for the three pieces that he acquired out of five that were presented.

Since then Hlophe hasn’t looked back. His latest work is a reflection of his Swati and Ndebele heritage, and has attracted more local and overseas collectors.

Umkhulu Grandpa: This artwork serves as a tribute to an ancestral figure, often recognised as a grandfather or grandmother, who is believed to watch over and protect each of us. These revered ancestors are considered our spirit guides, offering guidance and protection from the ethereal realms. (Photo: Lwazi Hlophe)

Despite such success working independently, he does not have gallery representation because of how they are run.

“How the galleries respond to my work and what they want to charge for it or start me off does not make sense to me,” he said with disappointment. “I question things, not out of disrespect but curiosity to understand how their business works, and they think I’m a bit problematic.”

Read more in Daily Maverick: The art of dreams and dead wood – South Africa’s ‘living treasure’ Noria Mabasa still a tireless inspiration

Galleries, including auction houses, charge between 40% and 50% in commission sales, and Hlophe believes they should be charging based on the quality of work, not popularity. What upsets him the most is that whenever he presents his work, most galleries marvel at his talent, but they question whether he made it.

His major goal is not to be resentful about the past, but he dreams of a time when he will have representation that will allow him to contribute to the art culture and transcend his economic circumstances.

While his dream is in the process of manifesting, he serves me delicious pancakes with cinnamon and maple syrup. DM

Oupa Nkosi is a senior photojournalist.

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.

DM168 front page

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