Seeing music and listening to paintings through the artworks of Sam Nhlengethwa


By Mamelodi Marakalala

Sam Nhlengethwa (b. 1955) is a celebrated South African artist whose art practice has been illustrious since the 1970s. He started honing his skills at his alma mater, the Johannesburg Art Foundation, in the 1980s. Nhlengethwa also attended the Art and Craft Centre in Rorke’s Drift, KwaZulu-Natal, and studied through Mofolo Art Centre in Soweto, Gauteng. His has been exhibited work across, South Africa, the United Kingdom and the United States of America. 

Some of Nhlengethwa’s notable exhibitions include the Homeage to Jazz (1994-1995) travelling showcase, which was the outcome of his Standard Bank Young Artist Award win; All That Jazz (2002) at the Kubatana Moderne Gallery in Georgia; Life, Jazz, and Lots of Other Things (2014) at the Trois Gallery, SCAD Museum of Art, and Gallery 1600 again in Georgia; Jazz and Blues at Night (2021) at the Goodman Gallery’s London location; as well as the South African Pavilion’s Imaginary Fact: Contemporary South African Art and the Archive exhibition at the 55th La Biennale di Venezia in 2013. His works are held in public and private collections such as the Johannesburg Art Gallery (JAG), Durban Art Gallery (DAG), Iziko South African National Art Gallery (ISANG), Standard Bank’s Head Office, Absa, Botswana Art Museum, Museum of Fine Arts Houston, amongst many in South Africa and abroad. 

A pioneer in the South African arts and cultural landscape, Sam Nhlengethwa was one of the founders of the Bag Factory Artists’ Studios in Johannesburg, which was aimed at supporting Black artists through studio space and resources. He was a part-time teacher at the Johannesburg-based Federative Union of Black Artists (FUBA). He participated in multiple workshops and some art projects with social impact. Nhlengethwa also worked in television for over a decade, as a studio set designer at the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC). 

In his practice, Nhlengethwa explores the city. Specifically, the sociopolitical events and diverse identities interwoven into the city’s concrete structures. It draws attention and pays homage to varying elements of daily life such as the cityscapes, interiors, cultures, moments, political and social figures, artists, and jazz musicians. Jazz occupies a prominent space in Nhlengethwa’s practice and has made its way into many of his paintings and collages. 

Nhlengethwa was born into a family that loved jazz and grew a love for it at a very young age. Jazz is how he bonded with his two older brothers, one of whom was a jazz musician. Jazz is in his ear when he works and when at leisure. He recalls going to jazz clubs and sketching the performers from a corner of the room, on his A5 sketchpad. You can also imagine Nhlangethwa playing the empowering vocals of Nina Simone, the soul-hitting tunes of Miriam Makeba, or one of Todd Matshikiza’s music scores in his space as you read this. “It is so normal for me to paint and listen to jazz. It’s so inspirational,” Nhlengethwa says.

An interplay of visual perception and auditory imagination 

The purpose of every art object is to create an experience. Many of us take up space at the galleries and museums to pick apart the works of art and gain that experience – the aesthetic experience. Many factors come into play in this phenomenon of seeing and being transported to various specific mental states during an encounter with an art object. 

Some scholars have considered the beauty of an artwork as a core factor of influence in the experience of it; claiming that the more beautiful a painting is, the more of your attention it has, and the more it can have an emotional impact on you. Other scholars say it is the story or the subject matter of the artwork that plays a significant role in how people feel about it; theorising that a painting is given the power to move you a certain way. This list, of copious schools of thought trying to understand what perceptually encountering art means and where internally responding to art comes from, is endless. Yet, in experiencing Sam Nhlengethwa’s jazz-inspired and jazz-infused artworks, the factor of imagination stands out most. 

It is imagination that allows the viewer to play around with what the work of art is and what it could be. Imagination also empowers the viewer with the freedom lodged between their anticipation of the artwork and the work’s form, subject matter, and any text or context accompanying it. Additionally, imagination allows one to step into the space and mind of the artist to create a noteworthy experience for yourself in your encounter with their artwork. 

Sam Nhlengethwa’s jazz works feature specific and beloved figures and scenes in the South African and international jazz musical and cultural landscape. In South Africa, jazz music made its rise during a time of unrest and struggle. It served to fight, or call for a fight, against the apartheid system that oppressed them and their fellow Black people. As such, it holds important history and connection for many South Africans, across generations. Nhlengethwa says, “During the times of the UDF, etcetera, art and music played a major role in protest. Artists were participating in various ways, locally and internationally, to protest against the way the system was in South Africa.” 

The Jazz and Blues at Night (2021) exhibition, included three colour lithographs each portraying John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley blowing into their saxophones, Miles Davis into a trumpet, and Bill Evans playing the piano with a cigarette in his mouth. The Sextet five colour lithograph portrays a band consisting of a pianist, drummer, trumpeter, double bassist, and two sax players  All have been captured in their state of performance; and they have a seriousness on their faces, channelled into their craft on the stage, their eyes are either closed or stern, and their hands and fingers are precisely positioned on their instruments. 

In these artworks, viewers get a more intimate sense of the musicians’ presence in jazz and society. Because they are some of the biggest names in jazz, the mood of these portraits suggests a look beyond their very well-known names and invites a full immersion into their talent and passion. Many musicians are associated with their songs, melodies, or instrumentals. Just looking at them in an art piece can trigger the rhythms or feel of their hit songs, or the sounds of the instruments they are playing. 

In this same exhibition, mixed-media paintings portray a wider scene of the night and performance, rather than zooming in on the musicians. The Count Basie’s Band collage features images of multiple bands congested into one frame and made into one enormous band performing for one unified crowd. My free-form dream band also congests several artists into one band and features eight snippets of an article on jazz at the top of the canvas – as if it is a roof over these musicians’ heads. A quote reads, “Jazz itself resulted from that sort of coupling, a marriage between the music of Africans transported to America and the Anglo-Saxon rhymes of the slave owners.”

In contrast to the portraiture in the lithographs, the collages create a higher potential for immersion. The medium of collage allows the artwork to carry as many elements as possible or as desired by the artist, which can also elicit the feeling that more could still be added. The burden typically falls on the artist to question whether the collage is complete. In the case of these Sam Nhlengethwa collages, the viewer is called to imagine themselves as one of the elements to add, to become another face in an array of many. This creates a sense of being at a jazz concert or performance. 

There is a strong history of an interconnectedness between music and the visual arts; with many artists also being musicians and many artists painting musical performances, and other such conflating instances. Sam Nhlengethwa’s art practice has been imbued with jazz to a point where they have become synonymous and inseparable. “Since then [referring to his earlier experiences of jazz with his brothers], I looked at jazz as a source of inspiration to me. I just become so dry and off if it’s that period of loadshedding and I can’t play music in my studio because [the music] keeps me going. So there’s a very strong influence and inspiration that’s in me that I get from jazz,” Nhlengethwa says. He continues, “There are jazz musicians who were painters. Miles Davis is one of them, Mal Waldron and Joni Mitchell, to name but a few. Even our local artist Bra Stompie [Manana] is a trumpeter and a watercolourist. So, there’s a balance. I just envy to be a musician, but I can’t. I just have the upright bass and I try.” 

Music and art, individually and together, impact the senses and elicit strong emotional responses. Going back to the idea of stepping into the artist’s mind and his world, as well as considering that Nhlengethwa’s mental space and artistic world are pervaded with jazz music, the musicians, their performances and presence, the proposed interplay of visual perception (seeing the music) and auditory imagination (listening to the paintings) is pertinent to the aesthetic experience of his jazz works.

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