Practice of Interest
Examining perceptions and questioning the gaze
with Thenjiwe Niki Nkosi
Practicing since 2009, Thenjiwe Niki Nkosi is an interdisciplinary artist using the spectacle, patriotism and gathering aspects of sports to dissect the performative ways power, race, identity and representation manifest themselves in public spaces. Recently in Sharjah, where her ongoing series Heroes is presented as a part of Sharjah Biennial, FNB Art Joburg recently caught up with Nkosi.
With a practice that she describes as being in “many pots”, Nkosi’s interventions go beyond the solo exhibition convention. Taking place in lecture halls, through public murals, in spearheading curatorial projects and participating in several biennials, her practice is rooted in an incessant searching and sharing.
Established in 2012, Heroes is an ongoing series of oil paintings on canvas paying tribute to figures who resisted apartheid and colonialism. These include Elizabeth Brooks, Robert Doyle Bullard, Melania Chiponda, Jimi Hendrix, Pamela Sunstrum and Machos Busisiwe Khoza.
At Sharjah Biennial 15, Nkosi questions the figures that come to mind when we talk about how we arrived at democracy from apartheid. Taking history into her own hands, she asked herself who would visualise her idea of liberation and why. Complicating personal heroes, their nuances and feats, she acknowledges political (or social) influence in narrative building – in how and who we remember.
Kin to ID photos, the portraits live on square canvases without contextualising backgrounds in an effort to offer the figures timelessness. Fashioning new dimensions to historical narratives, the series almost offers an inclusive notion of personhood while rejecting the conventions of hero worship.
Tackling both public and private histories, Nkosi likened experiencing her presentation at Sharjah Biennial 15 to reckoning with her practice. “Maybe reckoning is not the word. But seeing these portraits from the Heroes series together all this time later said more about me than it did about the people I was painting. It offered me an opportunity to examine my perception and question my gaze,” concludes Nkosi.