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Artist's Joburg pied-à-terre

Text Graham Wood Styling Leana Schoeman Photographs Elsa Young Artist Sam Nhlengethwa’s primary residence is in Benoni outside Jo’burg (see our January/February 2011 issue), but he has worked from his studio in Fordsburg for many years. The rejuvenation of Newtown created the ideal opportunity for him to set up a pied-à-terre just five minutes’ walk from his studio. He was one of the first people to set up an apartment in The Newtown, a converted office building that was once the headquarters of Premier Milling, the company that dominated the area. The red roofs of the surrounding warehouses and the highway snaking by in the distance bring home the urban context above which his apartment floats, serene and peaceful. ‘The view is beautiful,’ says Sam’s wife, Maureen. ‘And you can feel the energy of the city.’ Sam uses the apartment when he’s working late. He and Maureen also like to stay there when they have social engagements in the city. ‘When there are performances in Newtown, we often stay here instead of going home,’ says Sam. Maureen adds: ‘It’s a great place to entertain friends – we sometimes have lunch here on the weekends. It’s almost like a holiday.’ Old friends such as fellow artist Zwelethu Mthethwa stay here when they’re in town. ‘Sometimes it’s simply a place to play a record and relax, and wait for the traffic to pass,’ says Sam. He’s stocked it with his favourite things: records, vintage furniture and design, books – and art, of course. ‘It’s about the fun of life… things I enjoy,’ he explains. Sam’s work is represented in every important art collection in the country and as far afield as the World Bank headquarters in the US (he was awarded the Standard Bank Young Artist Award in the pivotal year of 1994) and he in turn is a prolific collector of art. His collection includes, among others, South African greats such as Lucas Sitole, Dumile Feni, Gerard Sekoto, Marlene Dumas, William Kentridge and Cecil Skotnes. He was delighted that the flat gave him the opportunity to display some of the treasured pieces he had in storage. ‘Besides,’ he adds, ‘I feel like I’m lost when I visit someone and come across a bare wall.’ Sam is a long-time vinyl collector, especially of mid-century jazz, and owns a dozen turntables, two of which are permanently installed in the apartment. ‘In my art, I’m inspired by music. Something happens when I switch on the turntable and put the vinyl on. It brings back memories of the 1950s and 1960s,’ he says. The furniture and design of that period is also close to his heart. ‘As someone who grew up then, I look at the fashion, the craft and the design as being at its best. In those decades, that’s when things were happening. Stuff from the 1950s has lasted and today is sought after. It still inspires today’s designers.’ Apart from the sleek, blonde-wood Scandinavian furniture that dominates the flat, he loves the TVs, radios and appliances of the era. Glancing at the wooden record cabinet against the red wall, he says, ‘Look at how it has been put together… it’s a beauty.’ The urban themes and Sam’s connection to the era of township jazz and creative ferment of that time have infused his art. In turn, he has filled his city pad with its art and artefacts – an extension of art back into life. ‘It feels homely, even though it’s a B&B kind of a place,’ he says.

Sam Nhlengethwa On Art

I collect what I like – small or big names – it doesn’t matter.  Music plays a big role in my life. I always listen to music when I paint. When I was growing up art didn’t feature prominently in my family. I was the first to feel its influence. I can’t live without colour. All the walls were white when I bought the flat. I painted one wall red to give the space some character and to break up the white. Gerard Sekoto had an amazing sense of colour. There’s no way I’m parting with my vinyl records. I have over 4 000 records (and nearly 3 000 CDs). I began collecting art when I was at school. My friends and I would exchange works with other school kids. Even as a young artist, I’d exchange works with other artists. When we were young we never studied African artists. I admired Matisse, and Henry Moore when it came to sculpture. For me, the American Romare Bearden was the master of collage. Every year in about October or November, I start moving things around and rearranging our art collection, so the walls constantly change. This article was originally featured in the April 2011 issue of House and Leisure.