In praise of those who bear the nation’s baggage
Nkhensani Rihlampfu has discovered the symbolism and uses of rope to produce his remarkable new sculptures
Meet Nkhensani Rihlampfu, a versatile artist who is making his mark in the industry at a fast rate. Rihlampfu’s work has evolved over the past few years from drawing, printmaking, painting, and now sculpting with ropes. After participating in many group shows and projects over the years, in April he took a big step with his first solo exhibition, Cognition, at MmArthouse, a black-owned gallery in Johannesburg.
Through his rope sculptures, Rihlampfu explores the labour-intensive work and the psychology behind what keeps some individuals moving forward despite their situation and status in the societies they live in.
Rihlampfu says he takes a positive stand on the weight carried by both the country and families. He pays tribute to their courage and strength through his rope sculptures. These are the people who contribute to our communities despite their circumstances, says Rihlampfu. “They move us forward with no regard to the weight that they are carrying with them.”
Rihlampfu has transitioned into a multifaceted artist. His art journey started when he was still in school in Limpopo in the town of Modimolle, formerly known as Nylstroom. Although art was not part of the curriculum at the primary and high schools Rihlampfu attended, he found mentors around him who coached and helped him nurture his talent. He attended extra classes for a few months while in high school to help him improve his skills.
After matric, Rihlampfu studied fine and applied arts at the Tshwane University of Technology where he majored in printmaking and painting. After his fascinating transition to rope sculptures from drawing, painting and printmaking, it’s safe to say that Rihlampfu was born with an astounding artistic aptitude.
After graduating in 2011, he worked for the government in order to sustain himself but he realised that all the time he was investing in his job was detracting from his passion. He quit in less than a year to focus on his art. Starting in 2013 he worked for the Bronze Foundry for three years where he honed his skills in sculpting.
“I was so fortunate because the foundry gave me a platform to work with established artists such as William Kentridge, Nandipha Mntambo, Nicholas Hlobo and many more,” he says.
In 2016 he decided to open his own art studio and in the same year he was selected to take part in a number of heritage-related projects where, together with Louis Olivier, he did several sculptures of struggle icons such as Robert Sobukwe, OR Tambo and Alfred Mangena.
Over the years, his work has featured in a number of exhibitions, including the FNB Joburg Art Fair, the Turbine Art Fair and the Nirox Winter Sculpture Fair.
He says he is inspired to do something new from everything that surrounds him and the people he engages with on a daily basis. As much as drawing and painting are more cost effective to produce, he has realised that the market is also responding well to his sculptures — although it’s expensive to produce.
“However, it does not mean that I have stopped drawing either,” says Rihlampfu. Most of his drawings are used as a reference for his sculptures. “I enjoy seeing the same things on different platforms.”
Rihlampfu has been making sculptures out of rope for the past two years. So how did this come about? “I was brainstorming for the next idea and while looking at my old drawing of people carrying sandbags, it ignited the idea of using luggage as a metaphor for the baggage that people carry.”
The best way to communicate that was using human statues with cloth wrapped around them. “Then I thought of breaking down the components of a cloth which landed me on the notion of threads. However, threads were not strong enough to create sculptures with and I stumbled upon the idea of making ropes,” Rihlampfu explains.
“In passing, I mentioned what I wanted to do to my helper and asked where I can get the ropes. She told me that I can actually do my own ropes using cloths and she showed me how to do it. So I started doing my own research on the quality of materials that can be used for this and also spoke to clothing designers. It has been a fascinating and very educational journey,” he says.
On his solo exhibition, Rihlampfu says he is proud to have had it at a black-owned gallery, adding that “this is an exhibition of history. As people we all have a story to tell, we just express it differently.”
Muzi Mavuso (MmArthouse) was founded in 2017 by banker Muzi Mavuso, who is a passionate collector of contemporary art by young emerging artists.
Rihlampfu’s exhibition was curated by Sara McGee, art curator and director of MStudio Community, with the assistance of Togo Ntokozo Langa, art curator and strategist of MmArthouse.
Langa says that “working with Nkhensani has been a breathtaking experience. His humility and vision are unparallelled.”
MmArthouse aims to educate young black professionals about art and “break the myth that art can only be appreciated by a certain demographic group. We believe in making art accessible to everyone, for that will allow the growth of artists.
“We mainly focus on black artists. Most artists have the skill but lack spaces where they can showcase it — it is such artists that we open our doors for. We are, however, not limited to hosting the emerging artists only. We also showcase works of well-seasoned artists, as this creates an artistic ecosystem that caters for every client.”
Rihlampfu ends by saying his exhibition is just the beginning of what he has in store for us and that the world is not yet ready for what he is still going to show.
- Rihlampfu's art will next be exhibited at the RMB Turbine art fair in July.