A place to call his own: In studio with Nicholas Hlobo

In the bustling residential-turned-arts-hub of Lorentzville, there stands an old blue building. It used to be a synagogue, although no one’s practised their faith there for some time now. Well, not in the conventional sense at least. For the past few years, the building has served as internationally renowned South African artist Nicholas Hlobo’s private studio. Dave Mann visited the artist in this historical space.

Nicholas Hlobo
PHOTO Dave Mann

     It’s just past noon on a Tuesday and inside, Hlobo and his two assistants are hard at work. It’s completely still throughout the studio, just the way he likes it these days. This year alone, the artist must produce work for SCAD museum in Savannah, Lehmann Maupin gallery in New York, and Stevenson gallery in South Africa.
     ‘Yes, we’re quite busy at the moment,’ says Hlobo.
     The artist is sitting behind a small desk to the back of the old hall. Above him, mezzanine flooring works its way around the higher reaches of the structure, while below, loose materials such as piping and wooden pallets, and rows of canvases take up the bottom floor – signs of works to come. At the one end of the room, the original ark of the building stands tall, reaching its curve just below the Victorian-style tiled ceiling.
     ‘The space itself, I find it to have calmed me down. It’s allowed me to surrender myself onto a space of redemption,’ says Hlobo. ‘I’m growing less and less loud, nowadays. When the guys are playing music, I ask them to turn it down or put it off completely. So that’s what the space has done to me… Being in a place of redemption has planted a rather wonderful seed in my practice.’
     First used as the ‘Valley Bioscope’ in 1918, the building was later consecrated in 1926 before being deconsecrated in 1983. Since then, it’s stood as a reminder of the shifting heritages and cultures of the broader Bertram’s and Lorentzville area.
     Hlobo acquired the building in 2012 after a mutual friend put him and former owner Marianna Nielsen in touch. Before selling the property to Hlobo, Nielsen had received offers from property developers looking to flatten the building and erect residential flats, and members of the Islamic and Christian communities looking to use the space as a community hall. She turned all offers down, waiting until she found someone equally committed to maintaining the structure and its history.
     ‘I enjoy the integrity of the structure itself and I feel it’s worthy of preserving and conserving,’ explains Hlobo. ‘It speaks very much of the architectural structure of the city, especially this part of the city. It would be very ignorant and unkind, and disrespectful were we to decide to bash walls off and things like that.’
     Hlobo’s so preoccupied with the building, in fact, that he spends much of his time restoring and maintaining it. The building is important to him for many reasons. Beyond the redemptive and historical elements the space affords him, it’s also his fourth ever studio, and the first studio he owns.

Nicholas Hlobo
PHOTO Dave Mann

     Each studio space he’s worked in has had its unique qualities – the cramped optimism of a home studio, the bustling nature of a studio space in the heart of Maboneng, and the communal inspiration that comes with a studio in August House – but as Hlobo explains, ‘The longing had always been for a place to call my own.’
     Because of the size of his current studio, Hlobo’s also been able to fill it with the various books, trinkets, and pieces of furniture he loves. Some were gifted to him by Nielsen after she moved out, while others are items he’s collected over the years. Listening to him speak about the items – historical maps of Gauteng, braille typewriters, Victorian-style couches and cabinets – you gain a better understanding of the artist’s own approach to his practice.
    ‘The curiosity with [these objects] is more about how things were made,’ he explains. ‘I think it used to be more about nourishing the eye, about how different elements and components were made to fit together. There was attention to detail. So I find a lot of pleasure in the old things.’
     And what will become of the space once Hlobo moves on from it?
     ‘My fantasy, if the universe allows me to, would be to turn the space into a museum. It will be nice to have it honour all the previous activities that took place here, more specifically the religious aspect than my rather obscure kind of religion,’ he says as he points to a group of metal sculptural works in progress. ‘I still want to get someone to write the number of the building, and what the building is, in the Hebrew scroll as well as in Roman lettering. Something like “Bertram’s Synagogue” as well as “Nicholas Hlobo’s studio”.’