Sunstrum_Oiloncanvas_50x50cm_2017Thenjiwe Niki Nkosi (b. 1980) is a multi-form artist whose recent painting series, Heroes, has garnered international
acclaim. The series of oil portraits was first shown in 2013 and has since grown – in number of subjects, artistic developments and also exposure – with the work currently on show at the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris. Heroes depicts a diverse range of personalities, some familiar and others less so, thus immediately raising questions about the concept of “hero”and prompting viewers to ask themselves, “Should I know this person?” Each canvas measures 50x50cm, rendering figures just slightly larger than life, in a square, frontal format reminiscent of an ID photo. Installation at eye-level flattens the hierarchy between subjects and reinforces a sense of familiarity, but the faces shift between recognition and obscurity – a result of Nkosi’s strategic selection of subjects, our dominant art historical and ideological contexts, and her masterful use of oils. With thinned oil paint, Nkosi layers muted, flat colour over earlier, more representational portrayals – a technique which “veils” the subject and compresses pictorial space, assigning human flesh the two-dimensional, iconic aesthetic that hero status demands. But the figure is not completely consumed: Traces of the naturalistic depictions beneath; warm, nuanced skin tones; and Nkosi’s choice of ordinary, lesser-known source images (and also some “ordinary” subjects) push back against the surface to suggest complexities beyond the hero narrative. The limbo occupied by these portraits – between familiarity and obscurity, reductionism and complexity, certainty and strangeness – acts as an interrogation of the realities propagated by the powers that be. It challenges notions of singular history and the grand narrative, targeting its manufactured symbols, and encourages the viewer to do the same. While Heroes may seem at first glance like a digression from her prevailing painting subject of architecture, Nkosi sees both subject threads as the same thing – or at least, functioning in the same way. Both are constructs, monuments to ideologies. Tellingly, she refers to her architecture painting as “portraits” and her human portraits as “figures”; this inversion imbuing inanimate construction with subjectivity, and reminding the viewer of the objectifying and reductionist tendencies inherent in hero worship. (Statement adapted from an interview between the artist and Lee Helme)