Reputed visual artist Sam Nhlengethwa is inspired by jazz in his art practice

By CityLife Arts Writer

South Africa’s leading auction house Strauss & Co is  offering four notable works of artist Sam Nhlengethwa during their Live Virtual Auction, which takes place from 16 – 17 May 2022 in Johannesburg. 

We sat down with him to talk about his work and what inspires him.

What inspires your work? Was there a particular event that motivated your unique style?

I am inspired by my surroundings and where I come from. Street scenes feature prominently in my art, my admiration for other artists is a factor, music, and my own experiences all play a part. Studying at Rorke’s Drift in the late 1970s impacted on my art – living with the village people, studying their rural life and comparing it with city life of where I come from. 

How did the collage technique that you frequently use in your practice come about?

When I started to do collage, it was out of experimentation. This started many years ago when I was at Rorke’s Drift. I used to tear papers from magazines and put them together to create a different image. I continued doing this when I studied at the Johannesburg Art Foundation under Bill Ainslie.

How do you go about creating an artwork with collage?

In the main, I use cuttings from magazines, my family albums, my own photographs, books, cloths, steel and other found objects. There is a lot though, that goes on before I can even start with the actual collaging. I have to think of a theme and conceptualize it. Then think of how whatever image I have in mind has to be executed, how much of the acrylics/oils do I need versus the other materials. The perspective in the image is determined by the sizes of the images.

You often mention Romare Bearden as your favourite artist. What is it about his art that fascinates you?

When I was at the Johannesburg Art Foundation, Bill suggested that my work was very much like that of the American artist, Romare Bearden, who I knew absolutely nothing about at that point. From then onwards, I became very interested in his work and sharpened my skills in the process. Romare Bearden breaks the norms of proportion but still gets the message through. He uses colour and black and white excellently.

 Please tell us more about your time at the Johannesburg Art Foundation in the 1980s.

I studied there with a lot of artists from different backgrounds, including William Kentridge, David Koloane, Ezrom Legae, among others. I had to make sure that I worked hard and proved myself as a young and upcoming artist. I needed to stay in the straight and narrow to produce. 

 During that time, you participated in the Thupelo Workshops. Did these have an impact?

The Thupelo Workshops gave me an opportunity to interact with other artists, local and international. We were encouraged to get out of our comfort zone and experiment with other forms and materials. I used gel and acrylics for the first time at a Thupelo workshop in Rustenburg. We were also encouraged to experiment with abstraction and to paint non-figurative images.

 Why is ‘the interior’ so important in your art?

I worked for the SABC as a studio set designer. I worked with a team of people including set dressers. I think I always had a dormant interest in ‘dressing-up’ my designs. I would always have some input about how I thought the final product should look.

Why are you drawn to the subject of Jazz?

I was inspired by my late brother, Rankie Ramponeng, who was a jazz collector and musician. I feel that every time I do a jazz piece, I pay homage to him.

 About the artist:

Sam Nhlengethwa was born in the mining community of Payneville, Springs, south-east of Johannesburg and after studying at the Rorke’s Drift Art Centre in the late 1970s, attended the Johannesburg Art Foundation, established by Bill Ainslie. He taught part-time at FUBA (Federated Union of Black Artists) in Johannesburg and came to national prominence in 1993 with the exhibition Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow, which was put on at the Market Gallery in Johannesburg and the KZNSA Gallery in Durban. Nhlengethwa received the Standard Bank Young Artist Award in 1994 and his award show Homage to Jazz travelled the country over the following year.

The artist is best known for his figurative paintings and collage works exploring themes of social and art history, jazz, mining and domestic life, as well as his iconic Goat lithographs and the series of Tributes to other artists printed at The Artists’ Press in White River. His current figurative style post-dates a series of large, bold abstract works following his participation in the Thupelo workshops, founded in 1985 by artists David Koloane and Bill Ainslie. The annual, two-week workshop programme is associated with a flourishing of modernist abstraction among urban black artists.

Nhlengethwa’s work was included in the important exhibition Seven Stories about Modern Art in Africa at the Whitechapel Gallery in London in 1995, the 12th International Cairo Biennale in 2010, and (Re)constructions: Contemporary Art from South Africa in Rio de Janeiro in 2011. The artist was a founding member, with Pat Mautloa and David Koloane, of the Bag Factory Artists’ Studios in Newtown in 1991.

For more info on the sale visit  The exhibition is open to the public to view  until 17th May 2022 at 89 Central Street, Houghton, JHB.

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