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The definition of a hero

Artist Thenjiwe Niki Nkosi's work looks at the subjective nature of the term hero

By Gugu Mkhabela | April 10, 2018 | Category Art

Struggle hero Robert Sobukwe, Xhosa prophetess Nongqawuse, rape victim Anene Booysen, author Bessie Head, slain taxi driver Emidio Macia, and Winnie Mandela amongst others, are remembered and memorialised by artist, Thenjiwe Niki Nkosi’s series Heroes. This is a unique interrogation into the subjectivity of the term ‘hero’ that asks; What is a hero? Why are some lauded and recorded in our history books over others? Do we need and therefore create our heroes?


Thenjiwe Niki Nkosi. Sobukwe (after Robert Sobukwe) 2017. Teacher, lawyer, academic, and writer who led an Africanist breakaway from the African National Congress in 1958 to form the Pan African Congress. Oil on canvas, 50×50 cm. Image: Supplied

Thenjiwe Niki Nkosi. Prophet (after Nongqawuse), 2016. Teenaged Xhosa prophet whose dramatic prognostications may (in part) have led to the Xhosa cattle-killings and famine of 1856-1857. Oil on canvas, 50×50 cm. Image: Supplied


Joburg-based artist Nkosi, was born in New York to a South African father and a Greek mother. She has a master’s degree in fine art from the School of Visual Arts in New York. Heroes will launch on 12 April in The Reading Room at the Goethe-Institute, Johannesburg.


The Reading Room is a place for contemplation, conversation, screenings, small-scale events, and reading. Visitors are invited to the Reading Room where a group of artists will respond to another’s work over a period of 12 weeks. The starting point for this engagement is the Heroes series of Nkosi’s portrait paintings.


Traditional printmaking artists, Minenkulu Ngoyi and Isaac Zavale of Alphabet Zoo will initiate a series of workshops in which artists respond to Nkosi’s portraits in various forms, creating new readings of the work. This includes Andile Buka, Simnikiwe Buhlungu, Mooki Mooks, Kgomutso Neto Tleane, Jack Diamond, and the Danger Gevaar Ingozi collective.

Thenjiwe Niki Nkosi. Ayim (after May Ayim), 2015. Afro-German poet, educator and activist. She took her own life in 1996 at the age of 36. Oil on canvas, 50×50 cm. Image: Supplied


Visitors are invited to observe the development of the space over the project period and engage directly with the artists’ processes, in a programme of workshops and public events. Ultimately, the idea is to build on the existing narratives and populate The Reading Room with a multiplicity of voices. The project will culminate in a final exhibition in week 12 (June 28) featuring artwork and other responses generated over the weeks.


Featured image: Thenjiwe Niki Nkosi. Mbulu (after Letta Mbulu), 2017. Supplied

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