Noluthando Lobese: ‘designing atmosphere’

thandoNoluthando Lobese, ‘What It Is’ (a Set without a script), Installation photograph (detail), STUDIO X, Johannesburg, 2014. Courtesy the artist. Photo credit: Stephen Hobbs.

STUDIO-X GLOBAL NETWORK  is an initiative of the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, Columbia University, New York. Encouraging a practice that is alert to borders and their meaning, whether disciplinary, or geographical, STUDIO X sets out to explore, with great optimism, the possibilities of architecture, the idea of the architect and the capacities of the designer in a global society. The world is connected, in unprecedented ways, via digital technologies and virtual spaces that can (theoretically, at least) accommodate the imagining and actualisation of networks across the globe – social, political, economic and so forth. There is much about the notion of a global society that continues to be critiqued (and necessarily so) but there remains, simultaneously, the human capacity for individual and collective acts of agency, creativity and productive collaboration. These counter the current official impetus to regiment national borders and notions of citizenship.

STUDIO-X GLOBAL encompasses cities such as Beijing, Mumbai, New York and Rio de Janiero and now includes Johannesburg. STUDIO X -JOHANNESBURG is directed by Mpho Matsipa who recently graduated with a PhD in architecture from the University of California, Berkeley and is currently a lecturer at the School of Architecture and Planning, University of the Witwatersrand (Johannesburg).

Exploring the possibilities of STUDIO X for South Africa, and more specifically, for Johannesburg, Matsipa invited artist and designer Noluthando Lobese to create an installation for the launch of the project. Lobese’s practice, crossing design, theatre and art, embodies ideas about borders and boundaries. The way in which it does so resists narratives that are overly pre-determined and prescriptive.

‘The mine dumps are an inescapable part of the scenery of Johannesburg. You see it wherever you go: driving in-between Soweto and the City; or living in the City. I thought this is something that everyone in Johannesburg can relate to. The mine dumps hover over us’.

What informs the work you produced for STUDIO X? You cross a number of disciplinary fields: including costume and stage design for theatre. You also have a background in fashion design. More recently you have been exploring art as a practice producing installations that pay attention to how it is we occupy and navigate space, which can be imagined in so many ways, socially or politically, and via the more amorphous territories of memory, sensation and affect. You think a lot about your immediate environment, what you see and how you feel, on your everyday travels between work and home. Or as you travel to cities elsewhere in the world, most recently in the US and Europe. Your particular relationship to place and to spaces more broadly (whether the spaces of cities or the interior world of an artist studio or theatre stage) are very prominent in how you speak about your practice.

I’ve worked in theatre for 5 years. When you work in theatre, as a designer, you are led by the script. A lot of my theatre work focused on period pieces. I began to worry that my practice would end up becoming monotonous. Then in 2013 I got the opportunity to work as a design intern at the Bregenzer Festspiele in Austria. This changed everything: I had the time and freedom to bring together theatre and art practice. After Austria, I began exploring the idea of an artist residency. This is not something I had ever done before. But I didn’t want to stay in the same place creatively. I came across the MacDowell Colony Residency in the United States. I applied and got in. This is what eventually led to the work for STUDIO X.

My work is also about curiosity. If I wasn’t curious I wouldn’t have gone to the US for that residency. I would have stayed in one place. When I applied for the MacDowell Residency I was asked what I wanted to do once I got there. I was asked to describe my project. This was a difficult moment for me. At first, I didn’t know what to say. It took me back to the models I build for fun. I make models based on what I see as I travel to work every day. I built a model which was based on a designer’s life. As a designer you need a tape measure you need to measure everything. You can’t do anything without measurements. And so in this model I had patterns, the tape measure, and a sewing machine. Then I asked someone to develop a story based on this particular model. Inspired by this idea I told MacDowell that I would like to design the atmosphere – a text could emerge from that. I thought of co-ordinating with a writer or a theatre director. MacDowell approved my proposal which was great.

You describe your experience of the MacDowell Residency in a very interesting way. Your description is intimately connected to how you experience your surroundings, the actual environment of the residency, the building, the solitary space of the studio and so forth. You pay careful attention to the landscape that surrounds you. You think of the everyday in minute detail; innocuous rituals like eating and sleeping. Everything that could be overlooked and taken for granted, are absorbed by your work. 

When I got to the US, to the MacDowell Residency it was snowing. It was summer in Johannesburg, and snowing there. I remember tall trees, a wood, and being taken to my studio. There were 32 artist studios. You meet up with the other artists for breakfast everyday. But lunch is delivered, silently and anonymously, to your doorstep, in a basket. You are not disturbed and you are left alone for the day. Then again in the evening you eat with everyone else. For the first week I would eat my lunch and then fall asleep, there was a bed in the studio. I would wake up at 5 and then at 6 it’s dinner. It was like: ‘Thando, you didn’t come all the way to America to sleep and eat!’

At some point I decided to go out walking. I’d go into town, take photographs, and search for inspiration. I played some basketball with some guys and we went down to the river. The scenery there was so beautiful. The water was so still, and grey, charcoal in colour. The trees were charcoal. They looked dead, they had no leaves. It reminded me of Beckett’s ‘Waiting for Godot’. The work I made for the residency emerged out of this experience, this river, and the trees. The plastics I used played with the idea of rivers and floods. The feeling of the continuous movement of water but also its destructive potential. The thread I used in the installation made me think of the connections we have with people.

I also began to connect my work to the environment of the residency itself. I thought about the walk I did every day, between my studio and the hall where I would meet the other artists at breakfast and dinner. There was this rhythm of meeting and separation. We’d talk about what we’d do every day and share stuff about where we come from. Each night I would meet new artists and learn about their background. This reminded me of where I come from. I am Xhosa speaking. And I began to think of Xhosa initiates, how the initiates, the guys, retreat into the mountain, leave their comfort zone. How they enter a world that they are not used to. This is what I did as Thando.

I have never done anything like this residency. I started comparing it to things that were familiar to me. I thought about how people prepare food for the Xhosa initiates, leaving it silently, which is the same thing that happened at the residency. I also thought about what the Xhosa initiates might talk about, and I started relating it to the things artists at the residency talked about, things like plans for the future. At the end of the Xhosa initiation the huts are burnt and initiates are told not to look back. These are different universes but in my imagination they seemed to fit like a glove. I thought about how, at the end of the residency, I would have to take the installation down. I thought about the footprints I would leave behind, and I thought about the people who built the studios before all the artists arrived there. I started to photograph the footprints I left, and I thought about layers and cycles, and the connections and borders that we create as human beings. I titled the work ‘What It Is’.

LobeseNoluthando Lobese, ‘What It Is’, Installation photograph (detail) at the artist’s studio, MacDowell Colony, New Hampshire, New York, 2013. Courtesy the artist.

You appear to have a very close relationship to place, to where you come from. The places that exist in memory travel with you and overlay other experiences.

At first, on the residency, in my studio, I felt that I was not that connected to the place and the work. I thought that I needed to sleep there. After that, it changed. I would have beautiful dreams. Sleeping in the space of the studio helped me to connect with it. Each day I would take photographs. I documented everything beginning with the empty studio to the day the residency ended, and I had to take the installation down. I am interested in this process. The intensive research and the process of making the work is not that visible at the end of it. Is there awareness of how far we as artists go and the challenges we face? What we think about while we are making the work, the things that happen to us along the way?

You travel to your first residency. You have chosen to temporarily displace yourself, not only temporally and geographically but also creatively. There is a sense, when you describe the first week of eating and sleeping in your studio, of the anxiety we all feel when we are in an unfamiliar place. This is also very much part of being an artist in the world we live in today. You actively try to connect with the physical space you’re inhabiting: you’re sleeping and you’re dreaming, and you’re photographing, you’re leaving the studio and then returning. You document everything you observe photographically. You bring memories and associations from South Africa. You titled the installation you made for MacDowell ‘What It Is’. This speaks to how you draw on what you find around you in a very immediate way. I am interested in what you describe as ‘designing atmosphere’. You used all kinds of found objects – a ladder, a lamp and so forth. It reminds me of the theatre and stage props.

I allowed the work to take me to wherever it was going to take me. I used a ladder to reach up and cover the roof of my installation. It then made sense as part of the work. The ladder began to take on other associations. I climbed up and down and it made me think of moving from place to place; and my dislike of stagnancy. I am a collector and I am always aware of my surroundings. I always take photographs. If something catches my eye I will photograph it: landscapes but also the small details, the small things. Inspiration is not only in books and on the internet, it is everywhere. This motivates me as an artist. I am always aware of what is around me.

What are the ideas underpinning the work you produced for STUDIO X, Johannesburg? 

I wanted the work for STUDIO X to relate to Johannesburg. The one thing you see almost everyday in Johannesburg are the mine dumps. I took a lot of photographs at first.

You then constructed the space at STUDIO X using various materials. This method of working is similar to the making of ‘What It Is’, the MacDowell work.

In the final work, at STUDIO X, also titled ‘What It Is’, I used fabrics to cover the whole space. I used lots of different elements – such as threads, plastics and paper. This is a way of working that I can take with me anywhere in the world, but each work would have to relate to each place differently.

It is a potentially continuous, unfolding story that you narrate through atmosphere, space, materials, objects – all of which relates to both the particularities of geography and place, and to the imagined relations between places. Returning to Johannesburg, you begin with the mine dumps. Thread which reappears in your work is such a symbolic material. You work with very elemental materials that have so much meaning symbolically and historically. 

Thread follows me everywhere. I grew up sewing and whatever I do it is there. It is like a stamp for me. It always has to be there, and materials have to be hand sewn. I studied fashion before I went into theatre. I sewed plastics together for the STUDIO X work. I used clear plastic, which I stretched out and stitched. It made me think of things like stitching a wound. Stiches can heal, they can bring things back to life. For me, stiches are healing more than anything. I compare the stitching of a wound with the stitching of garments. I also used candle flames and smoke on the plastic at STUDIO X. I liked the texture, and the effect of the smoke on the plastic. Some of the fabrics I used, are found materials. When I find materials and objects I go through a process until I feel that I can claim it as mine. I am very conscious of this, of making something belong to me, of marking it, and transforming it, so that it is mine, and then has an integrity to me as an artist.

I thought about layers and cycles, and the connections and borders that we create as human beings.

thando 2Noluthando Lobese, ‘What It Is’ (a Set without a script), Installation photograph (detail), STUDIO X, Johannesburg, 2014. Courtesy the artist. Photo credit: Stephen Hobbs.

You explore memory in your work?

Memory is important, aspects of the work relate to childhood memories and the place I grew up. This is why Mpho calls my work a ‘memory box’. I built little spaces into the installation, like the ones you make as a child when you are playing.

Do you see a politics informing the way you work? I don’t mean in a didactic way. I’m interested in how you talk about human relations and connections. And the idea of the thread as something that heals, but which is also something that brings disparate parts together in your constructions. The mine dumps are highly charged in the political and economic history of South Africa. They are a potent presence in the landscape of Johannesburg. And how you look at them and from where depends on your historical relation to them.

My politics perhaps has to do with small, innocuous things that I research and I discover. It’s not necessarily to do with things that are visible to everyone.  I build on little things. In the States it was to do with the landscape of river and trees and the architecture of my studio. In Johannesburg it has to do with the mine dumps but I also thought a lot about the architecture of the building I worked in. I thought about its materials and its construction, and the human body: I started relating human bones to the wire used in concrete structures. I do a lot of research but will always find my own way of working, my own way of navigating the research I do, and the pragmatic aspects of making something work. The mine dumps are an inescapable part of the scenery of Johannesburg. You see it wherever you go: driving in-between Soweto and the City; or living in the City. I thought this is something that everyone in Johannesburg can relate to. The mine dumps hover over us.

What then is the process of translation, from observing and photographing the mine dumps to the very atmospheric and poetic quality of the final work?

I explored materials like painted fabrics. I also used light. The lighting changes through the day. The floor and the ceiling are covered with fabrics. The thread takes over, as you enter, and it feels as though you are underground like a mine worker. I created different kinds of spaces, and you feel claustrophobia. It is suffocating in fact. Then you pass through this into a space where you can breathe again. Creating the work I became very aware of borders. While I was working on the installation, I actually had to crawl on the floor every time I had to leave the space. This went on for three weeks and made me think of how refugees crawl through wire fencing at the borders between Zimbabwe and South Africa.

The idea of measuring also enters the work. As a mine worker you have to be a certain weight, and I thought of having measuring tapes and scales in the work. These measuring devices make me think of time and how obsessed we are with measuring it. Moving from one place to another is time. As is moving from birth to death. We cannot escape time. It is just there.

thando studio xNoluthando Lobese, ‘What It Is’ (a Set without a script), Installation photograph (detail), STUDIO X, Johannesburg, 2014. Courtesy the artist. 

Edited version of an interview conducted by Yvette Greslé, with Noluthando Lobese, over Skype, 12 February 2014.

© writing in relation 2014.

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