Thenjiwe Niki Nkosi | Under the Silver Moon

One of 25 Art Covers Created for Flaunt’s 25th Anniversary Issue

Written by

Chloe Brown

Photographed by

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Thenjiwe Niki Nkosi. “Equal Elevation (Silver And Bronze)” (2023). Oil On Belgian Linen. 39.4 X 39.4 Inches. 

In contemporary society, activism and art often intertwine. For South African artist Thenjiwe Niki Nkosi, this comes as somewhat of a second nature - being born to two activist parents in the 1980’s. Her newest show at UCLA’s Hammer Museum takes on the subject and lived experience of Black gymnasts. In Nkosi’s latest paintings and multimedia installation, ARENA V, the faces and setting become abstracted. She works to subvert the previous expectations of the arena sport, and those who partake, to give glimpses into a story previously untold. Washed of personal identities and under public scrutiny, the gymnast can speak to the complicated acrobatics of life in a racialized world. We sat down with Thenjiwe to discuss her latest show and the inspirations behind it.

First, I have to ask, did you grow up as a gymnast? If not, how did you land on this sport as your subject?

I was not a gymnast, no. I did take some gymnastics lessons as a child, but I never got into it seriously. It’s interesting that you use the word “land” in your question, since it is such an important term in gymnastics, and it has become a term I have used in my work, in a few different ways, and is something I think or speak about in my daily life as well. I like the notion of “landing”: when you’re up in the air and then you find a place, or reconnect randomly, with the ground. That’s the thing for me. In gymnastics I have found so many beautiful metaphors for life and living. But to answer your question more directly: One afternoon in 2013 I was in my studio looking online at images from various Olympic games, and when I arrived at an image of a gymnast centered on the spring floor, with the judges sitting behind their table on the sides, there was something that clicked for me. This experience of public scrutiny, of being witnessed and judged, and sometimes adored, seemed similar to the experience of being an artist. And from there I began to work with the sport and my own practice as a combined field of inquiry.

How did you go about preparing for this series? Did you look to any professionally lauded Black gymnasts for inspiration?

Yes, indeed. I watched a lot of gymnastics and talked and visited with some gymnasticschampions here in South Africa. Watching people like Caitlin Rooskrantz, Mammule Rankoe and Naveen Daries at work was such a privilege and so formative for the series. Of course I watched videos of many incredible Black gymnasts: Simone Biles, Sierra Brooks, Luci Collins, Dominique Dawes, Nia Dennis, Makarri Doggette, Gabby Douglas, Dianne Durham, Annia Hatch, Ashleigh Heldsinger, Jennifer Khwela, Sibongile Mjekula, Betty Okino, Elizabeth Price, Stella Umeh, Corrine Wright. My interest and admiration has only grown the more I have watched and read about these people.

Your work for this series, ARENA V, reminds me of the controversy surrounding gymnast Simone Biles and The Wall Street Journal in 2023 - when the publication mistakenly used Shilese Jones’ picture to represent Biles. How do you think your work speaks on this disappointing erasure of identity?

I think the thing is that you can’t erase us, even when you make such a pathetic mistake. My work is about how we are taking up space, not being erased from it.

Outside of the studio, where have you been finding inspiration lately?

I am loving watching my daughter become a strong swimmer. My mother, her grandmother, was determined that she learn how to swim and got her into the pool at a very young age. She’s seven now and learned breaststroke in the second half of last year, and is now learning butterfly, and I’m finding the process of how she learns the strokes completely fascinating. How she will learn each of a set of movements separately, in isolation, and then slowly put them all together. I love to watch how the different mechanical elements come together to create movement and speed. And the way she does it looks so natural. It’s in line with how I’m thinking about movement, and expression through movement, as this essential thing that we are hardwired to do.

In your series, I notice that most of the subjects are women - especially looking at pieces like Adjustments. What makes the question of identity and gymnastics a gendered one?

Yes, they have mostly been women, although in my more recent work many of the figures are not specifically gendered. In the Gymnasium series I was particularly interested in the experience of girls and young women in the sport. I remember having a conversation with former gymnast and journalist/writer Dvora Myers about what it meant for both of us to be interested in, and to assign great import and intellectual rigor to a sport played and adored by girls. Aside from this, the experience of young gymnasts is, in many ways, a gendered one. There is some incredible writing about the experience of girls and young women in the sport, and I feel that my own research is still only scratching the surface. There is so much to unpack about the history and current moment within the sport in this regard.

How do you hope your audience walks away from this new series?

For me the gymnastics arena - almost from that first afternoon when I looked at the gymnast in that image - has always felt like a metaphor for a mental space. It’s that precarious space, a universal one, I think, of performing. What is it to be watched? To be judged? To be witnessed. How do we deal with people having expectations of us? How do we respond? And when we look at different scenarios, these questions become loaded in different ways. And what I hope for the audience to get from this piece is to think that there may be different ways to respond. Or not to respond at all. Even when the structures and power systems are telling us we need to feel or respond in particular ways. These gymnasts here are simply at rest. Yes, they are close to the floor, the “stage”; yes, the architecture of the arena and the implied audience all seem to want them to perform – but maybe for the time being they are not interested. For now, they are not performing at all. They’re hanging out on the sidelines. And perhaps it goes even further than this. Maybe for this moment they are not even gymnasts at rest; they are people simply being. They are outside of their professional roles completely. One could be daydreaming, and the other one looks to be relating a story. It is possible that for the time being they have quietly abandoned any sense of relation to those who would have them be or feel a particular way.

How do you think about your own experience as an artist as it relates to being in the public eye?

I find being in the public eye a very uneasy experience. On the one hand, I want to share my work with people, and there’s nothing more moving than when people let me know how my work has touched them. I’m very interested in those interpersonal moments, and I’m grateful that my work affords me opportunities to have them from time to time. On the other hand, by sharing my work I’m opening a window into my psychological landscape, and that evokes an incredible feeling of vulnerability in me. What I’ve learned from the gymnasts I’ve met and studied is that whether it’s the world of sport or the art world, and regardless of what ‘success’ or ‘failure’ you inevitably encounter, you need to find, or build, a place inside you that is not reliant on or vulnerable to the outside voices. Whether it is praise or blame. It is the work of a lifetime maybe. And it’s not easy. But I do know there is a place inside me that is out of reach of all external forces, and it is the place that I endeavor to work from.

Will you be watching the Olympics this summer? If so, who will you be rooting for?

I will watch here and there, although I’m not particularly invested in who wins or loses, or in any sort of nationalist affiliations. I’m more curious about the variety of performances and how these mega sporting events continue to transform according to cultural and geopolitical shifts.

How might you describe your 25th year of life?

Chaotic and juicy.

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Flaunt Magazine, Issue 190, Under The Silver Moon, Thenjiwe Niki Nkosi, Art