See How South African Artist Nicholas Hlobo Takes Inspiration From the Intricacies of the Xhosa Language

As part of a collaboration with Art21, hear news-making artists describe their inspirations in their own words.

Production still from the “Extended Play” film “Nicholas Hlobo: Drifting Free.” © Art21, Inc. 2022.

The artist Nicholas Hlobo‘s studio is in a converted ex-synagogue in Johannesburg, South Africa. It is now a different kind of sanctuary, providing the space for him to create intricate, textured artworks which veer from painting to sculpture to tapestry—sometimes within one piece.

In an exclusive interview with Art21 made as part of the Extended Play series, Hlobo describes his process of creating work, often using specific Xhosa words, which become titles, as starting points to draw inspiration from.

“It’s important to go astray,” Hlobo explains. “‘If you are in a foreign city and you get lost, then you’ll discover some alleyways and some avenues that you will not necessarily discover had you been placed on the right path.”

The 2017 work Fak’unyawo is a painting that incorporates the heel of a shoe last that extends into stitched lines on the canvas. The title word, Hlobo explains, means “insert your foot—like testing the water sort of thing.” The work thereby blends a metaphorical meaning with a literal feature of the work. 

“Listen to what’s happening around you,” Hlobo advises, explaining his own artistic philosophy. “You become a little antenna that is allowing everything to flow. Some things pass and you grab the ones that are important. Keeping all your doors open—that’s what’s important.”


Watch the video, which originally appeared as part of Art21’s Art in the Twenty-First Century series, below. 

This is an installment of “Art on Video,” a collaboration between Artnet News and Art21 that brings you clips of news-making artists. A new season of the nonprofit Art21’s flagship series Art in the Twenty-First Century is available now on PBS. Catch all episodes of other series, like New York Close Up and Extended Play, and learn about the organization’s educational programs at

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