Iconography & iconoclasm


South African Artist Thenjiwe Niki Nkosi is this year's Tollman Visual Arts award winner.


20th August 2019

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The 15th annual Tollman Award for the Visual Arts has been awarded to South African Artist Thenjiwe Niki Nkosi.

Born in 1980 in New York, Nkosi grew up in Harare and Johannesburg, the city she now calls home. Educated in the United States at Harvard and the School of Visual Arts in New York, the artist is known for her incisive portraits which grapple with both iconography and iconoclasm.

The annual Tollman Award for the Visual Arts in South Africa was founded in 2003 and awards a grant of 100,000 South African Rand to a young artist who has received critical recognition, but is hampered by limited resources to realise their full potential. Artists such as Ka Zenzile, Wim Botha, Churchill Madikida, Mustafa Maluka, Zanele Muholi, Nicholas Hlobo, Paul Edmunds, Sabelo Mlangeni, Serge Alain Nitegeka, Ian Grose, Kemang Wa Lehulere, Portia Zvavahera and Thierry Oussou have all won the award and gained further international recognition, some of them exhibiting at the Tate Modern, Art Basel and the Venice Biennale. Renowned artist Michael Stevenson consults with artists and curators before offering a shortlist to the Tollman family who select an artist whose work resonates with them.

The award is an acknowledgement of the family’s commitment to the extraordinary creativity of art from South Africa and further afield. The Tollman family has recently installed a timeline exhibition of all of the award winners in the headquarters of their Travel Corporation in Los Angeles and in Geneva, a list to which Nkosi’s name has now been added.

Nkosi’s recent work has focussed on elite gymnastics. With the human body performing at, and sometimes seemingly beyond, the limits of the possible, the gymnasts become actors, producing layered narratives of far-reaching metaphorical and political significance, presenting a challenge to the precariousness of the black body in traditionally white spaces. The artist was particularly interested in the connection between gymnastics and her own art:

“Looking at gymnastics, I see echoes of the process of painting—expression within the demands of form, attention to balance and geometry. I also see parallels with the painter’s position in the contemporary art world. The artist, like the gymnast, is a performer (if at times a reluctant performer) whose actions are subjected to constant scrutiny.”

Nkosi, who divides her time between studio work, performance and navigating the field of art as social practice, has exhibited her work alongside other artists at the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw, Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris, National Gallery of Zimbabwe, Ifa Gallery in Berlin, Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian in Lisbon and Museum of Contemporary Art, Niterói, Rio de Janeiro. Her first solo exhibition with Stevenson is scheduled for early 2020.

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