Nicholas Hlobo's Capucines Bag For Louis Vuitton Is A Comment On Masculinity
In pastel hues and cloud-kissed gradients, Louis Vuitton this past June launched their immersive exhibition, Louis Vuitton X – a kind of walkable archive dating back 160 years, littered with patently Instagrammable moments, set right on a hallowed sartorial corner of Rodeo Drive, Los Angeles.
And while you could freely – blissfully! – explore contributions to the house from the likes of Kim Jones, Karl Lagerfeld, Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid, one room towards the end of the exhibition reliably stole eyeballs, and, in the case of a lucky few strewn across the world, opened wallets.
The exhibition marked the world premiere of six limited edition interpretations of the house’s iconic Capucines bag, each remixed and reimagined by artists including Sam Falls, Tschabalala Self and Jonas Wood.
Louis Vuitton will happily note that the House’s close ties with the arts is something woven into its DNA – not a quick-win cultural moment, not a capitalisation on Instagram followings. These ties date back almost a century, to one of the earliest examples of visual merchandising, when Gaston-Louis Vuitton – the grandson of the House’s namesake founder – commissioned artists to craft elaborate store windows and art pieces within LV boutiques.
Nicholas Hlobo, one of the artists tapped for the Artycapucines exhibit, blends the personal and the political to form a new commentary. The South African says that his work is a kind of voice – on how he relates to the world, and how South Africa continues to grapple with its own political, cultural and ethnic identity. This voice comes out in hybrid artworks, often made up of ribbon, leather and wood – all of these materials adding up to a narrative as complex and fascinating as the artist himself.
“It’s how I see myself, as a South African, a man who is black…and the joys and the unglorious things that come along in that package.”
Gender and cultural identity are core themes in your work. I’m particularly interested in the masculinity you grew up with in South Africa. Where I grew up, sometimes we can have a very rigid notion of masculinity: “A man is this. A man is only this.” What kind of masculinity did you grow up with? How has it developed as you’ve gotten older?
I think I had a wonderful blessing of having not been brought up by a man. I grew up in a house that was led by a woman, my maternal grandmother who was separated from her husband and was raising me.
She was more focussed on one being able to fend for himself, take charge of their trajectory of their life...It was about teaching me to be closer to myself. She preached to be friends with yourself, and be self-reliant. We’re out there to seek mercy from other people.
So, self dependence?
Yes, that made me a rather different man, different from the traditional man.
How can you summarise your journey to becoming an artist, professionally?
From my memory, an artist is born first. The burden of being an artist is passed on to you before we are even conceived. It comes from the universe, wherever we come from. You [being] born with the talent, perhaps a drive that takes you towards pursuing your journey as an artist – that is given to you. You have to decide whether to take it and embrace it, or leave it and do something else. Many people are born artists but they decide to go somewhere else for the fear of what it means to be an artist. I think it’s a common fear everywhere, even though people are changing slowly now, it is not an easy path. Because it does not conform to any prescribed rules or laws, you’re in your own world where you’re allowed to exist as a child would. You have very few inhibiting elements, and to most people, that is scary.
Can you remember the first piece you ever sold?
Yes! It was a small print. When things were rather difficult. It was a part of my body of work that I created as a student. It was wonderful to sell the first print. It felt really good, because having someone happily proposing to acquire a part of you is something that motivates you more. You realise that there is something in the nonsense that you do.
When LV tapped you to reimagine its Capucines bag, did you find that the project felt wildly different from your usual creations? And what inspired the floral motif?
I found it to be not too far removed from my process. When I think about my subject, I think about the ideas of growth, I’m inspired by the organic forms, organic bodies, the plants especially. And other bodies that we have. Whether it’s air, water, all the stars, all the people, and animals. I found it to be interesting – it’s a wonderful metaphor to how we conserve ideas. It’s not dissimilar to a farmer, putting a seed in soil, allowing it to germinate and grow into a plant. Fertilise it at the right time, give it water, place it in favourable conditions then it comes into fruition. The flower in the plant is the organ of the plant. I don’t know what inspired the motif in a plant, but that’s the symbol of continuity. The flower goes into food and into the seed, that motif for me symbolising growth that is never ending. That relates to my process of how I should continue cultivating my ideas that never go stagnant. That they should be like a river, not flowing terribly aggressively but gently. Have momentum, constant rebirth.
Have you created fashion with this bag? Or have you created art?
I believe it’s a bit of both. That’s completely dependent on the person in possession of it. From my side, my interpretation of it, it’s art. The bag before artwork is different, it’s about purpose. It’s as the viewer, or one in possession of the bag sees it to be. When it’s in my possession, it’s art.
Each piece in the Artycapucines collection is available in limited editions of 300, retailing at $8600. The Louis Vuitton X exhibit is open on Rodeo Drive until September 15; free admission.
Exhibition imagery: Supplied
Imagery of Nicholas Hlobo and his studio: Paul Wetherell