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Thenjiwe Niki Nkosi’s Gymnasium series uncovers sports’ deeper side

Thenjiwe Niki Nkosi’s Gymnasium series uncovers sports’ deeper side
In her painted portrayals of gymnasts and gymnasiums, the Johannesburg-based artist explores the soul-baring process of putting your all into your performance – and takes an in-depth look at the political and social side of sports.
Words by Hannah Valentine

Thenjiwe Niki Nkosi’s beautiful Gymnasium paintings immediately catch the eye, with their block pastel colours, minimalist detail, and the careful perspective of their painted arenas. Part of an ongoing project since 2019, the series explores, among other themes, the artistry of sporting performances and the narratives embedded in its history.

We talk to Thenjiwe about reimagining the world, about the parallels between art and sports, and the radical act of supporting each other.



What’s your creative space like, and do you rely on routines or variety when making your work?

Over the years I’ve had studios in a variety of spaces, and I’ve found I can recreate my studio quite easily with a few key pieces of furniture. For me, less is more when it comes to making a comfortable and functional workspace. I aim for a predictable routine, but being a parent to a six-year-old means that I am frequently faced with the forces of chaos that come with child-rearing. It’s important to be able to make peace with whatever comes, whatever the day allows. In a way it’s about patience, which is something that figures in my actual painting process as well, where I paint a lot of thinly laid layers that eventually take on substantiality and flatness. And there is no forcing or hurrying that.


Since 2019, a lot of your paintings have focussed on portrayals of gymnastic performances. What drew you to this theme?

At first, it was the architecture I was drawn to. One day, however, I found a photo of a gymnastics arena with a gymnast at the centre and there was something dramatic and compelling in it. It felt sort of staged; the huge empty space making the gymnast look both small and important at the same time. I only made one painting then, but a few years later, I saw that painting again with a new eye. This time, I felt a kind of empathy and recognition for the gymnast. Being an artist is a lot about performance; your work is on display as a representation of you – your ideas, your way of seeing the world, what’s important to you. And just like the gymnast, there are people waiting to judge your performance, to name your failures and successes. This connection is something that has only taken on stronger resonances for me as the series has grown.

As you mentioned, your first painting was a rendering of a found photo, which you painted replacing the images of white figures with brown-skinned figures. What does this kind of representation mean to you?

This reframing wasn’t completely deliberate at first. I painted the figures in that painting as Black people, but it was mostly reflexive; I am always painting things from my own experience. Later, once I’d begun reading about the history of gymnastics and learned about how it has long been used as a tool for racist propaganda, this representation of Black people became something more intentional. The sport has historically been used to promote the idea of the perfect person – the “ubermensch” – who was, of course, always a white person. In my research I discovered Danish gymnast, educator, and well-known Nazi Niels Bukh, who travelled the world with a campaign promoting gymnastics as a tool of white supremacy. These people never imagined Simone Biles and all the Black gymnasts before and after her who would take the sport to amazing new places. Of course, my work is looking at the power of representation, but it’s also about imagining the world that you want to see.


'Moving Mats'

There is an association of sports with cutthroat competition, but in your works the most dominant emotion is a sense of camaraderie. Is this sense of companionship a thing you consciously think about?

It is. All the figurative works in my second solo show ‘Landings’ (2022) focussed on the idea that it is a radical thing to hold and support each other as athletes, as artists, as human beings. This actually happens more than people realise in the gymnastics world. The media tends to fixate on the individual star, painting them as a sort of isolated genius, but the gymnasts themselves understand the critical importance of the team. Even the most talented gymnast could not succeed without their teammates. I find inspiration and solace in this.



Tell us about your project for the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games Festival?

I was approached by Eastside Projects, an arts organisation based in Birmingham and at first, I wasn’t sure I wanted to participate in a festival that would in any way ‘celebrate’ the Commonwealth, an organisation that has deep roots in the British imperial project. Ultimately, I decided to make something that would explore this history. The research part of the project was a fascinating journey, although it didn’t always reveal clear answers. The Commonwealth is a confusing thing because it is supposed to be – it was always, I realised, supposed to be a mask, a PR exercise to help Britain maintain ‘friendly’ relations with its former colonies for economic reasons. In my work – which included a short film titled ‘The Same Track’, a series of posters, and a website – I attempted to interrogate the space between this friendly presentation of the Commonwealth and the brutal imperial reality that lies behind that presentation.

Where do you see your work going in the future, and do you think the same themes will remain important to you?

Sport, athleticism, and movement are themes that continue to interest me; I maintain a deep curiosity about the possibilities and limits of the human body. I am currently working with images from my research into the Commonwealth Games, and I intend to continue the trajectory of thinking about sports from an intimate and human perspective, considering the relationship of the athletes to the track, to the stadium, to the agendas and structures around them.

____________ / @thenjiwe_niki_nkosi