Thenjiwe Niki Nkosi

Minimalist aesthetics and social justice merge in the paintings of South-African American artist, Thenjiwe Niki Nkosi.

While Nkosi is best known as a painter, her practice spans multiple mediums including film, installation and performance. In her paintings, clean, geometric blocks depict scenes of people and architecture in the artists’ signature colour palette of calming pastel tones. Nkosi uses oil on canvas, carefully layering her compositions over time in a process she likens to meditation.

  • Recipient of the Philippe Wamba Prize in African Studies, 2004, and the Tollman Award for the Visual Arts, 2019
  • Work in collections inc. The Dean Collection, New York; The University of Cape Town Art Collection and the Nando’s Collection, UK
  • Group show, FIVE, We Buy Gold, New York, 2020
  • Exhibition, NIEPODLEGŁE, Women, Independence and National Discourse, Museum of Modern Art, Warsaw, 2018
  • Group show, Being There – Art Afrique: Le Nouvel Atelier at the Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris, 2017
  • Group show, The Film Will Always Be With You at Tate Modern, London, 2015
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In contrast to the tranquil aesthetic of her work, Nkosi’s practice confronts complex and often chaotic notions of identity, race, power, memory, migration, and athleticism. Gymnasts in particular are an important symbol throughout the work, with nearly all of the figures being women of colour who are modelled on recording-breaking athletes like Simone Biles. This symbolic gesture, paired with the artists’ sharp vision for colour, line, and balance, creates a compelling form of art that is about the act of painting itself, and the social issues that it represents.


"The artist, like the gymnast, is witnessed and judged: trying, succeeding, failing”
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Architecture is central to Nkosi’s practice. Spring Floor VI (2020) is a medium-sized canvas that depicts the floor of a gymnasium. A flat, off-white floor mat takes up most of the painting, with sharp, angular blocks of grey and crimson that peep into the frame from each corner, all at slightly different angles. The sparse composition of the work recalls a minimalist abstract painting, and yet — even with so little visual information — the image creates a palpable sense of depth and architectural design. Along with the negative space in the work, human figures, which often appear in Nkosi’s paintings, are absent as well. Thus, the work questions how bodies activate space, and how space without bodies existing within them hold their own power and expectation.

“The future of our world relies on people working together and not against one another.”

The figure of the gymnast represents the figure of the artist for Nkosi. As she explains, “the metaphor for the world of gymnastics […] is a performance: having to perform your identity as an artist, and a Black artist.” Through this metaphor, Nkosi elucidates the double bind that many artists of colour find themselves in: an expectation to talk about identity, paired with a desire to make work where one’s identity is not the main topic, while simultaneously living the reality that identity affects the work one creates.

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The symbol of the gymnast poses a critical question to the art world: how can underrepresented identities be fully heard without being commodified? Creating her own form of social resistance through exquisite combinations of colour and form, Nkosi is surely one to watch, and, no doubt, will continue to make important contributions to the future of contemporary art. 

All artworks and images courtesy of Thenjiwe Niki Nkosi.
Studio shoot by Andile Buka.

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