Lampoon, Robert Hamblin, Tis the Season to be Jolly, 2022

Robert Hamblin and Zanele Muholi, Time will tell. Art and activism from South Africa

Demons and winged creatures. Robert Hamblin: «My paintings are full of color, beauty and pride, but also scars and bruises that exist altogether»

Rome, early July. Robert Hamblin has just arrived in town from Tuscany. His exhibition Time will tell is underway in Capalbio, a two-voice exhibition project in collaboration with Zanele Muholi that aims to raise awareness and make people think about issues of social, gender and race discrimination. 

Time Will Tell at the Frantoio Gallery

It was the first time Robert Hamblin visited Italy and Tuscany: «I am sorry that I only got here at this late point in my life because I feel so comfortable here, especially in Tuscany. Everybody is complaining about the heat and humidity, but I’m just feeling happy. My body immediately loved this place. In Tuscany, there’s something that feels almost spiritual. I feel I have a home with the people, the food, everything».

Curated by Francesca de’ Medici and Davide Sarchioni, the exhibition is held at the Frantoio Gallery in Capalbio. Robert Hamblin keeps talking: «The first time Francesca de’ Medici told me we were having an exhibition in a small town I thought she was crazy. Why weren’t we going to cities like Milan or Rome? But I’ve learned that this town has an amazing culture, and people, and I couldn’t believe that everybody that came there was just so engaged. I couldn’t believe the number of people who drove from all over Italy to come and see the exhibition».

Activism in South Africa

Robert Hamblin works and lives in Cape Town and he is a gender activist and artist. He transitioned from queer female in apartheid-era South Africa to transgender male after the fall of the apartheid government, transitioning as well from commercial to artistic photography.

«I stopped commercial work around the same time I became a boy. Now I’m a man. Am I a man? No, that’s another conversation».

His work as a fine art photographer focused on issues related to the body politics of queer and white masculinity by highlighting, among others, injustices related to gender identity in South African society. 

«I’ve known Zanele Muholi since 2003 when we were both two ambitious queer people. We weren’t even using the word queer. We were still struggling with language and in South Africa we didn’t even use the word transgender. We had all these ambitions about what we were supposed to do: we wanted to help people, change things and push governments. Recently I wrote a piece about the day we met. We were young and wanted to show our beauty, but what was before us was a lot of pain and bloodshed. So many people fell, and became such a big part of our work, which has been to document the terrible things that happened to queer people».

When political meets beauty

During the years he produced several bodies of fine art photography. His last body of photographic work was a seven-year project with black transgender sex workers and culminated in a large solo exhibition at The Iziko South African National Gallery in Cape Town.

An artistic advocacy work, as Robert explains: «I photographed communities and made projects with them. I met Zanele Muholi at art fairs where we would both have shows and just spend time together. Then came the pandemic lockdown and both of us couldn’t join our communities. Muholi said ‘Hey man, let’s have a show together’ and I said ‘Ok’. At that time I still thought my paintings would not encounter the amazing interest they did».

Robert Hamblin tried to organize the show first in the United States, in collaboration with Rice University, but then Francesca de’ Medici suggested organizing it in Italy. Robert Hamblin says: «I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy with that depth of the political, and of beauty».

Time Will Tell, Robert Hamblin

Even if in 1998 South Africa was the first country in the world to protect against discrimination based on sexual orientation, still there lies a sharp contrast between written policies and lived experiences.

«Now we are twenty years later. Muholi was able to find the beauty to sustain them, get through all the pain and crying with the works, and constantly show queer beauty by intertwining this with political things. Since I started painting I also feel that there is this duality: my paintings are full of color, beauty, pride, and creatures with wings, but also scars and bruises that exist all together».

Time Will Tell is a message of hope for all: a reminder to commit to working on fundamentally important issues that could and should change in society, the environment and everyone’s country. 

Hamblin on gender dysphoria

Today Robert Hamblin’s body is a hairy white male body but, during his childhood, Robert was twisted in a gender identity crisis. Being a girl just did not sit well for him.

«I don’t like the narrative that is in the world of trans people where people talk about being trapped in the wrong body. I never felt that in my life. I often felt that my body was distant from the system that we live in, that my body was not connected to other people, and I wondered why I felt my body wasn’t linked enough to my family, to my father, to my mother. So I experienced those disparities and disconnects. In retrospect, I understand the things trans people experience now. We talk of dysphoria. The dysphoria was not from my body, I was always in it. The dysphoria was a disconnect from society».

And he still goes on: «The societal constructs that we live in make us feel distant from one another and make so many borders between us. This causes longing and pain that we don’t always understand».

A Queer & Crooked Memoir

In 2021, after a year of isolation due to Covid-19, Robert Hamblin published Robert: A Queer & Crooked Memoir for the not so Straight & Narrow. The book tells Robert’s childhood and growth, confronting and healing from gender confines and racism.

«I had just become a father, when a South African publishing company asked me to write it. I first said ‘No, I’m a father now, and it’s not just about myself anymore. I want to be with my child. That’s the identity I want’. But they just kept pushing and so I started telling my story, which became a product useful for society».

Quitting photography – Robert Hamblin painter career

Since he started painting, Robert has abandoned photography, preferring painting: «There is such an unobstructed relationship between my body and paper. Recently I started working on canvas with oil. I often just paint with my hands and only later use brushes or support… So you might see bigger paintings just start as a partial painting with my body and then for a definition I will use brushes, and pieces of material. That immediacy: it’s what is important to me now». 

In the days he spent in Italy, Robert Hamblin has with him a notebook on which he draws: «In the last few days in Rome I’ve experienced a recognition of things that are in my work. There are a lot of creatures, winged creatures, mixtures between animals, and mythical creatures and I’m seeing them everywhere, statues, bridges, museums. It’s kind of amazing and sad: I live in Africa, at the bottom of Africa, but the metaphors and the symbolism of my body in my work come from here. There’s mythical creatures from colonialism imprinted in everybody even if you’re living at the southern tip of Africa».

Robert Hamblin

Robert Hamblin (1969) is an artist, father and gender activist born in Johannesburg South Africa. Hamblin’s paintings and photographic works have been exhibited in South Africa and internationally. The artist has received critical acclaim for his work that contributes to debates around body politics in a post-apartheid-regime era.

Elisa Russo

The writer does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article.