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Apartheid’s artistic legacy

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Apartheid’s artistic legacy

Earlier, between 1988 and 1989, he produced a group of works titled Casspirs full of love, featuring disembodied heads in the landscape or packed into cabinets. Casspirs were armoured military vehicles deployed to townships permitting police to open fire on unarmed civilians in order to “keep the peace”.

The title is ironic – a message Kentridge heard on a radio programme from a mother to her son in the South African security forces: “This message comes to you from your mom with Casspirs full of love”. Kentridge had a magnificent Head in the sale, a painted print overlaid with torn shards, the African male head tilted back with eyes closed, like a death mask.

Another of the older generation of black South African artists, David Koloane, describes the difficulties for them under apartheid. In 1989 he wrote: “How effective a role can the artist play within the community, in an environment devoid of any creative infrastructure such as museums, galleries, tuition institutions, where all such facilities are located in the affluent and privileged section in a racially divided society?”

Koloane is one of the founder members of the Fordsburg Artists’ Studios, now known as the Bag Factory, which when it opened in 1991, provided the only dedicated space for black South African artists in Johannesburg, and still plays a vital role.

Koloane’s figurative paintings often depict township life with an oppressive, suffocating intensity. He writes: “The commuters leave their homes against a mist of brazier fire, smog and industrial emissions. They return … under a blanket of dark and ominous layers, which hover over the township so much that shape and form become blurred.”

Another leading exponent of Township Art, as the movement came to be known, was Koenakeefe Mohl, who was born in 1903 and against all the odds, recorded much of Southern Africa’s social change during the 20th century.

When very young he was punished at school because he would not stop drawing in class, and then withdrawn from school by his father to herd goats. However, with the help of some sympathetic expatriates, he managed to study art in South Africa, Namibia and Germany.

Back in Sophiatown in 1944, he was one of the first black artists in his country to be involved in art education, establishing his own art school, curiously named White Studio. Then in 1960 he was a founder member of Artists Under the Sun. Although he loved painting landscapes, Mohl is most famous for his township scenes and also, poetic odes to the plight of miners travelling to and from work, faceless and dehumanised.

A white art patron advised him not to concentrate on landscapes, but to paint the poverty and misery of his own people, since apparently Europeans had perfected the art of landscape depiction. Mohl responded: “But I am an African, and when God made Africa, he also created beautiful landscapes for Africans to admire and paint.”

Life in the townships was not all despair and desperation; there was the joyous escapism of shebeens (informal bars) swinging with Township Jazz.

One of the leaders of the Township Art movement, Dumile Feni, loved this music, and dancers whirl in his drawings and sculpture. However, his concentration on people eloquently betrays their tension, pain and anger – in taut muscles, contorted postures, clutching fingers and tortured expressions. Eventually totally demoralised by the impact of apartheid, he and fellow artist Gerard Sekoto emigrated, never to return.

Sekoto died in exile in 1993, the year before Mandela became President. For 46 years in Paris, cut off from his roots, he reached back into his South African past. One of the paintings in this sale, his The Family on the Road, is a sombre tribute to black experience in a divided land.

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