Arts and culture

South African art: emerging black artists

Black artists such as Gerard Sekoto and George Pemba had less interest in exploring the formal complexities thrown up by European-influenced modernism. Instead they concentrated on depicting their realities and environments in a direct, though forcefully expressionist, manner.

Gerard Sekoto

From the 1930s onward, Sekoto portrayed urban African life in places such as Sophiatown and District Six, vital and tumultuous hotspots of an emerging though still unacknowledged black culture.

In Sekoto's works of the early 1940s, such as Street Scene, bustling African figures are placed in the context of their often denuded environment, while Yellow Houses, of the same year (and the first work by a black artist bought by the Johannesburg Art Gallery), reduces the human presence, focusing instead on the environment itself.

In Song of the Pick, naturalism gives way to severe stylisation: a rank of workers wield picks in unison, forming a powerful image of African labour; a white overseer looks on, but his figure is dwarfed (even threatened) by this phalanx of diggers.

In 1947, Sekoto left South Africa and settled in Paris. Illness and intermittent impoverishment meant that his work never again reached the heights it had in South Africa.

George Pemba

George Pemba, by contrast, stayed at home in small-town South Africa (in the township of Motherwell near Port Elizabeth), living into his 90s and patiently continuing to paint despite the lack of public acclaim - although that arrived late in his life, when a new awareness of neglected black art brought artists such as Sekoto and Pemba to renewed prominence.

Pemba's often na´vely styled work focused on the simple lives of poor black people, humbly and sometimes humorously evincing their fundamental humanity, though he also treated themes such as the story of the Xhosa prophetess Nongqawuse of the 19th century.

Emerging black artists

A contemporary of Sekoto's, artist John Koenakeefe Mohl, founded South Africa's first art school for black people. This was in the township of Sophiatown, and Mohl and the black artists who came after him took as their subject the life and world of the newly urbanised black proletariat, housed in townships on the outskirts of the "white" cities.

The Polly Street Art Centre in Johannesburg, run for 14 years by Cecil Skotnes, helped give impetus to emerging black artists, among them the distinctive talents of Lucky Sibiya and Louis Maqhubela, both of whom developed styles that spoke both of individuality and the creation of a recognisably African visual idiom.

Increasingly, and inevitably, black artists began to give voice to a political sensibility that left behind the realist depiction of township life.

Protest and experiment

Lack of resources meant that many black artists had to rely on media other than oil-painting, and making a virtue of necessity gave added force to their work. Dumile Feni (known as Dumile), for instance, became a master of drawing, often in ballpoint pen.

Dumile's powerful sense of anger, frustration and despair at the deprived lives of his fellow black South Africans fed into work of extraordinary power; his distorted figures seemed to have been physically deformed by the very forces of society. Called "the Goya of the townships", he painted his own version of Picasso's Guernica, a cry of pain at human suffering. Dumile went into exile in 1968, and died in New York in 1991.

Black artists also made striking use of the accessible and relatively cheap medium of the linocut. Among those who used it to great effect were Azaria Mbatha and John Muafangejo. The latter's complex, packed compositions often contained narrative and historical elements, sometimes with a distinct political tone. The apparent na´vety of Muafangejo's work exists in tension with considerable compositional sophistication.

In the 1980s and 1990s, artists such as William Zulu, Vuyile Cameron Voyifwa, Cyprian Shilakoe and others extended linocut work into what has become practically a subgenre of its own in South African artistic practice.

Other black artists continued to work in more traditional media, bringing to it their own unique experiences and sensibilities. Ezrom Legae brought a new energy to sculpture in South Africa, in a form that often seemed to speak, in three dimensions, to the two-dimensional work of Sibiya, Maqhubela and Dumile.

Ephraim Ngatane and Durant Sihlali depicted township scenes and vistas in watercolours; Sihlali has moved a long way beyond that, toward abstraction and expressionism, and has worked in various media over the years.

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