On 18 September 2008, David Koloane, along with Miriam Makeba (Music) and Lynette Marais (Multi-disciplinary), were honoured with a lifetime achievement award by the Arts and Culture Trust. For the Dead Revolutionaries Club first artist tribute, ‘Uncle Dave or Bra Dave’ as he is known to most of us was therefore the natural choice. We caught up with him to give us a brief recap of his journey as an artist, curator, teacher, facilitator and writer, as well as finding out his what he is working on currently.
Fouad Asfour interviews David Koloane at his studio at the Bag Factory Artists Studios
Although your biography is well known through various publications, I would like to ask you to recount briefly your artistic career and what has been important milestones for you.
I trained to become an artist in a very unorthodox manner, not the normal route, through education or through common ways available for white people at that time. I was born and bred in Alexandra township which was a very special situation, as I never came across a visual artist there. I came across musicians, dancers, sports people, but never a visual artist. It was as if the whole township was a stage for performing artists. I have never known a township that had as many jazz bands as Alexandra had. Everywhere you walked around, you heard jazz sounds and also ethnic sounds because it was a melting pot, as it was the gateway of people coming from the north, through Pretoria. At that time Pretoria was strictly for white people, so people came directly to Alex. It was a gateway into Johannesburg and all kinds of people from different ethnic groups came to Alex before selecting where they wanted or were allowed to live....
Meeting Louis Maqhubela
As I mentioned, when I grew up we did not come across any visual artists, but later my family moved to Soweto and I was already in high school. There I met Louis Maqubela, who told me about Polly Street [Art Centre], [Fn1] which I did not know then. I had always been drawing, since primary school. I had a friend who was a good draftsperson and I copied everything he did – people, animals and also a lot from magazines and my memories of what I saw in the movies. But the real first lesson I got was meeting Louis who was a student at Polly Street from 1956 to 1958 and he told me what proper materials to use, and was the first person to take me to galleries. At that time I thought only white people were allowed to be artists because I never came across a Black artist. You must know, at that time Black people were not allowed in galleries or art museums. Some galleries you could not walk in as a Black person, although some were liberal and allowed you to look.
So, Louis took me to galleries and I started to read for myself. I was an avid reader. I read books which I got from second hand bookstores about different art-related subjects, like about the Impressionists and artists biographies like the famous Van Gogh story, which was very popular at that time. I started informing myself and Louis also helped my growing. I would do the work and he would monitor it and tell me where I went wrong. But, by that time, I had to leave school and did not complete my matriculation because my father became ill. Being the eldest I had to help and work for the family, but I continued working artistically.
In 1966, Louis won a trip to Europe when he entered for a national competition which was part of the exhibition series ‘Artists of Fame and Promise’, which was open to artists from all race groups. He travelled to Europe for three months, visiting art museums and other places of interest. Actually, whilst in Britain, he met the South African expatriate artist Douglas Portway, who influenced him to some extent. I think that Portway was a follower of oriental philosophy and Louis also got involved in that kind of thought. So when Louis came back, he did a semi-abstract kind of work with lush and floating colours. He did very well when he came back and all his exhibitions were sold out. Then he felt he should go and settle abroad because the opportunities in South Africa were very limited. It seemed to him that he reached the ceiling by his success, so there was nothing more to look forward to. He decided to leave the country and I think he first went to the Ibiza. He stayed there for a year or two and then moved to London, because at least in London there were many South Africans, writers, musicians and else who had left in the 60s.
Studying with Bill Ainslie at Johannesburg Art Foundation
Before Louis left in 1973 he introduced me to Bill Ainslie and proposed that I could work with him. Bill had a studio at his home, where he worked and lived, and he started to teach from there because the system did not allow art schools to enrol Black students. [Fn2] When I first met him I showed him the artwork that I was doing. I had quite a portfolio and he was impressed because Louis had been mentoring me. He asked what I wanted to do and I said that I wanted to know more about colour. We made an agreement that I would go as a part-time student on Saturdays, because I was still working for an engineering company at that time. On Saturdays I was not working and could go to the school. I would do the assignments during the week and then go and show Bill on Saturdays.
Then the company I worked for moved out of Johannesburg in 1975 and I realized if they move out of the city, then I cannot go with them. They were moving quite far away, which meant that I had to wake up around three or four in the morning to get to work on time. So I felt I should not join the company and became a full-time student rather than coming on Saturdays only. At that time there were people in that school like William Kentridge. He was in the same class and also Ricky Burnett, who was Bill Ainslie’s assistant then, and quite a few other people. In 1975 other people started coming there as part-time students, like housewives who had spare time during the day. They started buying my work, so I’d earn some money from selling my paintings and I’d also prepare Masonite boards for them, paint them and sell them these boards.
The first exhibition
One of the ladies who had bought my work went to see Bill Ainslie and said that she wanted to sponsor me to have an exhibition with an artist from Natal, who was a much more recognized artist. Secretly they had this discussion and one day I was invited to a party at this lady’s house and when I got there I found that it was actually a press conference and there was this artist from Natal, Michael Zondi, a sculptor, who already had been abroad. It was announced that we were going to have an exhibition together, which got me really scared and I said ‘How can they do this, this is my first exhibition and they want me to share my first exhibition with a professional whose work is in collections all over the country?’ So they selected the work for the exhibition (that was in 1975).
At that time Nedbank was experimenting by having galleries in some of their branches. They had a branch here in Johannesburg in Simmonds Street, which was the largest gallery and one smaller gallery in Killarney – this is where I showed my work because it was nice and small. They sponsored everything for the show because it was also a way of promoting and publicising the bank, to show that they also had social responsibility projects around the bank.
But I did not go to the opening night because I thought that I was going to be a laughing stock, showing with somebody who was well known. The following Monday I went to Bill and he asked why I did not show up. I said that I did not have transport, which was partly true because it meant that I was going to have to sleep at his place. At that time the police were vigilant about Black people in white suburbs. Every street you went, there was a policeman who wanted to know who you are and where you were going, why you were there, you know. So in a sense I was also avoiding having to sleep in the suburbs. But he said, ‘Okay, just go to the gallery and see how the exhibition went.’ When I got there I found that half of the works in the exhibition were sold. When Bill asked me what I was afraid of, I answered it was just stage fright because this was my first exhibition.
That exhibition gave me courage and I realized that this is something I really wanted to do, and so I became a full-time artist. But as time went on I realized that there was more to it. The fact that the schools did not teach art to Black pupils was for me a painful thought. You must know, many of the children in the schools at that time were ignorant about what art is and what its purpose was in society, cultivating people and also fulfilling people’s hopes. So I felt that I must play a role somehow in helping other young people, like I was helped by Louis and by Bill.
Setting up The Gallery in Jeppestown
I studied with Bill from 1974 to 1977, and when I completed my studies I met two friends who told me that somebody had offered them a space in Jeppestown, an industrial area east of Johannesburg. They suggested that we go and meet him to see what we can do in that space. So I went with them and the owner of the place was running a framer’s shop on the ground level and upstairs he had two empty offices which he did not know what to do with. When we met him he told us to have a look and think about what we can do with that space. We thought that we could use one office as a studio and the other one to store work. We also came up with the idea of setting up a gallery for Black artists in that space. It wasn’t much of a space because it was located on the first floor and then there was a wooden staircase on both sides of the building. But there was wall-space so we thought we could use that foyer as an exhibition space and also a bit of wall-space along the second office. You must know, at that time the Group Areas Act was still in place and we were actually defying the system by setting up studios and a gallery there. But somehow we managed to talk to some artists, and at that time, all of the artists were willing to cooperate because most of them couldn’t get into mainstream galleries like Goodman and Everard Read I think at that time Everard Read had only one Black artist who was showing with them. Goodman had about four or five Black artists, the other galleries had only three or four. But the majority of artists used to sell their work from door to door in town, selling to lawyers and all those kinds of people.
So when we set up this idea in Jeppestown, some artists said that they are willing to support us. We went to the newspapers and they were also excited about the idea. We got funding somehow for the opening night of the space and also for the invite. We got a lot of people who pledged support and actually gave us money. We had the first exhibition I think it was in 1977, on the 27th of July, which is the seventh month, so it was the perfect date for the opening. It was carried in all the newspapers that a new Black gallery was going to be opened. And we contacted Percy Qoboza, who at that time was the editor of the Sowetan newspaper, a very radical politician and writer who was also preaching for the rights of the Blacks to be standing on their own and not being dependent on whites all the time. He gave us full publicity and the opening night was almost like a stampede, because it was a small space and it was announced not only in the Sowetan but even the Star carried the opening. In a sense we became celebrities overnight and the following day the phones were ringing all over, with people wishing us good luck. The sales were good too, with many artists selling their work on the opening night.
But then we had to sit down and think about the reality because we needed funds. Also we realized that we could not operate from that space for long because the police would close it down eventually or we could become detained - one of the two. We tried getting funding from a fund which was run by Bishop Tutu at that time for educating school children. We went to his office in Braamfontein but it was very difficult getting him at that time, and they would tell you that he was booked and you cannot see him until the following year. At that time Steve Biko was running a programme called Black Community Programme, which in a sense was a community project that would assist people in the community who were trying to set up self-sustaining projects. After the publicity of our exhibition, a representative of this programme came to see us and said that they were going to show a group of different projects at a centre in Soweto. They wanted us to participate so that they can see what we do. We said that this was actually what we were looking for and went to this centre in Soweto. People with different kinds of project were there, women with sewing projects and some other skilled people like plumbers who were trying to set themselves up. We produced a small exhibition with work which we produced at our studio. They then said that they were interested in funding us and asked us for a proposal and a budget promising that when we let them know what we needed, they would start funding us, as soon as they had everything in their records.
We had opened the gallery on 27 July, and I think that this event with the BCP happened in September, so we were due to get our first funding from the programme in October but as fate would have it, the government closed down all these organisations in October and took every document and their records. They closed down newspapers and any NGO that was suspected, and obviously because Biko was behind this one it was the first they clamped down. So we lost this prospect for funding and everything came to a standstill and we were getting in trouble with paying rent as we could not depend on the person who ran the framer’s shop because he was trying to help us.
We then had a second exhibition of two artists which also went well but by then we realized that we desperately needed funding. By 1979 we were forced to close down and the owner who owned the retail shop even impounded some of our paintings.
Formation of FUBA
At that time meetings were held about opening an art centre around the Market Theatre complex which resulted in the formation of FUBA (Federated Union of Black Artists). The primary objective was that a group of performing artists, mostly musicians, actors, and theatre people, would come together in Soweto to see if they can form some kind of body that could help solve some of the artists’ problems, you know, like recording contracts, copyright questions, all those things. Also they wanted to form a union but at that time some people said that it was not wise to form a union because nobody is going to give funding to a body that is going to be against the very people who provide the funding. So, the question was, what could we do, and others said: ‘Why don’t we form a school? Because there are no schools where our young artists can be taught in the performing and visual arts, why not come up with the idea of forming a school? If we have a school at least then funding will be easy to access for the students’.
Bill Ainslie took me to some of the meetings, when they were discussing these questions and, finally, in 1978 a building in the Market Theatre complex was identified where they set up an office. But even at that time they were hounded by the security police because they thought they were some secret underground organisation. If you are interested in more information about FUBA, you can find it in the library of the Johannesburg Art Gallery, who are keeping custody of the whole archive of FUBA.
Teaching at FUBA
In 1979, FUBA finally started operating and a school mate of mine who was teaching there told me they wanted me to teach because the centre needed a visual arts teacher for their outreach programme. At that time they were trying to start teaching operations in township schools. What they would do is address certain school principals and tell them that we wanted to arrange art lessons for students once or twice a week. If the principal agreed, the FUBA teachers were sent there. I was sent to different schools and sometimes a few students were interested and I would continue teaching there once a week. On Saturdays I was teaching children between the ages of nine and fourteen and, during the week, in a high school in Soweto. But then you could see that the other teachers were not happy and did not like the idea. For instance, I would do some work with the students and leave it in the principals’ office and when I came back the next week, I’d find them thrown in the rubbish bin. Eventually there was a son of Durant Sihali, who was my student and his father was my colleague, and I started to give him the work to take home and bring it in the following week. That’s how I started, and out of that class two students later became artists. From there I became a full time teacher at FUBA and later the head of the department in 1983. That was shortly before I went to study in London to do a course in museum studies.
The Co-founder and director of FUBA at that time was Sipho Sepamla [Fn3], he was a writer, poet and novelist. He initiated a newsletter for the organisation, which was important for me and other members because each of the heads of the departments was expected to write something about their particular discipline for each edition of the newsletter. That actually got me started in writing, and to take writing seriously, because I felt that it was an important breakthrough for me to be able to express myself about how I saw the teaching. I think that this was also a way of allowing the teachers to articulate their intentions and what significance they saw the centre had for the community. I thought that this was a brilliant idea which should happen in all the centres, because it makes you, as a teacher, feel the significance of being there. And also at some stage students were encouraged to write about their views and their work, and their texts were published in the newsletter.
While I was a teaching for FUBA Anthony Caro came to South Africa to give lectures at various universities, like Wits in Johannesburg, in Cape Town and other places. Bill Ainslie, who also was on the board of FUBA, told Anthony Caro after one lecture at Wits, that there were also Black artists in this country, but that they were not allowed to join universities. He told him that he can meet Black artists at FUBA, and that is how he came and met us. Coming from white institutions he was shocked by the comparison, the lack of resources in places like FUBA. That caught his interest and he realized that he needed to help us more than the white institutions. He felt that he had to do something about it and that lead him to put up a collection for FUBA.
Studies in Birmingham and London
Quite many things happened during that time, around 1983. With the start of a the FUBA collection we thought about housing the works in some gallery, and the question emerged of how to get people to learn about curatorial skills. We also had a series of meetings with the British Council about what education programs we could implement along with the collection. The British Council had helped us before already with funds or educational material, and I knew the cultural attaché who had given me a travel grant to go to Britain for three months, to attend Birmingham Polytechnic as a guest student. There I joined an art teacher training course, in order to see what methods they used, so I could come back and see how we could implement those methods. As I said earlier, at that time the idea to teach students from developing countries about curatorship was also already in the pipeline. The University of London wanted to know where they can get candidates to enter a diploma course in Museum Studies. Fortunately my name was mentioned and that I was already in Birmingham attending a course for art teachers. So, while in Birmingham I got a call from the University of London, and they asked me to come for an interview. I was quite surprised, because I expected to be in Britain for only three months. But then I went to London and four lecturers from the Education department of the University interviewed me about my knowledge on art and about my practical experiences. After that they said that they thought that I was the right candidate for that course and they wanted to enrol me to that course immediately. I was supposed to go back in December, but then I wrote back home that I would not come back but stay for another two years.
With regards to my training at the Polytechnic, I joined the teacher training department of the, and it was a more hands-on program. I think that I enjoyed that the courses were not so much theoretical but more practical. We used to go out and do sketches of the city and landscape and so on. You could chose to learn the basics about a medium, and I did a course in photography, which included a dark room course. We would go out for assignments in the city, you would chose what you wanted to do and develop a portfolio around that thing. I think for me those three months went too quickly, because I enjoyed the courses so much.
That also made me realize that there are different methods that one can use to gain the interest of students and that you do not necessarily need a fully equipped institution, but that you can use alternative means. Like if you want to do printmaking but you do not have any machinery you can put stuff under a carpet and this way print as well, just as those done with a machine. That made me realize that the more you think of alternative means, the more innovative you become. I learned a lot for my teaching and my own art practice as well, during these courses. If you start working innovatively in classes, students will pick that up easily.
Also I always had the feeling that if I travel, I represent my community, in whatever I do, in my behaviour, the way I work, if I concentrate or if I show a lack of concentration. I always had the feeling that I would misrepresent my community if I did not do well, in my studies or in my behaviour. Also I was aware that if I go somewhere I would gather information for others and share that with my community. Whenever I travel I am conscious about that, that when I return I have something that I can share.
The University of London was a different institution. I was enrolled at the Institute of Education, and it was a programme for schoolteacher who taught art and we did both theory and practice. What was interesting for me was that we were placed in major museums for some period. In each institution where you were placed, you had to develop a project, so when I was at the British Museum for three months, then I would have to devise a project from that, whether it was from the collection or other parts of that institution. This way you also got to know about what happened in the background of a museum. You do not only see the exhibitions but also the work behind that, who are the people who are organising the collection, how do they manage travelling exhibitions. During those two years I had the opportunity to work at the London National Gallery, and the National Portrait Gallery, and also I did projects at the Tate Gallery and the British Museum.
The most important experience was a group exhibition of well known British painters at the Tate Gallery, called ‘The Hard Won Image: Traditional Method and Subject in Recent British Art’ (4 July–9 September 1984). Part of my assignment was to interview some of these artists, so that they could explain what they mean by ‘hard won image’ – is it because painting has been a traditional practise or is it because painters are using new techniques and methods. One painter and printmaker who also once came to South Africa later, was the one of the two artists to give me an interview, the others made different excuses that they were busy. Although I tried to get a number of statements from the different artists and only ended up with two artists. So, I spoke to people who visited the exhibition and they told me about their views. For me this was one of the most interesting assignments which made me realize that you could talk to ordinary people who shared problems which I also could relate to.
At that time there were many people from all over the world, and also South Africa in London, a lot of activists from the ANC, but there you did not know whom you could meet. South African musician played in many clubs, like Hugh Masekela, and I later found out about the SOAS (School of Oriental and African studies) and I started to meet more people from South Africa. But I was more concerned about my studies and that I complete this course, so I did not get involved in political activities too much.
Triangle Arts Workshop New York, 1983 and 1984
Before going to London, I was invited to the Triangle Arts Workshop in New York 1983. I arrived there late because I had problems with my passport. Only at the last moment, through the intervention of somebody who was in the government, did they give me a travel document, not a passport. It was a travel document that designated my nationality as being undetermined. It was a funny document I had to explain often why I was carrying this kind of document. People asked me what this was about, if I was a prisoner or something, and I answered that this was what the Apartheid system had given me. But then I managed to get to New York a few days before the workshop closed down and I managed to do a few pieces of work. Because I did not experience the full workshop they invited me for the following year. So, in 1984 I travelled from London to the US, this workshop was for me very exciting because there were artists from different countries. This time, I also had already a bit of experience from the first workshop and knew a few people in the US.
That is also when I met Dumile Feni, who lived there at that time. Actually I met him by accident – it was when Peter Bradley took me to a South African cultural centre, which was run by a well known African-American painter, where they would play music, show exhibitions and stage theatre plays. Peter said maybe I could try to form relationships with these people, so that when I return to South Africa we could start exchanges. The lady who ran the centre told me that a South African artist has a studio there and I was surprised to hear that it was Dumile Feni. I had met him briefly previously, that was long before he left the country, and I was sure that he would not remember me. At that time, he had started to become a bit paranoid, because he always thought that the South African government would send agents to spy on him. So he was distant when we met and it took time before he opened up to me. Later we started moving around and he introduced me to many Jazz musicians I had records of and who I had never met before. That was for me a very important experience, to see how well-known he was in the US.
I was fascinated by the workshop concept, meeting artists from all over the world, and it made me excited to meet people from different countries and I thought that this is something what we could do in South Africa. At that time I wasn’t thinking of obstacles, I only saw possibilities. The idea fascinated me so much and, fortunately, I had after the workshop a few months in New York before I went to my studies in London. During the workshop I met the artist Peter Bradley and we became friends. I told him that I wanted to discuss with him the possibility of him coming to South Africa, because I wanted to start the same thing there, and he agreed. When Bill Ainslie came to New York, I introduced them and everything fell into place for us and we started arranging things. In New York, we started discussing the setting up of what would later become the Thupelo Workshops, but that is where the seeds were planted.
At this point I was going to London and we met there again and finalised ideas where to find funding and other issues. That was in 1983, so I was still going to be away for two years. Bill said that he would approach different companies and see what would happen. He wrote to me and said that he eventually found funding by an organisation called USLEP (United States Leadership Education Program), which was actually an educational programme that was primarily interested in journalists. They would select an outstanding Black journalist annually and send this journalist to Yale University for a year or two. When we came up with the idea of this workshop, they agreed that the workshop had an educational character and that they should fund it. They said that they would provide a visiting artist from the US to visit the workshop in South Africa in order to promote an exchange.
When I got back from studying in London, everything was set up for the first workshop, which happened in 1985. Bill had already set up the Johannesburg Art Foundation in Saxonwold which was made up of an old cottage which had a beautiful space around it and some external houses. They bought the property with the help of Bill Ainslie’s friends and it became part and parcel of the workshop. There was a bursary fund that was set up to help students, especially the young students from outside Johannesburg. I was on the committee of the fund and also on the board of the Foundation and I was also working in the FUBA gallery. The Foundation became a very close place for me and my friendship with Bill Ainslie deepened as we developed our projects, especially the Thupelo project. This workshop had to be done clandestinely, and we were looking for loopholes which would allow us to do certain things. So we subverted a lot of laws in order to set up the workshop programme. Our first workshop space was the Hunter’s Rest, a Three Star Hotel in Rustenburg [Fn4], and the owners were surprised that we wanted to do a workshop in their space. So there were all kinds of difficulties that we had to put up and avoid in order not to arouse suspicion or have the workshop interrupted by the security police.
Pat Mautloa, Sam Nhlangetwa and myself became the people who were sort of the core committee of the Thupelo workshop. We invited people from all over the country, from Durban, Cape Town and Limpopo, and the workshops were running from 1985 until 1991 in Johannesburg.
Later we realized that there was a problem with one of the initial objectives of the workshop which was that some of these participants could set up similar things in the areas where they lived and worked. But it proved to be very difficult at that time because funding was not easy to acquire and it was also hard to get a group together which would gel and continue working together. The exception to this was the group from Cape Town, who started getting together and planning the workshops (they managed to get a committee together) which then allowed us to start concentrating on the studio concept, which later led to the Bag Factory Artist Studios. When we had completed the 1991 Thupelo workshop, we decided that it was too much and that we couldn’t run the workshops successfully as well as set up the studio concept. We needed to chose whether we continue with the workshops or to concentrate on starting the artists’ studios. We decided to concentrate on the studio project and the people in Cape Town said that because they did not have a space yet, that they would carry on with the workshops until they found a studio space. The Thupelo workshops moved from Johannesburg to Cape Town in 1991. Since then, the Cape Town group have been organizing the Thupelo workshops.
What is your impression of art in South Africa today? In 2008, how do artists communicate, how do art institutions work with respect to the larger audience?
I think that it is a bit difficult now, you know, the objectives have changed dramatically since 1994. The fact that now tertiary level education is accessible to most young people has made a huge difference, but it has also made people less aware of thinking in terms of the community. It has made people more individualistic, as to what can ‘I’ achieve rather than what can ‘we’ achieve. The demise of the independent art centres actually was sad because those were the only spaces where people could work as collectives and think collectively. For instance, when you went abroad at that time, you always thought of what you could bring back. You know, when you came back you had to bring something that could help that centre or that community, so that you could open doors for others as well and not only for yourself. But that has changed now completely.
What do you think about the status of contemporary art in a post-traumatic society, given not only the inequalities of access to representation, but also the view that contemporary art is somehow still seen as elitist and not accessible for all the majority of people, and somehow there is a division between ‘art for struggle’, which is rooted in the community and on the other side something like ‘art for the bourgeois’?
Fourteen years after the end of the apartheid regime, there are still no galleries in the townships. How do you expect people to know? I am talking about urban-based people, not rural people who never set a foot in a gallery. We now have a Black government and nobody ever thinks about setting up a small museum, even if it accommodates five artists. They are all about heritage and monuments – heritage has become the main thing.
So, cultural policy is still restricted to identifying either a traumatising past or a kind of tribal heritage through craft, but not recognising the potential of what art could be like in a contemporary society?
Yes, it is happening in that way, you know, you expect young people to be more informed now about the arts and being in a situation where they can integrate with the community.
Back to your work, could you tell us a bit about your art practise? In the beginning you worked abstract and later changed to doing more semi-figurative work. How did that change come about, and what was it that inspired your work with the images of dogs, cars, and cityscapes?
I think that it came from me always feeling that calling a township ‘home’ was something that was not actually true because I do not think that people in the townships were there because of their own volition, that they chose to be in townships. It was for economic reasons that people left their homelands to come to the city, as it happens everywhere in the world. But the fact that we had these segregated places which were called townships – for me it meant that somehow we found ourselves in a situation where we had no choice, it was not through our own free will that we were there. So that is why I saw the artistic expression of ‘township art’ as a collective expression of people trapped in an environment not of their own choice.
I think also the fact that townships were used as conduits for industry meant that virtually everybody who is in a township was a pawn in the labour market. You are there for one purpose only, to serve the industry which was not run by Black people but by white people. So we were all just pawns, you know, and that is why even the philosophy around the communities is that you have to wake up and work for yourself, for your own living rather than trying to be independent and doing something out of the ordinary. Because if you became a musician or a soccer player – and even a soccer player at that time – their work was not valued, it was just part of recreation. All these activities, sports like soccer and others had no money at that time and they were just recreation, the same for music and the other arts. So when you wanted to become a full-time musician people looked at you as if there was something wrong with you because we were all there only to work. That is why people in the township ask you first ‘Are you working?’, because this place is a conduit for labour: Everybody has to wake up in the morning and go to the city and come back in the evening. If you stay in a township and do not go to the city you are considered as a loafer, that you do not work.
Do you mean to say that by changing how to look at townships, as a ‘home’ for people rather than as a place which was designed to house workers in the first place, township artists did something out of the ordinary, something which opposed the system imposed by the needs of mining and other industries?
Yes, because these places were not there to enjoy, what time do you have to enjoy? You had to be working all the time. So I saw it in that light, and also the juxtaposition of the township with the city is a very contradictory and ironic one. We woke up in the morning to work for companies and businesses which were owned by other people, improve these high glossy buildings and keep them clean, not for our own but for other people’s personal pleasure. Our labour did not lead to benefits in our communities but it served the city and the people who lived there. That has always been my problem when looking at the city. I see it from that standpoint and I don’t think that I am going to change my mind in any way. I see this juxtaposition all the time, now people are aspiring to live in the city, because if you live there then you’ve graduated socially. It is that struggle now that people have, to be rather in the city than in the township.
At the same time townships develop …
Yes, townships develop, there is a new generation which sees townships as home, and know no other place, whereas we knew that our parents came from such and such a place. We were taken there during school holidays, to keep our roots, to know where we came from. But today it’s a different world…
Stray dogs appears quite consistently in your work, when did you start using this imagery and what is behind that?
The dog is a metaphor in a sense for communities in South Africa, because the dogs themselves live in communities, with all the laws against them and they are also neglected by the powers that rule. So I see the stray dogs as metaphors, or a symbol for our communities, because they have to fight for themselves, they have to do everything for themselves. It’s a ‘dog eats dog’ kind of situation which is exactly what is happening with Black communities, where people fight, kill, rob each other. Because we are all fighting for the space, this claustrophobic space.
Actually before using dogs I use the cockerel as a sign of awakening in the early 1970s, the dogs came later. Also the cityscape has for me taken over from the landscape. Because we no longer even go back to see that landscape we used to go to when we were kids in the rural areas. Even there you see shopping malls going up in rural areas and shopping malls in townships. So, the cityscape is a kind of substitute of the landscape, what people see where they live, what they are surrounded by, and the dog is a symbol for the condition of this situation.
If you were asked to give advice to a young artist, what would you say?
The advice I give to young people is always to inform themselves as much as they can, and to read as widely as possible so that they know about every aspect of art. They should not say that they do not know about any artistic area because these kinds of excuses are not valid anymore because there are libraries, you can go to the internet, you can find whatever information you need today. So there is absolutely no reason that a young artist should say ‘I don’t know’ today, as they have all the means and facilities that we never had. So, to find a young artist claiming ignorance is insulting today. They should learn from the past, they need to know how to deal with situations today.
What is your favourite medium, which kind of medium you like most to work in?
I think I like graphic work more, that is why I like drawing and printmaking lately. I am beginning to enjoy printmaking because it has opened up new possibilities for me. Although I still like painting, which has always been my favourite. I have the feeling that with painting I am still learning, I don’t think that anybody can say they know painting. I feel that it is still a challenge, that I go back to from time to time. The same with drawing, I find the same challenges in drawing as I find in painting. The more you work the more you discover you don’t know.
Somehow I like the process in printmaking because it relaxes me, I find the process in printmaking therapeutic in a sense. You know, from the complexity of painting, in printmaking it’s a different process, that I enjoy working with.
Do you ever thinking about working in different media and, if so, which media would you like to work in?
I have been thinking of doing a video around the city, which I am still working out in my mind. First I want to see if it is possible what I have in my mind. I have been drawing sketches and I think that it can be done with technology and somebody who understands what I want. I think that would be a challenge for me to pull that off. It is a responsibility that I placed on myself, to say that I would like to do that and do it. If I can accomplish it the way I see it, then I would be fulfilled. I do not know what can come after that. The thing about today is that everything is a possibility unlike years ago. Today you can collaborate with a wide variety of people that you never thought you would think about collaborating with them. Because there is so much information available, I would like to try some of these new technologies. I might just find the time.
What is your favourite work?
Well, that is difficult to say, but there is a work that I think I could name, because it was such a challenge to do that work. It is in the Standard Bank collection, a work about the city, the streets of the city with people milling around, doing shopping. I think what is important is the patience I had in doing that work. Because it took me close to five years to reach the point where I thought now I could not do anything more. I think my whole experience being an artist is embedded in that work. When I completed it, it was a long work, about two and a half or three meters long. I did it in the late 1990s and some of my colleagues would say ‘Who do you think is going to buy that kind work?’ And I said that I did not think so much about someone buying it, that I am just challenging myself.
When I took it to have it framed, the framer had to take it out of the window to take it to the gallery because it did not fit into the staircase.
I took photographs of the work while doing it, each time I reached a new stage. So, I think that was the most important work for me, it’s history was so important to me.
What did it mean to you to receive the lifetime achievement award by the Arts and Culture Trust?
When I got the phone call I was surprised and thought that maybe they made some mistake or something. But this lady said ‘No, you have been nominated and you are going to get that award’. Well, I was quite surprised because I think that there are many more people who are doing much more significant contributions. Because, you know, I never take such things into consideration. I have got so much that I am always thinking of doing, that I never think about what these things could mean. For me I said, well, in a sense it will encourage young people also to realize that if you put lot of effort in what you do, you will get a result, which is also pleasing in the end. Because if you are an artist you never think about retirement, you never think about pension funds, you never think about what is going to happen to you, you just pray that each morning you wake up and do what you are used to doing. So, I think it was an honour for me to get recognized.
And also Miriam Makeba was receiving a lifetime achievement award …
Yes, I never imagined … When I saw Miriam Makeba there I thought that she just was invited to the event but when I saw that she was receiving the award, that really made me want to cry. Because she is a lady I have so much respect for, and who also was very humble. She could have said that she does not have time for these small awards but it meant so much to her.
Which young artists do you think are promising, whose works do you keep an eye on?
I think there are several. You know, today there are better opportunities for young people, and it’s a democratic country. They take all kind of directions, there are young artists who go the conceptual way, there are young people who are doing performance, young people who are photographers and video makers. But I still feel despite all that, one skill has to show. Whatever you do, whether it be photography or video, there has to be a basic acknowledgement of skill as a clue and not just as fashion. So, I have a problem with young people who do things because they are fashionable. I think one has to learn that art is an instrument, I mean, drawing is a discipline. In whatever you do, you have to know what drawing means before you can move on to any other thing. And I think that very few young people care that they have strong grounding in those disciplines. I think that these skills mean so much to the future. I mean, if you look at William Kentridge, he has got a thorough technical grounding, you can actually trace his work from the skill he has. He is not doing it because it is fashionable, he is doing it because he’s got the skill and the grounding to move forward. So, I find some of the young people become trapped in the end because somehow it catches up with you in the long run. And you just will start repeating yourself instead of moving forward.
What are you working on right now?
DK: Right now I am working on a show for the Johannesburg Art Gallery which will be opened in August this year. I still have to do a few more works and I am still trying to garner ideas as to what I need to add to that exhibition. I might do drawings, I might do paintings, I am still sorting out what I need to do. Because most of the work will come from different collections but I need to add some new things as well.
A final question, which recent exhibition or artistic performance in South Africa has been most important for you, this year, or last year? Was there something that touched you, moved you?
It's difficult to say, because I don’t think that in theatre there has been anything outstanding, maybe in dance, there has been some new young dancers that are developing a characteristic way of moving. But in music, I have not heard anything lately. In fine arts, I was impressed seeing Kentridge’s Magic Flute, the way he incorporates the different elements and disciplines into one work, for me that indicated that this is a direction we should be looking at, and not just saying ‘I am a visual artist’, and only look at visual art techniques. But this combining of music and the visual arts was for me the most moving thing, locally. I wish I could see that being done by young Black artists. Kentridge not only brought classical music alive, but also there was a live band playing and I find recorded music in videos too passive for instance. It’s not immediate, not alive, as if you had a musician there.
Thank you very much for the interview.
Footnote 1: In his text (Koloane, David. ‘The Polly Street art scene.’ In: African art in Southern Africa: from tradition to township. Edited by Anitra Nettleton and David Hammond–Tooke. Johannesburg, 1989. p. 218–291) David Koloane presents statements by various artists who attended art classes at Polly Street Art Centre: ‘You see, he [Cecil Skotnes] was encouraging a particular direction among the students which was that of painting in an expressionistic manner. Mind you, I was working directly from observation at the time and not from imagination, so I don’t think he had much interest in my work.’ (Durant Sihlali); ‘I was always at loggerheads with Skotnes on his insistence that Black artists did not require any kind of tuition because of their natural ability to paint. What annoyed me most about this fallacy was that it did not seem to apply to white artists, but only to us Blacks.’ (Louis Maqubela).
See also the interview David Koloane with Kay Hassen, published in the catalogue Kay Hassan, Daimler Chrysler (ed.), Ostfildern-Ruit, 2000, pp. 10–23.
Footnote 2: By 1971 the Ainslie Studio’s were founded and more and more students attended classes at Bill’s house. In 1976, after staying in several rented houses, they moved to 6 Eastwold Way, Saxonwold. The school was registered in 1982 as a non-profit organisation under the name ‘Johannesburg Art Foundation’ (JAF). By 1989 more than five hundred students had enrolled. The JAF filled a vital gap in providing formal art education, particularly to Black students of all ages, but it was equally important as a forum – a place of dialog, discussion, and debate that demonstrated that democratic process could exist despite racial differences. JAF constituted, therefore, more than just an artistic force, it had a political voice. Bill was also involved in the development of many Black art centre initiatives later, the FUBA, FUNDA, The Alexandra Art Centre, Katlehong Art centre and Thupelo Workshops. See more information at: http://www.billainslie.co.za.
Footnote 3: Sipho Sepamla was born in a township near Krugersdorp, and lived most of his life in Soweto. He studied teaching at Pretoria Normal College and published his first volume of poetry, Hurry Up to It!, in 1975. During this period he was active in the Black Consciousness movement and his 1977 book The Soweto I Love, partly a response the Soweto Riots, was banned by the Apartheid regime. He was a founder of the Federated Union of Black Artists (now the Fuba Academy of Arts) and editor of the literary magazine New Classic, and the theatre magazine S'ketsh.
He published several volumes of poetry and novels. He received the Thomas Pringle Award (1977) and the French Ordre des Arts et des Lettres for his writing. More recently in democratic South Africa he was a member of the governments' Arts and Culture Task Group.
Footnote 4: Participants were: Bill Ainslie, Peter Bradley (South Africa/USA), Peter Clarke, Garth Erasmus, Kay Hassan, David Koloane, Dumisani Mabaso, Phillip Malumise, Patrick Kagiso Mautloa, David Mogano, Sam Nhlengethwa, Tony Nkotsi, Madi Phala, Durant Sihlali, Kenneth Thabo.