South African art is fraught with struggle rhetoric, old tradition and new skills. It’s a narrative of theory learnt, permission granted and opportunity taken, of beads threaded and symmetry conjured, as it is one of bold lines and blatant imbalance. To say one person gave this monster unity seems impossible. Yet, the trajectory of David Nthubu Koloane’s life says otherwise.
Unequivocally, this gracious man with his infectious smile and charcoal lines was the father of contemporary South African art. Artist, critic, teacher, mentor and curator, Koloane died on 30 June at his home from lung complications. He was 81.
Affectionately known as Bra Da, Koloane was a visionary. From the mid-1970s, when apartheid legislation was arguably at its most draconian, Koloane focused on breaking rules to offer loopholes for young black artists at a time when opportunities were closed to them.
Workshops from New York
A voice in the Thupelo workshops from 1982, which started in New York and enabled discourse between artists; a decision-maker in 1988 in the Triangle workshops alongside Ricky Burnett and Robert Loder; a co-founder of the Federated Union of Black Artists (Fuba) and of the National Arts Council; and the mind behind the Bag Factory Artists’ Studios in Fordsburg, Johannesburg, to name a few of his projects, Koloane was everywhere that mattered in the art world.
Born in the township of Alexandra on 5 June 1938, his personal struggle was defined early on. After his father, Andrew, a tailor in Orange Grove, was rendered incapacitated by a stroke, Koloane, the eldest of five children, was tasked to leave school to support his mother Rebecca, three brothers and a sister. He worked as a messenger, a municipal clerk and an interpreter.
The friendship of artist Louis Maqhubela, whom Koloane met in high school, saved him. Through Maqhubela, Koloane became attuned to the idea that not only could art be a career but that a black man in urban South Africa could aspire to have such a career.
Maqhubela introduced Koloane to galleries, literature and mediums, as well as to Bill Ainslie, the Johannesburg Art Foundation’s founder, in 1973. A short, bearded man with huge passion and courage in the face of art, Ainslie, who died in a car accident 16 years later, guided Koloane and ignited his pioneering spirit. His death shocked Koloane deeply and spurred him to continue his work.
Koloane often referred to himself as a late starter, but also as a catalyst for change in the art world. While he always knew he had a facility to make art, and would keep a pencil on him at all times in case an opportunity to draw presented itself, he began to take it seriously only when he was in his 30s.
Koloane received much acknowledgement the world over, including honorary doctorates from the Vaal University of Technology in 2008, the University of the Witwatersrand in 2012 and Rhodes University in 2015. But he was not only a fierce and wise gatekeeper for South African art, he also did not fear getting his hands dirty.
His approach to making art was unapologetically his own. Johannesburg, with its human energy, was his primary subject and in cityscapes and slices of township life, his was an ongoing portrait of a city in metamorphosis.
Curatorial energies galore
Armed with a curatorship qualification from the University of London, Koloane put together significant exhibitions that included the 1982 Culture and Resistance Arts Festival in Botswana, the 1990 Zabalaza Festival in London and the 1995 South African section of Seven Stories about Modern Art in Africa, in London, which enjoyed mixed critical success but remains part of South African art history.
He offered youngsters an edge: as an artist, he knew the temptations that plague impoverished artists and the problems brought on by commercial success coming too soon.
In spite of accolades from every quarter, Koloane will be remembered for the grace with which he treated people. A humble man with art in the world’s best collections, he chose to keep his Bag Factory studio, working alongside young experimenters, as he chose to live in Parktown with his wife, Monica, a nursing sister.
Koloane lost his only son several years ago; he leaves his grandchildren, Keratilwe, Masego and Tsholofelo, to say nothing of many close friends and a grieving art world. The Goodman Gallery, with which he was associated, pays tribute to him in Johannesburg at 3pm on Thursday 4 July.
A retrospective exhibition of Koloane’s work, curated by Thembinkosi Goniwe, is on at the Iziko South African National Gallery in Cape Town. It travels to Johannesburg’s Standard Bank Gallery and the Wits Art Museum in October.