David Koloane’s art is a love letter to Joburg

Two art exhibitions reveal the intimate relationship between one of South Africa’s great modernists and the city of his life.

From high up, Rahima Moosa Street (formerly Jeppe) resembles a metal river. The sunlight reflecting off the roofs of minibus taxis charges them with an electric current as they weave their motorised flow.

The broken traffic lights at the intersection with Joubert Street means there is no sluice to stem this rush. Circumspect pedestrians dipping their toes on to the road usually jump back on to the pavement, startled by the taxis’ speeding antipathy. 

The more adventurous risk everything with a nerveless encroachment as they teeter on the lines separating lanes. Feeling the breeze of vehicles hurtling past, they eventually make the breakthrough.

1999: Three Sisters by David Koloane. (Photograph: Supplied)
1999: Three Sisters by David Koloane. (Photograph: Supplied)

Metal finally gives way to flesh and people start to cross en masse. Almost immediately, the dance for supremacy on one of Johannesburg’s main inner-city streets begins all over again. 

It is a movement of compromises and coercions, of nudged or bludgeoned intrusions, and of finding the gaps and angles to endure urban life. The dance of a city’s hustler personality influencing the survivalist instincts of pavement hairdressers and traders, gamblers, pickpockets, shoppers, skivers, louche gangsters and tired workers.

Johannesburg, like any self-respecting subaltern city, makes its own rules. It is in these new rules, and old fractures, constant movements and subtle mutations, of being black in an oppressively white world, where the work of the late David Koloane resides.

Johannesburg’s sensibility

“Johannesburg has a disorganised sense, but this holds it all together,” says Thembinkosi Goniwe, the curator of two interlinked exhibitions dedicated to Koloane’s life and work that are on show in the city.

1997: Koloane with friend and fellow artist Pat Mautloa at the National Festival of the Arts, working on the mural If You Scratch at the Monument Theatre. (Photograph: Supplied)
1997: Koloane with friend and fellow artist Pat Mautloa at the National Festival of the Arts, working on the mural If You Scratch at the Monument Theatre. (Photograph: Supplied)

“Johannesburg is the sound of jazz, of mbaqanga. It’s dynamic and always shifting, and its true beauty lies in it always having a space for everyone. No one can own Joburg because it is an elusive city, to borrow from [academics] Sarah Nuttall and Achille Mbembe. You can manoeuvre in it, you can manipulate it, but you can never own it,” Goniwe continues. 

His observations are apparent in the paintings, drawings, etchings, video and assemblage he has gathered for the two exhibitions, most of it from the private collection of the artist who died in June at the age of 81.

Two exhibitions in conversation

At the Wits Art Museum, the David Koloane: Chronicles of a Resilient Visionary exhibition explores the life, influences and motivations of one of South Africa’s great modernists with a selection of work supplemented by archival and family photographs, the artist’s conceptual notes on leitmotifs like the ubiquitous coal brazier, his letters and filmed interviews.

At the Standard Bank Art Gallery, A Resilient Visionary: Poetic Expressions of David Koloane runs until 6 December, and it is where Koloane’s deep and intimate relationship with Johannesburg, the city into which he was born in 1938, in Alexandra, comes alive. 

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Standard Bank gallery curator Same Mdluli describes Johannesburg as “David’s muse”. At a recent walkabout, she talked of “Bra Dey’s” daily journey “with newspaper under his arm” from his home at the cross-section of Hillbrow, Parktown and Constitutional Hill to his studio at the Bag Factory in Fordsburg. An almost 4km peregrination.

“He was like a flaneur, but not in the conventional, European sense,” says Goniwe. “He delved into the city’s back alleys, he saw and smelt the city, he heard her sounds as he observed the transitions and changes in Joburg. But he was not a passive consumer of the city, he was also a participant.”

A city in layered detail

Koloane lived in Johannesburg. He looked at Joburg. Looking is what his work, with its varying degrees of abstraction and layered paint, demands. Step close to admire the brushwork. Step away to get the big picture. Move in between to notice the hidden people, scrawls and spectres that reveal themselves. Wonder why all the traffic lights are upside down…

Koloane was a “working artist” who painted every day and not towards specific commissions or exhibitions, says Goniwe. He often worked “back and forth … he would pick up a work from the 1980s and work on it again in the 2010s.” And again and again.

It was a process that added layers of detail to his work from daily observed minutiae and his own shifting moods and relationships with a constantly changing city.

2018: Procession by David Koloane. (Photograph: Supplied)
2018: Procession by David Koloane. (Photograph: Supplied)

Curator and artist Ricky Burnett, who co-founded the Bag Factory in Fordsburg with Koloane and Robert Loder, noted that the adjective “gloomy” was often used to describe his friend’s cityscapes and street scenes, filled with sex workers, hustlers, churchgoers, office workers, dogs and birds, bustling traffic and the iconic buildings under which he lived. 

During his address on the occasion of Koloane’s 80th birthday celebration, Burnett said: “If by ‘gloomy’ they mean to refer to how the paint is layered and scrubbed and layered again, how pigment from the tube, at first pristine, unsoiled and clearly named and labelled, is sullied, coaxed, pressed, even bullied into giving up its innocence and purity, what they are missing is your reach beyond the obvious to the unnameable. Colour with no name. The unnameable is both a hard-won and noble achievement, not a disqualification.

“If by ‘gloomy’ they mean to refer to a certain sadness in your images, the hunched figures, the slumped herd of the tired and weary in too dark streets, feral dogs scrapping over scraps under a pale and glaucous moon, shouldn’t they rather be recognising your tenderness, your care, your brave refusal to turn away from the everyday and its ordeals. Tenderness towards the conditions of our times, the herds and the dogs, this too can never be a disqualification,” Burnett continued.

Scenes and themes

In the painting Neon Blue, Koloane appears to have torn a strip straight out of the city at that time of the evening when church congregants and sex workers share the same streets. While the religious scurry along in a darker corner, the sex workers are illuminated by streetlamps – almost like haloes – or doorway lights, and tower over the vehicles around them. 

The urgency of living fast and dying young swirls through the monochrome painting The Bacchanalia, creating a vortex of hedonism, of needing to forget. And not fearing death.

Ponte Tower, which together with buildings like the nearby Hillbrow Tower appears often in Koloane’s work, looms over the scene in The Hustlers. 

Circa 2000: From left, David Koloane and Durant Sihlali at the latter's paper-making workshop in Fleurhof, Johannesburg. (Photograph: Supplied)
Circa 2000: From left, David Koloane and Durant Sihlali at the latter’s paper-making workshop in Fleurhof, Johannesburg. (Photograph: Supplied)

In the background, office workers trundle from 9-to-5 jobs with their suitcases in hand, while a collection of characters – pigs with wide eyes, wide boys with cigarettes in their mouths – congregates in the foreground. Around what? Some dice? A dead body? A chimera? 

Trying to trace a consonance between aesthetic shifts in his paintings – in his use of colour schemes, monochromes or a severe abstraction – to specific periods in the history of an “elusive city”, and his enduring relationship with it, is difficult, according to Mdluli.

“He only dated his work when they left the studio, not when he thought they were completed because he never thought his work looked completely finished,” says Mdluli.

There are themes that dominate his work over different periods, however. 

Social realism in the everyday

Koloane, who left school early to support his family after his father suffered a stroke, came late to the art world, at the encouragement of artist Louis Maqhubela.

In the 1970s, Koloane tended towards “social realism”, says Goniwe, drawing street dancing scenes, commuters, the monotonous lines of township homes and, later, the portraits of the jazz musicians he was hanging out with in Johannesburg’s townships. 

During a recent conversation about Koloane’s work, chaired by Johannesburg Art Gallery curator Khwezi Gule, artist Pat Mautloa, a friend and contemporary of the late artist, described the “very bohemian kind of life” they lived.

With apartheid placing severe restrictions on movement, they nevertheless moved from houses in Soweto filled with creatives gathered for late-night political and intellectual discussions, to parties in Mamelodi, drama shows by Gibson Kente and gigs by “Afrocentric groups like Dashiki and Malombo, who were emerging at the time”.

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They lived hard, in the present, with little thought of tomorrow morning and getting home.

In the 1980s, Koloane, who was always looking to create an enabling environment for black artists during apartheid, became instrumental in the experimental Thupelo workshops and started to focus on abstraction.

In a speech at the opening of this exhibition in Cape Town earlier this year, Premesh Lalu, a professor and director of the Centre for Humanities Research at the University of the Western Cape, noted the relationship between Koloane’s work during apartheid and what the philosopher Roland Barthes described as “a lover’s discourse”.

The collection, Lalu said, was not “merely a retrospective, but an itinerary of thought that reveals how those, like David, held on to the promise of love when the spectre of racism cast a spell aimed at a blunting of the emotions”.

1993: Mgodoyi by David Koloane. (Photograph: Supplied)
1993: Mgodoyi by David Koloane. (Photograph: Supplied)

Koloane depicted how black people maintained their everyday humanity, and did the simple things like falling in love, during one of the most violent and degrading periods of history. A time of forced removals, the establishment of bantustans, states of emergency and government-sanctioned murder on the streets. 

With the end of apartheid and South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994, Koloane’s focus on Johannesburg was on how black people “reclaimed the city centre”, says Mdluli.

“David depicted what it means to return to the city and no longer be illegal,” says Goniwe.

Creating space

A curator, artist, intellectual, critic and mentor always looking to create space for black artists in South Africa’s white art world, Koloane was a towering, critical figure.

In 1977, he helped establish the first Black Art Gallery, the Thupelo experimental workshops in the 1980s and the Bag Factory Artists Studio in 1991. He was also one of the co-founders of the Federated Union of Black Artists in 1979 and of the National Arts Council.

His writing included essays such as The Identity Question: Focus of Black South African Expression, South African Art in the Global Context and Art Criticism for Whom?

Undated: From left, poet Mongane Wally Serote, novelist Nadine Gordimer and David Koloane. (Photograph: Supplied)
Undated: From left, poet Mongane Wally Serote, novelist Nadine Gordimer and David Koloane. (Photograph: Supplied)

In his review of the 1995 Johannesburg Biennale, which was published in the winter 1996 edition of African Arts, Koloane was critical of the “wholesale” importation of the “European model of the biennale with just the requisite garnish of African flavour”.

He noted the ghettoisation of artists from the Global South, “the socio-political context” that continued to relegate the black artist to the role of “a wage earner like his fellow workers in the industrial capitalist arena”, the lack of proper resourcing for their exhibitions at the biennale and that much of what was on was inaccessible to black people. 

“The Biennale lost the opportunity to transform South Africa, and the city of Johannesburg specifically, into the pulse of southern Africa” and connect it with the broader world, he mourned. This was something that Koloane, a “cosmopolitan citizen”, had always sought to achieve in his work.

2011: Waiting by David Koloane. (Photograph: Supplied)
2011: Waiting by David Koloane. (Photograph: Supplied)
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