To art-lovers the world over, David Nthube Koloane is a name that is synonymous with South African art and its ability to communicate the joys, pitfalls, and endless intricacies of a complicated nation. Due to a series of international exhibitions early on in his career, and the inability to showcase his work more broadly during apartheid-era South Africa, however, much of Koloane’s work was not always accessible to South African audiences. The current retrospective at Standard Bank aims to rectify that.
On show at Johannesburg’s Standard Bank Gallery until December 6, A Resilient Visionary: poetic expressions of David Koloane is an exhibition curated by Dr. Thembinkosi Goniwe. Comprising works that span the artist’s long and impressive career, the exhibition serves as both a retrospective and a tribute to the life and work of Koloane. For many, the works on show are being viewed for the first time.
For Koloane, who was born in Johannesburg’s Alexandra and grew up in Soweto, art-making first entered his life by way of high school classmate and artist Louis Maqhubela, who was attending night classes at the Polly Street Art Centre and gave him his first art lessons. Koloane would later join Bill Ainslie Studios and the Johannesburg Art Foundation in the mid-70s when South Africa was in the throes of racial segregation under apartheid. While opportunities to exhibit work existed for black artists, they were few and far between, and frequently pandered towards affluent, suburban interpretations of rural life in South Africa which, certainly, was not the kind of work Koloane was interested in producing.
Throughout the 80s and up until South Africa’s democracy in 1994, Koloane would study in London, the United States of America, and the Netherlands, producing work all the while. Similarly, while he took part in a few group exhibitions in South Africa during this period, Koloane also began exhibiting outside of the country to a large extent. During this period, Koloane would exhibit work in the US, UK, Germany, France, and across the border in countries such as Zimbabwe and Botswana. As a result, much of this work wasn’t viewed by the South African public.
81 pieces exclusive to the artist’s own collection can be found in A Resilient Visionary. These artworks span four decades of Koloane’s internationally-renowned career and profile his artistic trajectory in a rare and insightful visual survey. For many, Koloane is remembered through his drawing and mark-making – an artist with a keen eye for the free-spirited drive of charcoal on paper and the striking frenetic outcomes of rendering the world through an intuitive hand.
Works like ‘Mgodoyi 1’ (1983) ‘Fighting Dogs’ (1993), and the ‘Scavengers’ series of drawings (1993-1999) serve as firm examples. For Koloane, the dog became an enduring metaphor for life under the apartheid regime. Sometimes fierce, sometimes playful, and always rendered in a flurry of busy and expressive strokes, Koloane’s dogs served as studies on inequality, prosperity, resilience, desperation and more.
Then there are the works which saw Koloane producing scenes of domestic life as he viewed it, painted in the medium of watercolor, a form almost exclusive to his early career in the 1970s. For many, Koloane’s watercolor on paper artworks will come as a surprise. In A Resilient Visionary, these early works serve as glimpses into Koloane’s early experimentations with paint, form, and subject matter. The 1970 work ‘Couple’, for example, comes from the artist’s own collection of works and has likely not been seen by a broader, contemporary public.
Assemblage and animation are more frequently overlooked artistic outputs by Koloane. The assemblage works on exhibition are striking examples of the artist’s ability to take to different materials and media with an innate aptitude. Koloane used assemblage as a means of more immediately transporting his audience to a scene or particular place in Johannesburg, but he also utilized the tangibility of the medium to conceal, to provoke, and even to perplex. ‘Saxophone on a wheel’ (1983), ‘A pillow to lay my head on’ (1990), and ‘Mystery Box’ (the 1990s) all prompt a deeper and more playful means of engagement from the viewer.
Showcased downstairs in the gallery, ‘The Takeover’ (2016) is a harrowing film rendered in simple pencil drawings and animated in stop-motion. Inspired by a real-life event where a pack of wild dogs took over an empty school and attacked a local woman, the work is a testament to Koloane’s enduring passion for experimentation in his practice, even in the final years of his career.
Amongst the 81 unique works on show at Resilient Visionary, Koloane explores the city, the townships, the suburbs, the jazz masters, the revelers, the workers, the down-and-out and more. The exhibition, put together with a keen and considered eye, serves as a unique opportunity to see the works of one of South Africa’s most vital artists, produced over the course of his rich and resilient career.