Johannesburg-based artist David Koloane considers himself to be a late starter. But in the same breath he’ll tell you he’s been a catalyst in encouraging black artists to explore their potential.
Koloane, a gentle, serious man of 65 who describes his work as “urban expression”, has been producing art for almost three decades. He has exhibited in solo exhibitions internationally and locally, and has his art in galleries and private collections worldwide. Through his art he tried to represent the experiences of black South Africans, at the same time helping black artists to reach their artistic potential when the apartheid odds were stacked heavily against them.
It’s been a hard struggle for them, he says, because the temptation is to produce “township” or “airport” art, the stereotyped, stylised art that sells readily and helps artists make a living. His quest has been to encourage artists to go beyond this, and to “look into themselves and find their own vocabulary”.
He says he made a breakthrough in 1985 when he returned from a workshop in New York, and realised that a workshop situation was the perfect vehicle to bring artists together – to invite them to meet in one common space, the Thupelo (Sesotho for “training by example”) International Artists’ Workshop in Broederstroom, around 20 kilometres north-west of Johannesburg. “This liberated artists from their confined way of working,” he says. He fund raised, bought materials and explored new techniques with up-and-coming artists.
These artists were given an unheard-of opportunity to express themselves through art away from overcrowded home environments - even having a garage to work in in a township was unknown. And, they were given exposure to foreign artists at a time when the cultural boycott kept artists from coming to South Africa.
This experiment “opened new avenues” and artists became more confident, but the results weren’t immediate, says Koloane. It took four to five years “before artists could analyse what they had learnt”, and by the early 1990s a “new expression” was apparent. “This expression was urban and involved found objects and art in which the artists painted in a different way,” he explains. Thupelo closed in 1992 but opened in Cape Town in 1995.
Koloane himself only started painting in his mid-30s, in the early 1970s, although he’d always sketched, on friends’ school books, for which he’d get a sweet, or as a way of entertaining friends. He would sketch cartoon pictures, or images from movies and magazines.
He did conventional things when he left school – he left before writing his matric when his tailor father had a stroke and he, as the oldest, had to find a job to support the family. He became an interpreter, then a messenger, then a stores clerk in an engineering company. But fortunately he’d met artist Louis Maqhubela in Orlando West while attending Orlando High School in Soweto, where he grew up, although he was born in Alexandra.
”Louis used to help me, he took me to art galleries.” The one that stands out for Koloane is the Adler Fielding Gallery in Kruis Street, no longer in existence. “Louis showed me the right materials to use.” But more importantly, Maqhubela arranged a meeting with artist and teacher Bill Ainslee in 1974, and Koloane became a student, first on Saturday mornings only, then full time.
Maqhubela then moved overseas, where he still is, something that Koloane couldn’t contemplate as he had to support his three brothers and sister.
Koloane speaks highly of Ainslee, who became a close friend. “He was fearless, he set up institutions for black artists: Funda Community College in Soweto, and Fuba [School of Arts and Music] in Newtown. He went into Alexandra and through his courage he eventually set up the Alexandra Art Centre. He gave me that courage, gave it to me unconditionally, and I take that example.”
Ainslee set up the Johannesburg Art Foundation in 1965, the country’s first non-racial art centre, which for years offered lectures, advice and materials particularly to under-resourced black artists. It closed in 1994.
”When Ainslee died in 1989 I made a commitment that I would continue with what he was doing – I made a pledge.”
Has he fulfilled that commitment? “I’ve done what I can, I still feel always willing, I have new ideas to implant.” Koloane says he reads a lot. “I inform myself as much as I can, on artists and art, then make interventions.”
One of the tangible interventions is co-founding the Bag Factory Studios in Fordsburg in 1991, where 15 artists rent studio space, and three studios are available for residency artists from around the world. Artists have come from Sao Paulo, Kinshasa, Zurich and Montreal to the Studios that now have an international reputation. At present Nigerian Olu Amoda and Senegalise Birame Ndiaye are exhibiting their works at the Studios.
This wasn’t the first gallery Koloane co-founded. Back in 1977 he and a friend opened a gallery at 280 Jeppe Street, and called it The Gallery. Koloane stayed in a room above The Gallery, but the venture only lasted three years.
Koloane then had a studio at the Johannesburg Art Foundation for four years, where he also gave lessons. He also spent time overseas, studying and developing his art. He then took on teaching at Fuba, where there was a basement gallery. He played “a crucial role” in Fuba’s development in the early 1980s. Fuba accommodated artists from the townships and homelands, when most black artists not only struggled to get exposure, but didn’t have space in their home situations to even contemplate their art.
Much still to do
There’s still much to be done, says Koloane. “There are still artists who are struggling to get access to mainstream galleries.” Those that do get entrance to these galleries have to be exceptional, and the effect of this is to discourage young, beginner artists.
These artists need “intermediary spaces”, like the Bag Factory, to gain confidence and feel comfortable, adds Koloane. Most of these artists come from the city’s townships, which don’t have galleries. If they did, these would serve as educational institutions, says Koloane, and give everyone a “visual, cultural experience”.
If artists had more of these intermediary spaces, the energy created would be “much more vital”, adds Koloane.
”We have a vibrant culture in urban areas, but there are still too many logjams for alternate spaces.” His dream is to see black and white artists in one space, where they could develop relationships not consumed by resentment, a hangover from apartheid. “We need to see how we can collaborate with our colleagues.”
Koloane sees the nearby Museum Africa in Newtown as an ideal space to set up as a museum that is fully representative of South Africa’s culture, more than just fine arts. “It would be a challenge to take on, in collaboration with other curators. It lends itself to any kind of display.” Koloane has a two-year curatorship diploma from the University of London.
Koloane had inspiring interventions when he was growing up in Soweto. One was made by one of the country’s most distinguished citizens: former president Nelson Mandela. Says Koloane: “He used to see us kids, and stop and greet us, and speak of leadership. He hardly knew us but was concerned about our education. A delegation of us used to go around to his house.”
At 65 Koloane is aware of time. “Now you know you have to condense, I want to simplify where I was before.”
Art is still his focal point: “Art stabilises me in whatever I do. I am still learning. I still surprise myself. For me art is the essence of creative expression. I want to be in a position of not knowing rather than knowing – to have a burning curiosity.”
But some things you need to know about, like our history and heritage, and Koloane feels that since 1994 the new government has shown an appreciation of presenting everyone’s history. There are new memorials in Johannesburg that reflect this too, like the Hector Pieterson Memorial, the Apartheid Museum, and the new Constitutional Court.
And the new government has created the National Arts Council, on which he has been a member since 1997. He sees it as an opportunity to understand how arts funding works so that he can influence how various projects can be funded.
Koloane has firm ideas on other forms of funding for the arts: the national lottery; a tax for the visual arts; and any major building project should commission work for displaying in the building.
Progress in promoting the arts and artists has been made, although Koloane feels more should be made. Through training taking place now at private schools, technikons and universities, students are emerging who don’t have the “inhibitions and hang-ups we had”.
David Koloane died on 30 June 2019 at the age of 81.