An Unshakeable Visionary
On the Late David Koloane

For five decades, David Koloane focused on one theme – life in his hometown of Johannesburg. In his expressive paintings and drawings he documented the energy, but also the dark sides of the South African metropolis that characterized the artist and his art. Now, the 81-year-old has died in his house in Johannesburg. His first institutional exhibition in South Africa, which is currently on view at Iziko South African National Gallery, shows the legacy of the great painter, who is represented in the Deutsche Bank Collection. Achim Drucks on an artist who, despite all the resistance, consistently took his own path.
The current exhibition at Iziko South African National Gallery in Cape Town is titled A Resilient Visionary. Poetic Expressions of David Koloane. It is an extremely apt title for a retrospective devoted to the late 81-year-old painter. In psychology, resilience is the ability to cope with crises and even to use them as impetus for further development. Koloane's resilience enabled him to assert himself as an artist in South Africa, in a profoundly racist state that constantly sent black people the message that they were second-class citizens. Simple workers and servants – these were the "careers" this system had earmarked for them.

"When I was growing up I thought that black people were not allowed to be artists because I didn't know of any artists in the community – other than of musicians,” recalled David Nthubu Koloane, who was born in Alexandra in 1938, in an interview. He spent his youth in this poor township, eleven kilometers from downtown Johannesburg. At the time, Alexandra was called the "Dark City,” and not only because of the rampant gang crime. There were no lamps illuminating the unpaved streets at night. In addition, the two-room house in which David lived with his parents, three younger siblings, and a varying number of cousins had no electricity. In the evening, he had to do his homework by candlelight. The first time he set foot in a streetlit neighborhood, he felt like he was in a wonderland. Koloane would never forget this impression.

The darkness of his childhood, but also the lights of the city and the associated dreams of a better life, characterized his art to the end of his life. With nervously vibrating lines, his pictures tell of everyday life in Johannesburg. "The Elusive Metropolis” is what the post-colonialist theorist Achille Mbembe called this city marked by upheavals, contrasts, and social tensions. "Jozi" is young and multicultural, and every day new people from the province flock here to make their fortune.

Koloane's Johannesburg paintings are populated by passersby hurrying past, people waiting at shared taxi stops, jazz musicians, soccer players, prostitutes. They are anonymous, often seemingly isolated Ordinary People, the title of a series of paintings on paper from which his works in the Deutsche Bank Collection also stem. Other recurring motifs are skyscrapers towering into the sky and night streets illuminated by neon signs. In many of his works, for which he primarily used acrylic paint, oil chalk, and graphite, black, gray, and earth tones dominate. Others shine in shimmering yellow-orange hues. And sometimes he had these worlds of color collide in one work. The exhibition at Iziko Gallery shows how he repeatedly varied and developed his motifs – and how skillfully he managed to move between figuration and abstraction.

Even as a child David was an enthusiastic draftsman, copying pictures from magazines and films, which he sometimes exchanged with his classmates for sweets. After his family moved to Soweto in the late 1950s, he met Louis Maqhubela at high school. He was already part of the local art scene and took courses at Polly Street Art Centre, from which an entire generation of black artists emerged. Together with Maqhubela, Koloane went to a gallery for the first time, where works by black and white artists hung side by side. It was a space in which racial segregation seemed to have been overcome. His school friend introduced him to various art movements, as well as to artistic techniques and materials. But Koloane could only devote himself to his passion for drawing in his limited spare time. When his father died, as the eldest son he had to work different jobs for years to support his family.

Before Maqhubela moved to Europe in 1973 to work more freely, he introduced Koloane to Bill Ainslie, a committed promoter of young artists. The painter and activist, influenced by Abstract Expressionism, became a mentor and friend. At the time, Ainslies' studio was the only place in the country where blacks and whites studied together, although this was illegal. Koloane was already in his mid-thirties when he received his first truly professional training here. The Bill Ainslie Studios later became the Johannesburg Art Foundation. In 1980s South Africa, it was a free space where skin color played no role. Officials were therefore suspicious of JAF. The secret police smelled subversive activities, and even interrogated some of the students. Important artists such as William Kentridge and Helen Sebidi studied at JAF, and Koloane himself began teaching here.

Up until his death, Koloane was active as a promoter of young artists, organizing workshops, curating exhibitions, and trying to improve the infrastructure of the local art scene. In 1977, he cofounded the first gallery for black artists in Johannesburg. Because of the cramped living conditions in the townships, young artists often lack the space to work. That's why Koloane and friends initiated the Bag Factory in 1991, the first studio house in South Africa. The fact that artists of all skin colors worked here was part of the concept. The house is still one of the most important centers of the Johannesburg art scene. Since 2010, the David Koloane Award has been presented here, giving promising talents the opportunity to work in the Bag Factory’s studios and present their work at the Joburg Art Fair. When Linda Givon, the founder of Goodman Gallery, visited the former linen bag factory for the first time, Koloane’s drawings caught her attention. She invited him to show his work at her gallery, one of the most renowned in the country. This marked the beginning of an international career. Pop star David Bowie was also enthusiastic about Koloane's expressive paintings and acquired works from the series Made in South Africa for his collection.

Made in South Africa was created in 1993/94, when the apartheid era came to an end. But not much of the optimism of this new beginning can be felt in this work. In the nocturnal township views with fires blazing in metal barrels, fear and insecurity were in the air. With shaky lines and superimposed hatchings, Koloane's paintings "create a frenzy that makes the eye permanently uneasy," the artist Matthias Schamp said about Koloane in 2008. Often the motifs are not immediately recognizable, for example the dogs in Made in South Africa (Scavengers). The painting shows two of the strays so characteristic of the townships rummaging through the garbage in search of something to eat. Again and again, dogs populate Koloane's works, playing very different roles. In his first video animation The Take Over (2016), which can be watched at Iziko Gallery, they "occupy" a building together. In some paintings and drawings they play with each other. But they often fight one another, with glowing eyes and menacingly bared teeth. These animals want only one thing: to survive in a hostile environment. "The ghetto dogs of Koloane," writes Nadine Gordimer, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, "are outcast, as the people of the townships, where the dogs scavenge – but the difference is that the dogs are free."

Another motif that appears repeatedly in the exhibition is the saxophone. It references Koloane's love of jazz, which he shares with many South African artists, including Kemang Wa Lehulere, Deutsche Bank's "Artist of the Year" 2017. The improvisation and spontaneity of jazz is reflected in many of Koloane's paintings – in the fragmentation of forms and their reorganization on paper or canvas, where they seem to continue to vibrate, to transform themselves. But jazz always has a political dimension in South Africa: "Hear the free music of jazz whispering songs of liberation," writes the poet and painter V�ronique Tadjo in her essay for the artist's first monograph.

Koloane's gestural painting style is unmistakably influenced by Jackson Pollock, who is also a big jazz fan. But some critics reproached him for referring to Abstract Expressionism, saying he simply copied this style. But for him and other South African artists who were concerned with abstraction, Koloane explained, it was not a question of mimicking a style "but of using modernism as a vocabulary." It was a tool they could use to experiment with the different possibilities of painting and develop their own style in the process. Which Koloane undoubtedly succeeded in doing.

The self-evident appropriation of this vocabulary was also a sign of emancipation. For a long time, black artists were expected to follow the tradition of "township art," formally undemanding social studies restricted to conventional realism. In addition to landscapes and animal images such as those created by Gladys Mgudlandlu in the 1960s, township art was considered an "authentic" form of black art. But Koloane never wanted to accept this limitation. "Apartheid was a politics of space more than anything," he once explained. "It’s all about space; restricting space…Claiming art is also reclaiming space.” And not submitting to any label, to any dictates about what "black art" has to look like. That's why each of his paintings is also a symbol of freedom and independence.
A Resilient Visionary: Poetic Expressions of David Koloane
Until June 1, 2020
Iziko South African National Gallery, Cape Town