By Andrew Mulenga
South African artist, curator and art critic Dr. David Koloane received an honorary doctorate from Rhodes University in Grahamstown, South Africa last week for his outstanding contribution to the visual arts in his home country and beyond.
Koloane, 76, who also received an honorary doctorate from Wits University in 2012, was among a few other notables that received the honours including Public Protector Thuli Madonsela and jazz legend Hugh Masekela. In an interview shortly after the ceremony, he shared what compelled him to become a practicing artist as well as a writer on the visual arts.
|South African artist and critic Dr. David Koloane (r) |
with Zambian art journalist during a graduation
ceremony at Rhodes University
“Well from early childhood I had a passion for books, my mother used to work in a local Crèche (day care centre) so she would bring reading materials but I also used to go to Sunday school and they will give us presents to encourage attendance, the first book I was given was an illustrated version of Robinson Crusoe,” says the artist who was born in Alexandra, a densely populated slum in Johannesburg that has been under constant threat of demolition for over 80 years “I didn’t even understand the story at first I was in love with the pictures, and I would copy them, making drawings of my own, because there was no one to teach me art, but also for the writing there is a teacher we had in primary school who was a story teller he would tell us stories and tell us to put them in writing as homework”.
While still in high school, he was inspired by a close friend that won second prize in a nationwide art contest but this friend lost interest in school and dropped out, at the time young Koloane’s family moved to Soweto where he made another inspirational friend, Louis Maqhubela who was a student at the Polly Street Art Centre in Johannesburg. Maqhubela would become a lifelong friend, in fact it is he that introduced Dr. Koloane to the Johannesburg art scene in the late 1950s.
“Louis took me to a gallery for the very first time, it doesn’t exist anymore but it was called the Adler Fielding Gallery and for the first time I saw a variety of work, sculptures and paintings, it was like opening a whole new window to me,” he explains “Of course there were gallery owners that could not allow blacks, this was at the height of apartheid, we were not allowed not even to peep through the windows, but there were those progressive gallery owners that wanted to defy the system by challenging the fact that there was no law that says you cannot show work by a black artists or allow blacks into a gallery”.
Throughout its existence, the white-owned Adler Fielding Gallery defied the authorities and exhibited works by non-white artists and as early as 1964 the gallery went as far as showing black female artists such as the late Gladys Mgudlandlu which was unheard of at the time. In fact the gallery was so open-minded, in 1966, it was the venue for a show entitled Wood Sculptures from Zambia – which would later tour the US and Europe -- interestingly, this exhibition of over 200 carvings was shipped to Johannesburg with the full blessings of Zambia’s new president Kenneth Kaunda through the Directorate of Cultural Services and a Livingstone based company called Traditional Arts, Africa that was run by a Dennis Erwin. Notable among the participating sculptors was Samusompo Litingi, Rainford Sililo and Boston Kalenga.
“The gallery started a competition called Artists of Fame and Promise where they welcomed all races this was already a problem with the authorities. But my friend Louis Maqhubela won it and got a trip to travel to Europe to visit historic places. He was the first black artist to do so and there was a lot of hostility from some of the white artists,” he explains.
But in 1972, his friend Maqhubela left for London, England never to return and he has enjoyed a successful career ever since, living a full life with his wife and family.
“Louis has only been back home a few times for weddings and funerals, but I always contact him whenever I’m in London like I did last year when I was having an exhibition of drawings and mixed media work at the Saatchi gallery,” he adds.
Nevertheless, reminiscing on the early days of a writing career that spans over five decades, he recalls how he felt duty-bound to write on the visual arts during the apartheid era.
“Over the years it had been white people writing about art, but I thought it was unfair because by who’s standards were they judging us. So I felt I should contribute to the debate by writing about black artists and the problems that they faced,” he explains “Also why were black artists’ work not at the level of the whites who had the opportunity to attend art school and travel overseas. For the black artists they could not even get into local universities first they had to write to the department of education for clearance”.
Unquestionably this was a period when The Bantu Education Act, 1953 later renamed the Black Education Act, 1953 a segregation law enforcing racially separated educational facilities was in full effect. In fact, although Dr. Koloane would later attend apprenticeship at the Bill Ainslie studio in Johannesburg between 1974 and 1977 the closest he would get to formal tertiary education was in 1985 when he was awarded a Diploma in Museum Studies from the University of London and he was already well in his 40s.
“When I started writing the situation was rife, I used to question what gave them the right to call our art ‘township art’, why didn’t they call theirs ‘suburban art’ since they all lived in white suburbs. Yes, that was the angle I took. I would also look at the environment from which black artists were working, they lacked electricity and often worked by candle light with no proper art studios,” he explains “Later on I realised that this was not only a South African problem it was happening in the United States among African Americans. They also protested and when I went there for the first time I visited some of their studios and galleries, we were almost in a similar situation”
He was also concerned that only a hand full of black artists were being put on pedestals by white owned newspapers, so he tried to profile as many artists as he could, he especially enjoyed when newspapers such as The Sowetan came on the scene in the early 1980s and gave his writing a bigger platform.
“Papers like The Sowetan would call me and say David write us a story, say on an artists who has passed away, and even me I phone them when I have something I have written and at times international magazines will contact me if they want local content,” who observes that when writing about artists that are certainly underprivileged, one must not be too harsh in their criticisms.
“My writing is not acerbic, it’s about encouragement, if I write about an artist’s work, I will point out one or two shortcomings if at all there are any, I would say if he sorts out this and that his art will get to a higher level,” he says.
He remains concerned however that the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region still has no galleries in the townships, and people have to go to town to see art. Music and theatre, he observed, are promoted deliberately above the visual arts.
“It’s an African problem, it needs a massive overhaul this is why we started the Thupelo workshops for instance, not just to train artists but also to sensitise people that artists are not rarefied specimens who live somewhere else, they are part of your community, you bypass them every day but don’t acknowledge them,” says Dr. Koloane.
As an artist, Koloane’s work tackles social-political issues with a focus on township, inner city life and the dynamics of segregation. He has lectured in UK and the USA universities and played the role of external examiner for South African universities. He also has an annual award to his name for upcoming artists.