Lionel Davis has a personal history that speaks to the dominant narrative of our country’s past. Having spent seven years on Robben Island with political activists like himself, then another five years under house arrest, and then dedicating the remainder of his lifetime to education and arts, it’s easy to discern the legend behind the name.
The wisdom etched into his every artwork both adds nuance to and enunciates the dialogue I believe him to be breathing at this point. It is his very life; his past, our past, our collective future as a people in the wake of what we were. What, arguably, we still are. While this is not a cue to delve into racial politics beyond his narrative (perhaps another time), what it is, is an opportunity to do what Lionel Davis values most: emphasise the strength of knowledge.
Whether it be by way of teaching or learning is of little consequence; and in fact may be interchangeable in regard to his journey as an artist, which began formally for him when he was already in his fifties. Lionel Davis strikes me most importantly as a vital member of a community that has endured despite South Africa’s past, well into that of my own, and what I’m sure we both hope will continue on, long into the future of our world.
The monograph, Awakenings – The Art of Lionel Davis, is as collaborative as the artist himself. The text is at the helm of a variety of contributors from tertiary institutes, the Africa South Art Initiative (ASAI), artists in their own right, as well as directors at the District Six Museum. Each written work compliments an analysis on Davis; the mediums he uses, the approach he has, his ethic, his story. Each essay is an homage to a period of his journey. For someone knowing very little of him in earnest, it proved the perfect tool to step into his world.
‘Gathering Strands’, a retrospective exhibition held at Iziko South African National Gallery preempted the monograph. The exhibition is described by Davis as a summation of, “not only my political journey but also the artistic. It was in jail that we first had an opportunity to live together as South Africans…The strands are about binding us together: socially, culturally and artistically.” Awakenings, then, presents itself as a means of thorough discourse; a space within which each and every question his layered pieces prompt, has the opportunity to be memorialised and mulled over. Which is perfect for the persona that develops throughout the monograph.
“It can be remarked that Davis’ public profile as a former District Six Resident and political prisoner frequently overshadows his identity as an artist.” – Mario Pissarra, the founder and director of ASAI writes in his introduction. Perhaps this too, prompted the design of the monograph; an ode to a man who first recalled taking to art by drawing on the sidewalks outside of his home. A journey like Lionel’s being so tentatively unravelled and woven and braided into current discourse is as complex as it is necessary. In the final chapter, the nuance of the previous chapters is built upon by the narrative that addresses his series Maskerade, where his style is present and understood, and even steps beyond the context of South Africa with cultural parallels in places like Barbados. “In the context of counter-hegemonic movements against the stubborn persistence of apartheid separatism and the re-examination of institutions in South Africa, the reflection on the life and work of Lionel Davis is exceptionally timely.” – Dr Nomusa Makhubu writes.
Ultimately, the monograph ebbs between the acute awareness of his political history and his formal growth as an artist, as well as the striking expressionism of his art in this duality. Throughout the essays we see the influence of his formal training develop, then envelop and give way to his style. Lionel is even said to have revisited prior works and layered over them with a signature of cut outs or paints to add more dimension to his pieces. Over and above this, his persona permeates his artistry; according to Pissara, Davis is known to discourage buyers. Lionel is known to say that he now ‘talks for a living’; “I do not work professionally. Because, people used to want to pay me to keep quiet, these days they have to pay me to talk.”
Discussing Davis’s abstract works, such as Jika, and Jikala, art historian Thembinkosi Goniwe says, “Davis [indulged] in the realm of abstraction, that zone of imagination wherein ideas are materials and materials are ideas. These materials should be considered both literal and metaphorical conduits that evince the relation of the artwork to the world in which its creator lives and works, not by himself alone but with others.” Which, when you consider we’re speaking about a man who, in accordance to Professor Premesh Lalu, “Spent decades at the Community Arts Project in Chapel Street of District Six, where hundreds of youth activists, artists and educators worked, learnt the art of art-making, screen-printing and drawing,” is perfectly fitting.
Lionel Davis is a composite artist; whose earnest and sincere recollections of his traumas, memories, communities and truths have amalgamated into a glorious spectacle of colours, textures and statements that speak through his past, and his teachings. His story emboldens the notion that art can survive trauma, and that the same can be said for the artist because of the art.
‘Awakenings: The Art of Lionel Davis’ is edited by Mario Pissarra, and published by Africa South Art Initiative (ASAI). Further details and purchase information can be found here.
All artwork images taken by Mike Hall