Durant Basi Sihlali, born in 1935 in Germiston, earned a reputation as an artist who could perfectly capture life around him. His tools of expression comprised a wide range of media, including printmaking, pulp painting and sculpture. On the occasion of a selection of his works being shown at Gallery Momo, I unpacked the Sihlali’s way of viewing the world through his art with Linus Vayeke Siwede, the late artists’ manager.
‘Sihlali’s father was an artist. He taught him to paint. At school in Queenstown he befriended a pupil from the Roman Catholic School where art was taught as a subject. This friend’s drawings introduced him to the miracle of perspective and chiaroscuro,’ says Siwede.
Under the mentorship of Alphius Kubeka he took on informal art classes at the Chiawelo Art Centre from 1950 to 1953. He examined the works of artists, Carlo Sdoya and Sidney Goldblatt. He studied with Cecil Skotnes at the Polly Street Recreation Centre from 1953 to 1958.
Some of Sihlali’s works seem to agree with the legacy of early South African modernist, Gerard Sekoto. The oil painted work, Moving (1966), echoes a similar rhythm found in Sekoto’s Song of the Pick (1947). The romantic approach, gestures and use of repetition in both artworks suggest motion.
However, a wide range of Sihlali’s work focuses mostly on ordinary moments of everyday life amongst his community. He would capture mineworkers, street vendors and proceedings of a ritual sacrifice as they happened. This focus on the mundane flew in the face of what was the trend then; imaginative depictions of African artforms.
His monotype work around the late sixties were based on observations of the human anatomy. Waiting (1967) depicts a man standing in an alleyway, leaning against a pillar with one hand and holding a bag in the other. What or who he is waiting for is anyone’s guess. The image is an accurate portrayal of the beauty of stillness in time.
‘Sihlali has explored the possibilities of printing monotypes and linocuts to a point which puzzles the most knowledgeable teacher and connoisseur of graphics. His colour lino printing remains tour de force in this country,’ says Siwedi.
Some of Sihlali’s paintings reveal an experimentation with different kinds of medium. There is a lot of activity but very little emotion conveyed. The viewer is kept curiously at a distant. A painting of oil, pigment and ground Magaliesburg rock on gessoed book covers, Between the Valley and the Summit (I), depicts men preoccupied with building and manipulating tools. Their faces are difficult to read. The elongated structures around them are hard to distinguish between plastic, wood or even metal. ‘Sihlali, has witnessed the end of many an artistic career on account of the lack of affordable materials. Throughout his career this stalwart artist and teacher has been searching for ways and ends to meet these material needs. This has driven him to explore each and every possibility of printmaking, papermaking and collage as well as metalwork.’ Says Siwedi.
In the early 1970s he recorded the hardships imposed through apartheid and forced removals. The use of charcoal on paper in The Back Yard (Kliptown) (1971) portrays a man sitting in a barren concrete courtyard with shirts hanging on the washing line. It’s difficult to connect with the man’s face made up of suggestive tones and line. Siwedi suggests this may be due to the fact that, ‘Sihlali’s township scenes were more objectively realist in their documentation of how his subjects made do with the conditions they were given. These lively and introspective urban scenes are important to see today because they differ from the better-known images made by photojournalists, which focused on violence. Today they could be a source of inspiration and historical memory for the “born-free” generation, a recollection of how their parents and grandparents lived.’
Between 1960s and 1980s, Sihlali created many watercolour paintings which have become a flagship of his artistic career. Since the 1970s he had been producing watercolours of the townships, showing concern for the struggles of the people under the crude apartheid rule. For this sentiment, he is said to have worked like a photographer in water colours.
‘Sihlali’s images of the 1960s and 70s constitute an alternative archive of many common scenes of everyday life in Johannesburg’s older black townships, before their demolition: flooded homes after heavy rain storms, families camping on roof tops, women washing clothes at communal water taps, and so on. His paintings of the 1980s reference political graffiti and the traditional art of the annual repainting of mural designs on mud huts in rural areas, both of which are inscribed forms that share a palimpsest-like nature.’
Sihlali’s daughter, Iris, suggests her father was the type of artist who would reveal his feelings through his paintings. One of the reoccurring themes in his work is grief. ‘Sihlali’s autobiographical notes emphasize the detrimental effect which commercial galleries played in insisting that he had to paint the socio-economic conditions of his environment. He considers his artistic career in terms of a dichotomy between what he was forced from a commercial viewpoint to paint in-order to survive and what he would express spontaneously. Yet, no matter how you interpret his work, you remain aware of the “writing on the wall”. In almost each one of the urban areas that he has depicted before their demolition you will find walls bearing the sounds and whispers of whoever lived there,’ says Siwedi.
In this work, and in others in the collection, it is notable how Sihlali has used light to model the figures. His pastel watercolours seem to merge with one another throughout the canvas, leaving areas untouched to bring out the light in a subtle yet effective manner.
‘Sihlali’s documentation of the memories on walls is taking another innovative turn. He places large pieces of synthetic fibre against walls and combines pastel and oil pastel to conjure up the outlines of fleeting configurations. The textural effects which derive from this procedure are a mixture of frottage, discovered by Max Ernst (1891-1976) and archaeological tracings and rubbings. While the archaeological records ancient rock engravings, Sihlali acknowledges the labour of an unknown bricklayer. This selection of art works outlines Sihlali enduring preoccupation with walls. Each piece recalls a timbre, hence the writing on the wall becomes flesh.’ says Siwedi.
Sihlali later turned to sculpture using metal from car wrecks and has exhibited in Trees Collection Gallery in Beverly Hills. He died in Johannesburg, 2004.