David Koloane was a quiet and modest man, not given to talking much about himself or his work, but in the weeks since his death on June 30, voices across the globe have been raised in his praise. Not only have his darkly pulsating canvases and smoky pastels been heralded for giving a unique and often dystopian image of urban life in his hometown of Johannesburg, but Koloane’s vital contribution as curator, as initiator of new spaces where black artists could work, and as a fighter for human rights have been listed in detail.
Writing in the New York Times, critic Holland Cotter describes Koloane as ‘a pivotal figure in the art of apartheid-era South Africa — as a painter, teacher, activist and organizer of community-based black and interracial art centers. His own art served as a model for combining polemical content and abstraction, modes often assumed to be mutually exclusive’.
Many have listed his achievements as the one of the initiators of the Thupelo Art Project, a workshop programme which gave access to all, the curator of key exhibitions like the seminal Culture and Resistance Arts Festival in Bostwana in 1982, and the most highly praised of the Seven Stories exhibition at the prestigious Whitechapel Gallery in London in 1995, for which Koloane had set a theme for his chosen artists of the death of the slain activist hero, Steve Biko.
Four years before that, in 1991, Koloane was one of the founding figures of Johannesburg’s famous Bag Factory, an artists’ cooperative space which is still an essential stop on the agenda of every visiting international curator. One of the most endearing descriptions of Koloane appeared in ArtForum, in a remembrance written by South African artist Johan Thom, who worked at the Bag Factory as a studio artist in 2006: ‘You could find him at almost any time in his studio reading, working on a new artwork, or napping contentedly. Somehow finding him there napping always made me feel that things would be fine no matter what.’
It is good to know that by 2006, David had reached a point in his life where he could nap contentedly. His life had not been easy. Born in 1938, as a young man, he had had to leave school in 1956 to support his family when his father became ill. In any case, it was a time when becoming an artist was not seen by parents as a profitable and appropriate career for a young black man. How could it have been? Under apartheid, art schools at universities were for white students only, and art by the few black practising artists either presented a cheerful and saleable image of township life, or resorted to allegory to conceal the painful truth.
David told me in in the late 90s, as a successful and celebrated artist exhibiting on ‘Liberated Voices’ in the Museum for African Art in New York, that there were still hints from his family that he should get ‘a proper job’. Meanwhile, he had become affiliated as an artist with the Goodman Gallery from 1990, the year he worked with British curator David Elliott to curate the groundbreaking ‘Art from South Africa’ exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford.
It is wholly appropriate that his life’s work is currently being honoured on a large scale retrospective curated by Thembinkosi Goniwe at Iziko South African National Gallery, and it was an enormous pleasure to see David, with his smiling wife Monica at his side, in the highest of spirits as he greeted well wishers at the opening.
A review of ‘A Resilient Visionary: Poetic Expressions of David Koloane’ can be found here.