Acclaimed artist, Dr David Nthubu Koloane, was a trailblazer in the South African art world and fought fiercely for the rights of black artists to freely define themselves and their work. He used his art to question the daily political and social injustice of apartheid and was a pioneer in both the arts and the fight for liberation. Deeply influenced by the black consciousness movement and the ideologies of Steve Biko, he strove to “instil that sense of self-worth…in local artists.” He was a man of many hats indeed; artist, curator, writer, mentor, father, husband, grandfather, teacher, critic, traveller, lecturer, community organiser, and visionary. His remarkable career spanned five decades, and he will be remembered as a pivotal cultural icon and human rights advocate in South Africa, and beyond.
A Pioneer for Black Artists
Koloane was known as a man of few words, but people paid attention when he spoke because his words translated into meaningful action. Koloane co-founded the first art gallery in South Africa dedicated to the promotion of black African artists, carving out a space for them in a world that wanted to silence their experiences and expression. He later curated the Federation Union of Black Artists (FUBA) which was a safe space for black writers, artists, and musicians who were trying to grapple with the horrors of apartheid. Ironically though, it was precisely this distinction that Koloane was trying to escape. Reflecting on the complexity of these labels and categorisations, he shared:
“It is only black artists who are insistently reminded at every possible occasion about their own identity, and how they should be conscious of it.”
Unjust Laws Excluding Black Artists
Born in 1938 in the township of Alexandra, a suburb of Johannesburg, and brought up in Soweto, Koloane entered the art world later in life, only starting to paint professionally in the early 1970s. In fact, because of the Separate Amenities Act of 1953, Koloane didn’t see the inside of an art gallery until he was in his mid-thirties as one had to be “accompanied by a white and, by implication, superior person” in order to do so. Nonetheless, despite discriminatory laws preventing him from visiting galleries, his passion for art began when he was in high school. One of his peers, celebrated artist Louis Maqhubela, was a student at the famous Polly Street Art Centre and gave Koloane his first art lessons. However, when Koloane’s father grew ill, he left school and took on clerical work to ensure his family would survive. His art career was thus put on hold as he shouldered familial responsibilities and only resumed in the 1970s when he joined an artists workshop run by white artist and activist, Bill Ainslie. Increasingly trying to escape the narrow ‘township art’ category that white audiences found more palatable and acceptable for black artists, Koloane shared:
“They used to call the work that we did as the township art because we were from the townships. Our work was excluded from the mainstream expression of what the whites were doing. So, we felt that we must do something to not to succumb to this idea of being labelled as township art and that we should remove it completely.”
Koloane’s abstraction artwork was a fierce form of resistance against these limiting stereotypes. He went on to create his own spaces and workshops where he could mentor emerging black artists and later co-founded one of the first visual-art studio programmes on the continent, named The Bag Factory. His international profile also grew, with his participation in groundbreaking exhibitions in London and New York.
Reclaiming Art and Space
One of Koloane’s key mediations – throughout his work and activism – was a reflection on the politics of space. In 1995 he shared the following with art critic, Ivor Powell:
“apartheid was a politics of space more than anything…Much of the apartheid legislation was denying people the right to move. It’s all about space, restricting space. Claiming art is also reclaiming space.”
Through his creation of safe spaces for black artists and his visual work which strove to push the boundaries of what was expected, Koloane reclaimed both art and space. He will be remembered for his bold opposition to oppressive norms and narrow categorisations, his passion for the rights of black artists, and his ability to foster a culture of radical self-identification during increasingly precarious times. A true South African icon has been lost, but his extraordinary legacy remains and can live on if we realise his poignant message:
“Art can also play a part in redefining our history to facilitate mutual understanding and reconciliation between people of all races.”