Dr David Nthubu Koloane (Fig. 1) was born in South Africa in 1938 and passed away on June 30, 2019, shortly after the opening of his retrospective exhibition, A Resilient Visionary: Poetic Expressions of David Koloane1 (Fig. 2). Koloane was an extraordinary pioneer in the visual arts who fiercely defied any form of categorisation. As an artist, teacher, mentor, curator, arts administrator, and published author, he fought for the human right to define oneself and to determine one's own future.
Over the years Koloane consistently received high praise from people in the arts and beyond. President Cyril Ramaphosa praised him as a “giant in the arts” (n.a. 2019) and former President Thabo Mbeki called him “a loyal fighter for the liberation of our people” (Nqola 2019). He had been referred to as a “leading force in the promotion of South African artists” by renowned author Nadine Gordimer (2002), and Curator of the Standard Bank Gallery, Same Mdluli, recently positioned him as “legendary in the role he played in creating space for Black artists” (Mdluli 2019).
Koloane's contribution to the visual arts in South Africa is unsurpassed. In 1977 he cofounded the Federated Union of Black Artists (FUBA) Gallery and served as its first curator, and he cofounded the independent artists space the Bag Factory in 1991. Despite the accolades and honorary doctorates bestowed on him,2 his role as Ntate-moholo (grandfather) to young artists was most precious to him. Mentored by the South African artist Louis Khehla Maqhubela, who was also his friend, Koloane in turn mentored numerous artists. His perception of education extended far beyond the borders of institutions. “Travel has been the best education of my life,” he stated (Spector 2013). Koloane was deeply influenced by Bantu Stephen Biko and the Black Consciousness movement. It was important, he suggested, “to try and instill that sense of self-worth in … local artists” (Hill 2013: 24).
When David Koloane curated the South African component of Seven Stories of Modern Art in Africa at London's Whitechapel Gallery in 1995, he brought together artworks by Ezrom Legae, Sam Nhlengethwa, Paul Stopforth, and Alfred Thoba that depicted the events leading to Biko's death. Koloane wrote at the time, “The Biko event, more than any other occurrence, touched every human chord
… It provoked international outrage“ (Koloane 1995). A few years later, Koloane created his own series of artworks that grappled with the physical and psychological torture of Biko. Titled The Journey (1998; Fig. 2), the series of twenty works depicting Biko reflected the broader context of what Koloane called the ”immense human tragedy“ of apartheid (Koloane 1995).
This series, Koloane revealed, was “also a journey for me” (Hill 2013: 24). Many of Koloane's artworks dealt with the daily experiences of living in apartheid South Africa and navigating, for example, the Group Areas Act and the Separate Amenities Act. “I had not been inside an art museum until I was in my mid-thirties“ he lamented (Koloane 1995), as one had to be ”accompanied by a white and, by implication, superior person“ (Cotter 2019).
Notions of contentious and uncomfortable space were important to Koloane's artwork— whether public space, domestic space (Fig. 3), the means of moving through space, or the way animals relate to space (Fig. 4). His Johannesburg cityscapes (Figs. 5–6) and his aerial views of minibus taxies (or as he referred to them, “moving coffins”; Pather and Stopak 2010: 118), sometimes leant towards abstraction, refuting categorization. He explained this refusal to comply with expectations in many interviews as well as in his own writing: “We were expected to do township work, black work, rather than work done by any artist” (Spector 2013). In his article “South African Art in the Global Context,” published in Présence Africaine, he wrote, “The work of practitioners in urban settlements has been indiscriminately referred to as ‘township art’ as a means of differentiating the artist's work from mainstream art produced by white practitioners” (Koloane 2003: 120). The art market, he asserted in an interview with Ivor Powell, sought a depiction of townships that was a “sentimental form of expression rather than a depiction of real social conditions” (Koloane and Powell 1995: 149).
Koloane's abstraction, as such, became a form of resistance—a refusal to create the work that the art world expected him to create. While some critics then referred to his work as abstract expressionism, he paid little attention to the labels and categories of art critics. “What is abstract art?” he asked. “In order to express anything you have to abstract it. To say it is realistic, you have to abstract it to bring out the realistic elements” (Spector 2013). Boldly moving forward with his own artistic process and refusing to bow to the constraints of the artworld, Koloane attached little importance to reviews of his work. “I enjoy not having to look over my shoulder,” he declared (Spector 2013). This grounded approach serves as a valuable lesson for young artists working in fickle art markets often driven by vogue, profit, and the imposition of contrived identities.
In current international art markets, the abel “African artist” can be problematic when imposed on artists by dealers and curators not only disconnected by context but also blinded by privilege. In “The Identity Question: Focus of Black South African Expression,” Koloane wrote, “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” (Koloane 1999: 333).
In his writing for Africus, the exhibition catalogue for the first Johannesburg Biennale, Koloane was courageous in his censure of international curators who flocked to South Africa after 1994 to consume what was deemed the new fashion in the arts. He was critical, too, of South Africans in the art world who clamored “for international acceptance” despite the fact that South African identities were being “measured by remote-controlled Western standards” (Koloane 1996: 55). He referred to curators who transplanted Western-styled biennales onto African soil as “choirmasters on pedestals” and “ultimate surveyors” involved in the power game of the “mega-exhibition merry-go-round” (Koloane 1996: 55).
Although such critiques were espoused more than two decades ago, Koloane's views still hold some relevance today. He lamented the fact that in the early post-apartheid years, the art world viewed international exposure as connection with Western Europe and North America, rather than connection first with Southern Africa and then with the rest of the African continent. He wrote, “The very axis of the Johannesburg Biennale was based outside South Africa, and its emphasis was therefore on things non-African … The link with Africa is essential to the redefinition of creative expression and the interchange of skills and resources” (Koloane 1996: 55.
There is still much to learn from Ntate-moholo, as the contemporary hype about “African art” continues to be largely driven by Western capital. Perhaps his greatest gift to others is the example he set in terms of being himself and defining himself as an artist and as a human being. When questioned about his shift to abstract work he answered: “One doesn't consciously say ‘now I am doing abstract art, now I am doing something else.‘ The analogy is to singing. You sing” (Spector 2013).
A version of this tribute was published online: “David Koloane fought for the right to define himself and his art,” Conversation Africa, July 24, 2019. https://theconversation.com/david-koloane-fought-for-the-right-to-define-himself-and-his-art-120687.
A Resilient Visionary: Poetic Expressions of David Koloane, curated by Thembinkosi Goniwe, opened at Iziko South African National Gallery on June 2, 2019, and travelled to the Standard Bank Gallery in October 2019.
Koloane received an honorary doctorate at Rhodes University in 2015. See Dugmore 2015.