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08 Aug 2006 00:00
In May 2002 the Durban Art Gallery held an exhibition entitled Untold Tales of Magic: Abelumbi which showcased an uncanny array of artistic forays into the territory of superstition, magic, metaphysics and mysticism. The most disturbing of these evocations by a long chalk was Trevor Makhoba’s Abelumbi of The Millennium, a gruesome vision of an African apocalypse where white Nazi butchers hacked up black babies to sell as fresh meat to their peculiarly casual black clientele.
Despite the chilling nature of the painting it oozed with Makhoba’s nihilistic humour, rendering it more a harrowing parable-cum-parody than fervent religious pronouncement.
The only other work at that exhibition which came even remotely close to Makhoba’s jaundiced genius was young painter Themba Siwela’s When Gomondela Is On Duty, a creation of inverted vibrancy which cast a caustic eye upon socially-prescribed gender roles: Gomondela, an archetypal strong Zulu patriarch, is hanging up the washing with a baby strapped to his back while his wife has her feet up and is smoking a cigarette and drinking beer.
In February 2004, less than two years later, Makhoba was dead of a heart attack aged 47. The most singular satirist South African art has ever known was felled in his prime, leaving behind a truncated legacy of blisteringly brilliant paintings; a reputation for irascibility and opacity second to none and a saxophone no-one else can play. That on the horzion are no publications - not even a monograph - dedicated to the life and work of the artist who will undoubtedly become recognised as one of the most important South African artists of the 20th Century is a crying shame.
Nevertheless, in its own small way, Durban’s BAT Centre is honouring the legacy of the city’s most controversial son. Igalelo lika Makhoba - Trevor’s Legacy is a group exhibition featuring the finest entries in the BAT’s competition calling for Durban artists to submit an original work of art in tribute to Makhoba. The exhibition, which runs at the BAT Centre’s Menzi Mcunu Gallery until December 15, reveals a remarkably wide range of interpretation of Makhoba’s oeuvre from his subtle deconstructions of traditional Zulu painting to the sadistically satirical, sinister and scatalogical.
Possibly motivated by an understanding that it is these latter elements in Makhoba’s work which will ultimately account for the importance of his legacy, the judges awarded first prize to a painting in which the spirit of Makhoba is eminently alive and well. And, in a poetic twist of fate, the winning work - entitled In These Changing Times - is a painting by none other than Themba Siwela. Though he reflects Makhoba’s delight in dismantling the foundations of established behaviour and poking fun at society in the most bizarre fashion, Siwela does so in a style all his own. Whereas the self-taught Makhoba achieved a chilling blend of ingenuous naïvetë and black-magic realism in his work, Siwela’s quasi-cartoonist style is buoyant and rubicund, concealing its darkness in the comical conundrums its characters.
A self-confessed Makhoba disciple, Siwela claims he can’t think of a greater honour for his work than to have it honoured as a humble homage to the departed artist whose eccentricity, ineffability, intelligence and intensity lives on in body of work scattered across the four corners of the globe and a legacy that continues to burn in his birthplace of Durban.
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