South African artist Cecil Skotnes, who died last weekend at the age of 82, pioneered a way of producing art that used earth pigments and indigenous wood to construct visual stories about the African past.
In a statement written for a Johannesburg retrospective on the occasion of his eightieth birthday in 2006 he said, ”My work is grounded in the African idiom. There are two elements here understanding the art of Southern Africa before the white man put his foot in the country and my experience of teaching township people.”
This week, artists, gallery owners and curators paid tribute to this master of wood carving and printing.
He and fellow artist Eduardo Villa (89) were the last survivors of the Amadlozi group, established in 1963 with Sydney Khumalo, Cecily Sash and Guisseppo Cattaneo. In 1952 Skotnes became cultural recreation officer for the city of Johannesburg, based at the Polly Street Art Centre where he would tutor and influence a generation of black artists from Lucky Sibiya to Ezrom Legae.
His closest ally in the art world — apart from his close-knit family including his daughter, the artist Pippa Skotnes, has been Goodman Gallery founder Linda Givon. This week Givon paid tribute to the man who had encouraged her to open her first gallery in 1965. Givon said, ”He literally examined Africa for all it could give him including his source of materials. He ground his own colours from the source of what this continent could give him. He was a great authority on African art and was an authority on wine and on Persian carpets.”
In 2003 Skotnes was awarded the Order of Ikhamanga in Gold for ”exceptional achievement in the deracialisation of the arts and for outstanding contribution to the development of black artists”.
On April 7, after being hospitalised for a fall, Skotnes died of pneumonia in Cape Town.