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Adams’s delicate balance

A triptych of panels painted by the late expressionist Albert Adams in 1959 has been called one of the most important works by a black South African artist of the 20th century — and is one of the central pieces in the retrospective of his work at the Johannesburg Art Gallery.

The triptych, titled South Africa 1959, has been likened to Picasso’s Guernica and was influenced by Sir Francis Bacon. Adams was a great admirer of both artists, though according to his civil partner, Edward Glennon, he didn’t appreciate its nickname, “African Guernica”.

“The work deals with devastation and death and horrors. It was his apocalyptical view of the future of South Africa under apartheid,” Glennon says, as he shows me around the classical Georgian townhouse in London’s Camden Town, which they shared for many years.

Understanding Adams

Jeremy Kuper speaks to Edward Glennon, life partner of the later Albert Adams

watch the video

Adams’s mother was a cook and housekeeper who met his Indian father in Johannesburg. In his childhood his parent’s relationship ended and Adams moved with his mother to live with his grandmother in Cape Town. Adams would later say that he never knew his father.

He would only see his mother on her days off, but sometimes she would sneak him into her room while the family she worked for was dining. His mother gave him pencils and paper to keep him quiet. And in the morning he would have to sneak out again before the family awoke.

At Livingstone High School in Claremont his teachers noticed his talent for art. When he finished school he tried to get a place in the Michaelis Art School at the University of Cape Town, but was rejected as non-whites and whites were not allowed to study together. “He was very hurt by it,” Glennon says. The reason given was so white models would not have to pose in front of black or coloured students in nude drawing classes, but, in fact, most of the models were not white.

Like many talented non-white artists he tried to make it as a sign writer, painting signs in the department stores of Cape Town. Adams was considered to be too dark to get a job in the larger shops. Instead he found a position with a small trader who couldn’t afford to give him a salary and paid only his train fare.

But it was while working as a sign painter that he was spotted by two German refugees who were art collectors. With their help Adams left South Africa in 1955 to take up a scholarship at the most prestigious art school in England, the Slade. There he won a prize to spend a further year in Munich and afterwards went on to Salzburg to study under Oskar Kokoschka.

“There’s always an element of danger in his work,” Glennon says, “a disturbing undercurrent. This was in part because of Kokoschka’s influence. He told Adams: ‘We can send men to the moon and we can do all these wonderful scientific things, but we don’t look around at the misery we create in the world.’ And so his advice to Adams was always to keep the misery and the poor and the deprived in society in mind — and he did that all his life.”

Kokoschka sent a recorded speech to accompany the opening of Adams’s first exhibition in Cape Town in 1959, shortly after his return. He missed his new friends in London and did not stay for long back in South Africa. The apartheid system also made it difficult for him to work and he was arrested several times coming back from his studio near the Waterfront at night. He went back to Europe in 1960, after Sharpeville, yet the short time he spent back in Cape Town was the most productive period in his life.

Identity and South Africa were central themes for Adams, who said: “My work is based on my experience of South Africa as a vast and terrifying prison — an experience which, even now, after a decade of democracy, still haunts me.” Glennon recalls how Adams used to tell him: “I’m not South African. I never was South African. I was never allowed to be South African.”

Adams acquired British citizenship, but although he lived in London for almost 50 years he never really regarded himself as British either. In London he also encountered a lot of racism and it was only after visiting India that he felt he discovered himself.

Another great theme in his work is the idea of a man on a tightrope. “It’s how we all go through life — we’re balanced on a tightrope and we can go to disaster, on one side,” Glennon says. The man on a wire is about the will to live and survive, “and also man’s humanity for his fellow man. It reflects the triumph of the human spirit to overcome all difficulties in life.”

In his later life Adams worked among the bergies in Cape Town and then started to document the devastation caused by the United States and Britain in Iraq, says Glennon. He shows me the old newspapers in the studio at the top of the house, with their images of war, famine and torture.

“From the point of view of his artistic endeavours, he was the most modest of people. He didn’t regard himself as a great artist or anything like this. He was just struggling to do what he wanted to do in paint and drawings. He tried to find himself in his work,” says Glennon. Most of all he didn’t want to try to become famous. Adams told Glennon that if he ever started to think of himself as a great artist his work would suffer.

“I have an axe to grind in promoting Albert’s message,” Glennon says. Then he adds that he feels Adams was never given the recognition he deserved in Britain. He was an artist who never sought fame and refused to undertake commissions for the money. He didn’t like to sell himself, but Glennon is certain “his day will come when he really will be classed as a world-class artist”.

The Albert Adams retrospective, Journey on a Tightrope, runs at the Johannesburg Art Gallery until July 3

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