In later life the artist Durant Sihlali became fascinated with texture and shape, and with an abstract form of expression that is beautiful but lost on many. But that was later. When he started scribbling with a pencil on toilet paper, the only medium accessible to him as a child not yet old enough to form a coherent thought, there was only the burning compulsion to record what he saw around him. And what he saw were people living ordinary lives under extraordinary circumstances.
Sihlali started life on Johannesburg’s East Rand in 1935, and died in 2004 while living in Soweto. Apartheid intensified and became more brutal as he was developing his skills, allowing him to capture township life as few others could – and at a prodigious rate.
“He worked like a photographer, only in watercolours,” said Warren Siebrits, a gallerist who knew Sihlali while he was alive and curated the only exhibition of his work since his death. “He had this obsession to record these unusual things happening around him, what was happening to his people, and he had the technical skill to do it. He could watch a bulldozer knock down a house and paint it in real time.”
Sihlali’s skill was such that many who study art are happy to declare him the best watercolourist South Africa has ever seen, although being cautious enough to point out that he is best described as one of the most important artists of his era who is unrecognised, even though he may be a contender for the top spot.
“His documentation of so-called township life is incredibly good,” said art historian Elsa Miles, a recent recipient of an honorary doctorate for her work on South African artists and a long-time friend of Sihlali. “If there was a flood, Durant would be there to record it. If there was an uprising, he would record it.”
But Sihlali also found the more mundane aspects of the lives of black people fascinating, capturing mineworkers and street vendors as well as ritual slaughters and gatherings of every kind.
Although they are astonishingly accurate – as Siebrits’s efforts to match landscapes with the actual locations show – they are still emotionally loaded.
“If there was something that disturbed him that day, you could see it in his paintings that day,” said his daughter Iris, who worked closely with her father in his later years. “He was a quiet person and you couldn’t tell from talking to him, but you could see through his work when he wasn’t okay.”
The work and its titles and annotations show a man often disturbed by the everyday degradation and humiliation inflicted by apartheid, but not blinded to the small joys of life and the great beauty that surrounded him.
All this Durant Sihlali captured, along the way pre-empting many current debates around traditional values and cultural colonisation, which perhaps make his work more important now than ever before.
There is also, at times, a tinge of rebellion in his work, which those who lovingly remember him as a stubborn, principled man see more clearly than most.
He was “a deeply committed artist and fiercely independent in every way”, wrote artist and art historian Colin Richards in an obituary, and that virtue went beyond his painting and sculpture.
“He told this story about when he worked in the curio business,” said Siebrits. “One day he had a disagreement with the white owner and he said to the man: ‘My jacket is not too heavy and the door is not too small’, and he picked up his jacket and he walked out.”
Yet Sihlali, heavily influenced by it as he was, did not let himself be defined by apartheid. Instead, says American art scholar John Peffer, his work “in a sense encompassed and surpasses the era of apartheid”.
Timeline of the artist, his wife, his gallerist and the ‘custodian’ of his legacy
1935: Durant Sihlali is born near Germiston.
1950: He enrols for art classes with Alpheus Kubeka.
1953: Sihlali starts studying under Cecil Skotnes.
1958: He marries Anna, his childhood sweetheart, in community of property. Sihlali is exposed to the work of Gerard Sekoto for the first time and recognises similarities with his own style.
1983 to 1988: Sihlali acts as head of the fine arts department at the Federated Union of Black Artists.
1986: He establishes the Umhlanga Paper Studio.
1987: He returns from a residency in Europe and announces he has discovered his calling: using his art to honour his ancestors and express the tragedy of his country.
1988: He abandons a project to paint early Soweto houses with “detribalised designs” after comrades complain that it demeans political graffiti.
1997: Sihlali establishes a training programme on paper art.
May 2004: Sihlali dies of natural causes.
November 2005: Sihlali Molefe Attorneys, controlled by Mafika Sihlali, starts defaulting on rent and associated payments for its offices.
January 2006: At a family meeting about Durant’s estate, Mafika plays a mediating role, urging the family to avoid bickering and pledging to safeguard Durant’s legacy.
February 2006: The SABC begins outsourcing legal work to, among others, law firm Sihlali Molefe.
July 2006: Sihlali Molefe is deregistered as a law firm at the Northern Province Law Society.
August 2006: Mafika is appointed the head of SABC legal services.
March 2007: An exhibition of Durant’s work opens at the Warren Siebrits gallery in Rosebank, Johannesburg. Anna and her family present a united front with Mafika.
The SABC launches an internal investigation into allegations of irregularities after complaints about Mafika.
May 2007: Mafika tells the SABC he is being persecuted because of his investigations into a software tender.
July 2007: The Siebrits gallery refuses to release any of Durant’s work to Mafika until it has clarified “irregularities”.
The internal SABC report is completed and handed to the broadcaster’s board.
Mafika obtains an urgent court interdict to prevent the Mail & Guardian from publishing details of an SABC report that accuses him of corruption and intimidation.
August 2007: His gag order is overturned and the M&G publishes details of the allegations against him.
August 2007: Mafika seeks an interdict to prevent the SABC from suspending him.
March 2008: Lawyers acting for Anna demand the return of works held by Mafika and warn him not to sell any to recover money owing to him from the estate.
October 2008: Anna is appointed executor of her husband’s estate, replacing Mafika.
January 2009: An index tracking the value of Durant’s work shows a sharp decrease in prices achieved and works sold.
September 2009: A report by the auditor general is released in Parliament. It accuses Mafika of signing off on an irregular contract worth R1.7billion.
March 2012: Anna settles storage fees with the Siebrits gallery and takes ownership of all Durant’s work the gallery has in its possession.
She lodges a case of theft against Mafika.
February 2012: Mafika is arrested and charged with fraud. He is released on bail of R15 000.
June 2012: Sable Antelope, a Durant Sihlali oil on board, sells for R26 000. – Phillip de Wet