Many artists have been known and remembered for their attitudes rather than their works. But not David Ntubu Koloane. Over the years, hundreds of students, mainly from Wits University’s School of the Arts, would rock up to his Bag Factory studio, often without appointments. They needed to consult him on black South African artists, most of whom were his contemporaries, like Sidney Kumalo, Ezrom Legae and Dan Rakgoathe – all who have since passed on. Others popped in to get advice on their work as they were being frustrated by their white lecturers, who sometimes did not understand the issues they were dealing with. Few will ever tell you he turned them down. That is the man Koloane was; a humble and affirming man througout his life.
I met Bra David Koloane in 1996 when I came to live and work in Johannesburg. I ran into him at the Goodman Gallery one day, looking at artwork for inspiration. We began a conversation in which we discussed the work on show. I was impressed with his knowledge in reading the artist’s works against the subject matter and use of materials. Later, I enquired from Sis Bongi Dlomo-Mautloa, who happened to be there too, about “that man over there”. She chastised me for not recognising Bra David, a doyen of African art. I was so ashamed of my backwardness, as I had known of his work from magazines and newspaper articles.
When, in 1998, I became a lecturer at what was then known as Technikon Witwatersrand, I visited Koloane in his Bag Factory studio to learn from him about his contemporaries as a means to counter the mainly white-dominated art syllabus. Those subsequent encounters with Koloane and his peers at the Bag Factory would prove essential in my appreciation of what he has done for South African art and, more importantly, black artists. A number of the artists had been subjected to the white gallery system that exploited them, going so far as to dictate to them what type of art they should produce and subject matter they should produce.
From discussing the challenges and experiences that besieged mainly black artists, it became clear that the few black lecturers employed in the previously white institutions should change the situation. There was limited material on black artists, as not many white or black scholars had invested in them, with the exception of newspaper journalists. Journalists tended to report what they saw and did not critique the work, perhaps due to lack of in-depth training in art history and art criticism. We also had to look for more black role models to inspire and encourage the ever-growing number of black students within these institutions.
Koloane was born on June 5 1938 in Alexandra to working class parents. The family relocated to Soweto in 1954. Here, he enrolled at Orlando High School where he met and befriended Louis Maqhubela (1939 – 2010). Maqhubela had been attending art classes at Polly Street from 1951 and immediately began to mentor Koloane. What Koloane emphasised about this informal mentorship, was that Maqhubela encouraged him to not copy from books and magazines but draw from nature, advice Koloane took seriously. In 1956 Koloane was forced to leave school to find employment after his father suffered a stroke. Being the eldest child in the family, Koloane obliged. After several clerical jobs, he finally left the world of formal work to pursue his first love (painting) in 1974.
He joined Bill Ainslie’s studio from 1974 to 1976, before venturing on his own with friends, setting themselves up in Jeppestown. Over the years, Koloane has generously shared with me how the students of Polly Street informally, over weekends, taught other aspirant artists in Soweto. These classes started as far back as 1955, where Durant Sihlali (1935-2003), Ephraim Ngatane and others started classes to empower artists who could not attend Polly Street.
During his teen years, Koloane would join these artists in learning skills that would serve him well when his time came to be an artist.
Koloane attributes his love for reading as having given him an advantage over many of his peers. He read widely and knew more about art and art movements around the world than most.
Another critical influence on Koloane was Bill Ainslie (1934-1989). Ainslie had opened up his studio to a number of aspirant artists of all races and creeds. When the time came for Koloane to realise his lifelong dream in 1974, when the company he worked for moved to another part of the city, he enrolled at Ainslie’s studio.
In his studio, Ainslie taught only the weakest points that hindered the artist from achieving their goal. This allowed the artist to develop along his own way and not be bogged down by the dogma tertiary institutions are known for. Koloane relished telling the story of arriving at Ainslie’s studio with his portfolio. After Ainslie looked into his work, he asked him, “What is there to teach you?” Koloane would roar with laughter each time he shared the anecdote. Indeed, in 1975, Koloane and Lucas Sithole had their first exhibition, which sold out.
Koloane, like most black artists of the time, produced works that commented on the socio-economic conditions of the townships they lived in. These works featured mainly musicians and various religious groupings. The music captured a variety of groups that competed to jazz and pop in Soweto. In religion, works featured mainstream churches like the Anglican, Lutheran and Catholic as well as Zionists (amaziyoni). The artists of the day were fascinated by the colours and rhythms of the rituals that took place. Koloane was no exception.
The 1980s were a catalyst for Koloane. With the help of Sir Antony Cato and Robert Loder (both British art patrons), Koloane visited both New York and London Triangular Artists Workshops. These workshops cemented, in Koloane’s mind, what he needed to do back home to empower and grow the art practice of his fellow men. This resulted in the establishment of similar workshops to be known by their seSotho name Thupelo Art Project, a turning point in the experimentation by black South African artists, resulting in new and fresh art devoid of the hated “township art” label.
In Koloane’s words, “the advent of Thupelo Art Project provided the structure for initiating workshop programmes. The collective studio project has enabled individual artists to utilise the studios as a laboratory in which the artists can consolidate their technical maturity.”
As the projects grew, Koloane continued producing work, giving seminars, teaching and attending conferences. He ensured more artists benefited from his experience through multiplying and decentralising these centres across the African continent. He also influenced the opening of residencies for artists from around the world. As a token of his hard work in changing the landscape of South African and African art, universities such as Vaal, Wits and Rhodes awarded him honourary doctorates. This is no mean feat for a quiet, methodical man whose vision was to see artists producing work unhindered by issues such as space to work from.
Sipho Mdanda is a curator at Freedom Park and the VIAD associate researcher