Elza Miles

Coming Through the Night

Where could they bury the child? They had no rights to bury it on any land. Late that night, the poor young mother and father had to dig a grave when no one could see them. They had to bury their child in a stolen grave.
Sol Plaatje (1875–1932), writing in 1916.

The South African government’s Natives’ Land Act of 1913 was as devastating as the war. It affected countless lives of which the Kgobadis, to whom Sol Plaatje refers, were no exception. With hindsight, the major benefactor of this Act was the country’s mining industry. Africans, who could not earn a livelihood on the overcrowded ‘native’ reserves (which consisted of less than 10% of the land, subsequently increased slightly to about 13% in 1916) or on white farms, were forced to leave the rural areas and find employment elsewhere. While there was an insatiable demand for unskilled labour on the gold mines of the Witwatersrand, this migration took its toll. It inevitably affected and undermined family structures and traditions.

Fig.2 John Koenakeefe Mohl
A cloudburst shower W. Tvl. SA
oil on board 40 X 32cm

On the long road to nowhere, the night with its promise of dawn gave the traumatised Kgobadi couple protection to bury their child ‘in a stolen grave’. That nocturnal scenes thread like a leitmotif through the pictorial images in the Campbell Smith Collection is therefore not unexpected.

Since time immemorial it has been understood that darkness (night) heralds the creation of all things …

Hence the story of the African genesis, which the artist Dan Rakgoathe (1937–2004) heard as a child. He asked Selekane, his grandmother, about creation. She told him that originally there were two people: Ra and Ma. They lived together and loved each other. One day Ma wanted to create something, but Ra said that the absence of light made it impossible. Nevertheless, they came together. Then they created light. At that moment of interaction there surged within them the most powerful force, a force that later came to be known as love, and thus the nations of the whole world came into being.

Unlike the Kgobadis, the two men that we see in John Koenakeefe Mohl’s painting Removing the wardrobe and other goods on cycles by moonlight, West Transvaal, South Africa (c.1964) (fig. 1, Above ), know their destination. Mohl (1903–1985), was himself very familiar with the countryside they are travelling through. As a young man he often cycled from either Pretoria or Sophiatown to Dinokana near Zeerust. On one of these journeys he probably saw a precarious removal such as this taking place by moon and starlight. The front cyclist was probably about to stop, open the gate and allow his fellow traveller, who was carrying the heavier load, to go through. A cloudburst shower, W. Tvl. SA (c.1964) (fig. 2, above), also in the Campbell Smith Collection, possibly shows the other side of the very same fence). Is it a coincidence that the smaller piece of furniture is loaded onto the front bicycle, thus enabling the second cyclist, with the heavier load, to keep a steady pace and continue through the gate? Or is the dark, larger shape an understatement of Mohl’s superb understanding of the handling of pictorial equilibrium? When matter of fact and an aesthetic sense of balance merge in such a seemingly ordinary way, the result is a compositional tour de force.

From the 1960s onwards, Mohl focused on the plight of the working- class, specifically that of black miners. In the Campbell Smith Collection there are two pertinent interpretations of the faceless worker who, before daybreak, mechanically goes to work and returns to the compound. These, both dated 1973, are Miners in single file near Randfontein (plate 72) and The mine compound at night (plate 68). In both renderings, apart from the moon that lights their path, each miner carries either a headlamp or a mine lamp. In both representations there is the gloomy presence of mine dumps, alluding to the monotony of their labour; this finds a literary equivalent in Peter Abraham’s book Mine Boy:

And for all their sweating and hard breathing and for the redness of their eyes and the emptiness of their stare there would be nothing to show. In the morning the pile had been so big. Now it was the same. And the mine dump did not seem to grow either .1

In rural communities, where electricity is inaccessible and even candles, kerosene, lamps and torches are unavailable, the flames of ordinary fires give light at night. This collection contains several, if not many interesting interpretations of night fires. There are both domestic fires and bush fires, such as Night Africa, B.P.(1964), (fig. 3) by John Koenakeefe Mohl; Fighting fire (c. 1935), (plate 27) by Gerard Bhengu (1910–1990); Night scene in a Zulu kraal (1947), (plate 32) by Arthur Butelezi,2 and the engaging pair of paintings by Gerard Sekoto (1913–1993) entitled The evening prayer and The evening at home (plate 60). A younger generation of artists continues the theme in Sangoma dance (2000), (plate 319), by Sithembiso Sibisi (b.1976) and Inguyazana – Caucus (1995), (plate 298) by Trevor Makhoba (1956–2003). And finally there are the flames of metaphorical and illusory fires, Makhoba’s Ugqayinyanga – The nightwatchman (1993), Don’t fall in love at night and They were deeply in love (2002), (plates 299, 304 & 293).

Fig.3 John Koenakeefe Mohl
Night Africa B.P. ,1964
oil on board 47.5 X 51.5cm

In scenes where ‘real’ fires with flames are burning, the interaction of light and darkness illuminates the events of the night. In Arthur Butelezi’s scene of unconditional hospitality, Night scene in a Zulu kraal, the flames – ostensibly reminiscent of the tongue-like forms of Arabic script – record moments in the lives of people. In the heart of rural Zululand a visitor, who is obviously a warrior, quenches his thirst with either beer or sour milk from a traditional drinking vessel. His hosts listen attentively to what he has to say. If the scene reflects the current affairs of 1947, the actual date of the painting, what tidings is he relating? Could it be the news of the death that year of Anton Lembede, first leader of the ANC’s Youth League, or perhaps the killings during the August 1946 miners’ strike on the Witwatersrand? Or has he recently danced for King George VI, Queen Elizabeth and the two princesses on the Durban leg of their royal visit to South Africa?

In 1939 Gerard Sekoto arrived in Sophiatown, a suburb that had received electricity in the late 1920s. In his painting The evening prayer, he pays homage to humble, God-fearing townsfolk, united in evening devotion. The image of their crucified redeemer, though rendered in miniscule form high up on the wall, extends its radiance to embrace the family and touches each member. In this home, the candle obviously reflects very humble circumstances. Yet, its flame, a symbol of transcendence, affects the entire immediate environment. Sekoto’s brush transforms these particulars of poverty, like the candle and the bare feet of the mother, to transcend the bleakness of obvious material need and asserts the promise of divine fulfillment. The silence evoked by the play of light on the motionless figures and objects inevitably calls to mind the work of that master of chiaroscuro,3 the French painter Georges de la Tour (1593–1652).

Sangoma dance (2000) by Sithembiso Sibisi is another tour de force in the play of light and shade. In this representation, ecstatic fervour, as expressed in the trance dance, replaces the pious Christian solemnity of Sekoto’s Evening prayer. A full moon hangs in the sky and the fire in the foreground lights up details to transform their ordinariness. Thus the diviner’s divination switch changes into a flaming torch, the bladders in her hair, denoting her status as a traditional healer, become her crown and are reminiscent of the hairstyles portrayed in the terracotta sculptures of Nok in ancient Nigeria. Her breasts echo the phases of the moon and the cloak, with its nuances of purple and rose, emphasises her regality. In spite of her vigorous dancing it does not slip from her shoulders but is securely knotted to protect her shoulders (and the shades4 which occupy that part of the human body), from a harmful light. Despite the choreography, the singing, rhythmic beating and the frenzy that are so different from the peacefulness captured in Sekoto’s Evening prayer, both scenes represented are subject to a silent presence: the sacrificial goat of African ritual on the one hand and Christ, the sacrificial lamb on the cross, on the other.

Whereas the image of Christ in Sekoto’s Evening prayer alludes to the New Testament account of his crucifixion; The birth of Christ (1969) (plate 189), by John Muafangejo (1943–1987); The last supper (1971) (plate 205), by Vuminkosi Zulu (1948–1996) and A Sacrament for the last supper (1975) (plate 213), by Judus Mahlangu (b.1951), interpret other episodes from the life of Christ as related in the New Testament. Though these scenes take place indoors at night, the artists refrain from using chiaroscuro and revert instead to an even distribution of light and dark.

Zulu’s representation of has obviously been inspired by Leonardo da Vinci’s Renaissance masterwork (c.1497) in Santa Maria Della Grazie, Milan, seen in countless reproductions. For the most part, Zulu follows Leonardo’s symmetrical composition. He also places Christ and the disciples behind a long table against a wall with windows. Christ, the key figure, is centrally placed with the disciples divided into two groups flanking Him. Zulu’s representation differs from Leonardo’s in that he places only five disciples on Christ’s right hand, thus implying the absence of Judas. This ‘absent’ reference to the betrayal by the missing Judas heightens the drama. While Leonardo sees Christ against the light rectangle of an open door in the background, Zulu uses the darkness of the wall, punctuated with two asymmetrical cross-barred windows to offset a dramatic interaction between Christ and the tall disciple to his right, presumably John, the beloved disciple. Fully aware of his impending trial, Christ faces the night while John covers his eyes so as not to witness the tragedy that is to unfold.

Fig.4 Trevor Makhoba
Dogs on duty, 2001
oil on canvas, 50.6 x 60.7cm

In A Sacrament for The Last Supper, Judus Mahlangu places Christ in the left foreground at the head of the table. Around the table, all the disciples are present to share a last frugal meal of bread and wine in the company of their teacher. On the table two simple oil lamps are burning, but Mahlangu does not explore the possibilities of chiaroscuro that these present. His emphasis is on an emotional Christ, already spreading out His arms in anticipation of his position on the cross.

Somehow men meeting under the cover of night implies sinister business. In the Campbell Smith Collection there are two accounts of men gathering at night both dated 1995, by Trevor Makhoba. They are Inguyazana – Caucus (plate 298) and Dogs on duty (fig. 4). In Inguyazana – Caucus, men sit outside under a tree, on barren ground by the heat of a fire, in the moonlight. Notwithstanding the romantic ambience and camaraderie evoked by the campfire, tension and mistrust are tangible among the delegates. Like the visitor in Arthur Butelezi’s Night scene in a Zulu kraal, they have laid down their weapons. Yet, from the position of the man in the foreground, his right hand at the ready, the weapons are still within reach. The venue is not site-specific and although former President Nelson Mandela (the man smoking a pipe), former President F.W. de Klerk (with up-turned jacket collar) and Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi (in traditional dress) have been identified, the painting could also allude to that night (in a metaphysical sense) when all political leaders are called to account at the tree of creation. As matters stand, this delegation has already transgressed – they have kindled a fire under a tree, and are harming its roots.

The other nocturnal scene of men huddled together is Makhoba’s disturbing Dogs on duty. They seem to be members of a gang named the Dirty dozen for whom rape appears to be a social activity. While the twelve meet to smoke, drink and commit these violent acts, a crescent moon hangs in the night sky. Their female victims are two similar-looking women who are gagged. One woman is ‘nailed’ to a brick wall and the other has been thrown to the ground. The mute indications of their futile attempts to defend themselves are seen in the broken wall and the brick held by the one woman as she lies on the grass. The gangsters’ merciless behaviour and their autonomic fornication metaphorically represent every deed of mindless violation.

Fig.5 Trevor Makhoba
The writing is on the wall, 2002
oil on canvas, 60 x 80cm

They were deeply in love (2002) (plate 293) is Makhoba’s allegory about love. It embodies the notion of la petite more.5 In a graveyard on a ‘coffin’ strewn with crystals, two skeletons caress each other. A flame-like aura, hallowing their love, spreads beyond their embrace and envelops them. Bell-glasses, used to preserve flowers in cemeteries, contain pink and blue flowers. They suggest the endless procreation of males and females and sustain a concept of reincarnation. The two doves, symbolic of the dead lovers, signify their spiritual union, not dissimilar from the birds of the willow pattern on blue and white porcelain.

The affection and accord expressed in Makhoba’s They were deeply in love reverberates in The birth of Christ (1969) (plate 189) and A wishful touch of the moon (1978) (plate 218) by John Muafangejo and Harry Moyaga (b.1954) respectively. In these works, both artists pay homage to motherhood. In the company of Jesus, Joseph, the angels and the animals, Mary is the only one whom Muafangejo honours with a halo. It is said that while Moyaga was working on A wishful touch of the moon, that he imagined his own conception in his mother’s womb and thought about the connection between women and the moon. In this piece the woman is not only enshrouded by the light that filters down from the moon, she also becomes luminous and ecstatic. In the process of transcendence, her body seems to connect with the unidentifiable shapes and forms around her in an unending sequence of growing and fading. She seems, like the 16th-century Catholic mystic St Theresa of Avila, to experience ‘… the sweetest caressing of the soul by God …’.6

The painter-sculptor Ernest Mancoba (1904–2002) who left South Africa in 1938 to study art in Paris, France, where he later died, remembered that as a child he was shocked at the offensive language sometimes used by traditional African poets and praise singers (imbongi). His mother, Florence (born Mangqangwana), explained to him that the ‘unspeakable’ often had to be voiced for the good of society. When accordingly George Msimang (b.1948), Mbongiseni Jerome Mkhize (1968–2001), Trevor Makhoba and Themba Siwela address the brutal and vulgar issues that are normally disregarded, they, like imbongis, take on the artist’s responsibility to voice the inexpressible. Makhoba unflinchingly exposes hooliganism (Dogs on duty) and domestic violence in The writing is on the wall (fig. 5). Siwela, on the other hand, observes the agonizing incompatibility that brings discord in relationships and confuses children in No simply means no, Daddy (2003) (plate 313).

Chiaroscuro transforms the banality of daily existence in The evening at home and Ugqayinyanga – The nightwatchman (1993) (plate 299), by Gerard Sekoto and Trevor Makhoba respectively. The wick is the heart or centre of the flame and its dark core bears the light of a candle or kerosene lamp. In The evening at home, a woman with her back turned to the viewer is silhouetted against a warm light. Though her silhouette obscures the source of the light, her dark figure becomes the embodiment of the wick, which spreads an aureole of light.

Since Sekoto adheres to expected appearances, his play of light and shadow is predictable. Makhoba, on the other hand, twists and manipulates them. The flames leaping from the brazier in front of the nightwatchman light up the man’s coat and cast a shadow on it. This shadow is an anomaly as light is by definition shadow-less. Nevertheless, its somewhat pointed shape corresponds with the colossal shadow that dwarfs the nightwatchman. This colossus is ambiguous. On the one hand it is merely a shadow. On the other, as an extension of the nightwatchman’s physique, it exceeds normal appearances and conjures up the protective presence of ancestral spirits. How else could a lonely man have safeguarded property in Kwazulu-Natal with a mere knobkerrie at that turbulent time?

Trevor Makhoba painted Ugqayinyanga – The nightwatchman almost 80 years after Sol Plaatje’s encounter with the Kgobadi couple mentioned at the beginning. In the interim, in 1957, the poet-artist Selby Mvusi (1929– 1967) wrote Nightwatchman from Zululand. Remarkably, Makhoba’s portrayal of the Zulu guard, risking his life for someone else’s property, evokes a mood not dissimilar to the situation of Mvusi’s prologue:

What hunchback is this – mutely guarding a Notre Dame it does not know? what monster is this – with the heart of lambs? what Adam is this – lord in garden of steel?7

The tribulations and dreams of people who have been politically deprived of their birthright in the land of their ancestors, keep recurring in these visions of the night. These scenes, like the imbongi’s praise poems, reflect material and spiritual anxieties that nevertheless announce a dawn.

  1. Abrahams (1989 edition) p. 42.
  2. The precise date of Butelezi’s birth and death are unrecorded.
  3. Chiaroscuro: An art term derived from the Italian for light-dark. It refers to the treatment of light and shadow in a painting, and the skill shown by an artist in the handling of shadows. The term is mainly applicable to 17th-century artists like Caravaggio and Rembrandt, whose pictures are largely dark in tone.
  4. Ancestral spirits.
  5. A French term literally translated as ‘the little death’, used to describe the experience of blissful selflessness during orgasm.
  6. Janson, H.W. 1974.A History of Art. Thames and Hudson: London. p. 421.
  7. Unpublished poem, FUBA Archives, Library of the Johannesburg Art Gallery.

  1. Abrahams, Peter. 1989. Mine Boy. Heinemann: Oxford.
  2. Berglund, Axel-Ixar. 1976. Zulu Thought-Patterns and Symbolism. Hurst & Company: London/David Philip: Cape Town and Johannesburg.
  3. Callinicos, Luli. 1980. Gold and Workers, 1886–1924. Ravan Press: Johannesburg.
  4. Janson, H.W. 1974. ,A History of Art. Thames and Hudson: London.