Mzuzile Mduduzi Xakaza

From Bhengu to Makhoba:
Tradition and Modernity
 in the Work of Black Artists from KwaZulu-Natal in the Campbell Smith Collection

It has become commonplace to hear or to read about ‘black art’ in South Africa. While it is highly contentious to suggest that black visual expression in KwaZulu-Natal, as elsewhere in South Africa, is congruent with the colonial and post-colonial epochs,1 it may be useful, for the purpose of this essay, to make an attempt to examine black (African)2 KwaZulu-Natal art within this historical, cultural and socio-political context. Tracing art historical developments within the province of KwaZulu-Natal, from the work of Gerard Bhengu (1910–1990) to that of Phila Trevor Makhoba (1956–2003) provides a framework within which to pose the question of whether there is a black art tradition that is unique to the province. It also provides a platform to examine whether this art should be viewed in isolation as a separate, unique cultural phenomenon, or alternatively, seen within a total, all-encompassing scheme that has a degree of relevance to the fateful encounter, centuries ago, of indigenous southern Africans and the newly-arrived European strangers.3

Certain questions arise. Has the southern African artist unwittingly allowed himself 4 to be defined byothers, rather than defining himself? And has he not been defined within racial and stereotypical parameters that reflect his historical power relationship to an economically and politically superior white patron? Furthermore, can one identify a subtle, evolutionary act of individual or collective self-emancipation from such stereotypical confines, as it were, on the part of the artist himself? Finally, was this not exacerbated by repressive colonialist and apartheid measures within the cultural, social and political context of South Africa, and of KwaZulu-Natal in particular?

The KwaZulu-Natal component of the Campbell Smith Collection is aesthetically fulfilling and intellectually challenging. Its thematic breadth necessitates deep introspective meditation and scholarly inquiry into its embedded meanings and possible associations. Gerard Bhengu, together with Simon Mnguni (1865–1956) was once regarded, in the opinion of Zulu intellectuals such as Herbert Dhlomo (1903–1956), a celebrated literary figure, critic and patron of Bhengu, as one of those indigenous artists who embodied the notion of an artistic ‘genius’.5

Assertion of an African Heritage or the reaffirmation of the concept of the cultural ‘Other’?

One of the issues that can serve as a point of debate is whether, given the thematic nature of Bhengu’s work as represented in the Campbell Smith Collection, it is possible to claim that his art can be seen to be serving several fundamental purposes, either wittingly or unwittingly. These may well stand in contrasting positions and, correspondingly, work in opposite directions in relation to the ‘centre’ of power as manipulated by one race, for its own interests, to the detriment of the other – in this case the cultural ‘Other’.

Bhengu was born into a segregated society at the Mariannhill-run Centecow Mission settlement in southern Natal. Given the additional factors of his initial patronage, the intended function of his art and the conservative taste of the period, it is hardly surprising that he constantly adopted a realist idiom.6

Fig.1 Gerard Bhengu
Bearded old man with fur cap and metal stud earings
Watercolour on paper, 18.5 x 14cm

While we can see from some of his ‘ethnographic’ portrait and landscape depictions that he was preoccupied with the ‘preservation’ of his ‘Zulu’7 culture, Bhengu often did this in a retrospective fashion, revisiting, as it were, a cultural past within the context of a changing present.8 It is worth noting here that Bhengu’s art was not solely about the past, but that he did produce, in his characteristic realist style, a number of images that were based on his own immediate experience. In 1928, for example, he painted a Baby with kwashiorkor, probably for his mentor Dr Max Kohler’s medico-educational purposes.9 The year of Bhengu’s birth, 1910, coincided with the constitution of the Union of South Africa. This marked the amalgamation of the former Boer republics (defeated by the British in the South African War) with the British colonies of Natal and the Cape; it also consolidated the economic and political monopoly of the white minority.10 From this time onwards, until the formal introduction of the apartheid system by the National Party Government after 1948,11 Bhengu continued to produce portraits and landscapes that were, on the one hand, an expression of his admiration for the pre-colonial past and, on the other, an acceptance, perhaps unwittingly, of the white colonialist fallacy of an unchanging Africa.

This point is supported by visual representations of these ‘unprogressive’ Africans in Bhengu’s Bearded old man with fur cap and metal stud earrings (fig. 1), Female sangoma (plate 16), Valley landscape with stream (fig. 2), Portrait of a smiling gap-toothed Zulu man with headring (fig. 3) and Landscape with huts (fig. 4). There are culturally distinguishing factors in these images which serve to reinforce the notion of Africa as an ‘Other’ that is not modernised and industrialised. This is reflected in female portraits with bare breasts, male portraits with gap-toothed subjects and landscapes with ‘Zulu’ traditional huts and figures. Both Landscape with huts and Valley landscape with stream are visual affirmations of the colonialist stereotypical notion of a culturally- preserved or ‘natural’ Africa.

Such features are also noticeable in the work of both Simon Mnguni and Arthur Butelezi. Mnguni’s Portrait of an elderly gentleman (plate 6) shows an old man in both ‘Zulu’ traditional and western dress. He wears a military coat overlaid with beaded necklaces and suspended medicine and snuff containers. The introduction of Western-type clothing elevates Mnguni’s male subjects to the status of ‘gentlemen’ – yet another reflection of Western and colonial ideas of the ‘civilised’ native. Mnguni’s self-portraits, Self portrait (plate 2), signed ‘Simon Mnguni’ him salf native art and Self portrait (plate 1) show a ‘native’ artist who lives in the present, with contemporary clothing, unlike his rural pre-colonial ‘traditional’ sitters.

  • Fig.2 Gerard Bhengu
    Valley landscape with stream
    Watercolour on paper
    28.5 x 38.5cm

  • Fig.3 Gerard Bhengu
    Portrait of a smiling gap-toothed Zulu man with headring
    Watercolour on paper
    29.3 x 22.7cm

  • Fig.4 Gerard Bhengu
    Landscape with huts
    Watercolour on paper
    32.5 x 50.5cm

Butelezi’s Night scene in a Zulu kraal, 1947 (plate 32) shows a bare- breasted, probably married, woman and a semi-naked boy in the company of two men around an open fire under a night sky. Features such as semi-nakedness also characterise the degree to which these figures are to be seen as ‘traditional’. Portrait of a Zulu woman (plate 36) further strengthens this idea, with the headdress (inhloko/ inkehli) signifying her marital status and her pose suggesting female subservience as a ‘Zulu’ cultural norm.

There was a conscious effort on the part of some of Bhengu’s white patrons and educationists to ‘preserve’ the natural artistic qualities of this ‘native’ artist. When the school inspectors, Dent and McK. Malcolm, suggested that Bhengu receive some formal art instruction, Prof. O.I.P. Oxley opposed the idea. He asserted that Bhengu’s ‘natural talent’ would be ‘spoiled’ by Western art ideas.12 This colonialist stance was based on Sir Theophilus Shepstone’s 19th-century notion of development along ‘parallel’ lines with traditional chiefs given some powers – but under firm colonial control. Dr C.T. Loram, Natal’s first Chief Inspector for Native Education, also asserted that blacks should progress ‘along their own lines’.13 This concept was sharply criticised by Rolfes (1906–1971) and Herbert Dhlomo, who rejected the notion of separatism, particularly in terms of opportunity, where progress and development were thought to be as crucial as gaining political rights.14

One of the reasons for white conservatism in artistic matters at the time was ‘the intimidating modernism that they thought distasteful and incomprehensible’.15 The buying public in Bhengu’s day was predominantly white and small, tending to admire the standards of the British art academies and tending to uphold these values even when purchasing local art. Although early modernism had become more acceptable by 1940, Bhengu remained uninfluenced by these trends, and he had set a strong precedent for realism in black (African) art from KwaZulu-Natal. Arthur Butelezi and Simon Mnguni, both self-taught, carried on with this realist tradition. Butelezi tried to boost the income from his paintings with sign-writing jobs. Mnguni, who was seventy- three years old in 1948, ‘turned out many hundreds of paintings’.16 This tendency towards prolific output by an artist persisted in the work of the late Trevor Makhoba and others.17 Jill Addleson, the Curator of Collections at Durban Art Gallery, is of the opinion that older artists, such as Bhengu, had an art tradition that ‘fits in quite well with the early South African realist tradition’.18 The traditions of 19th-century colonial traveller art as seen in the work of Thomas Baines (d. Durban, 1875) especially, relied on the notion of accuracy of depiction as a ‘record’ of the ‘other’ (be it subject landscape or subject people), and such art was also destined to be produced and consumed in quantity as engravings and prints.

The emergence of the cultural ‘Other’

It is perhaps pertinent here to explore another historical factor that serves as a background to the curious, separatist attitudes towards the African artistic ‘genius’. Phil Macnaghten and John Urry argue that it is the juxtaposition of society and nature, which reached its fullest development in the 19th century in the ‘West’, which bred the idea of ‘natural’ and ‘unspoilt’ territories; including by extension, their respective indigenous peoples.19 This came as a result of the degradation of nature into a realm of un-freedom and hostility that needed to be subdued and controlled. Control, in the context of power relations between the sophisticated European and the primitive African, also meant the ‘preservation’ of the ‘natural’ qualities of the colonised, as in the case of the ‘unspoiled’ artist and his ethnic imagery and rural scenes.20

This modernist view of nature also presupposed the doctrine of human exceptionalism which rested heavily upon four theoretical pillars: that humans are fundamentally different from and superior to all other species; that people can determine their own destinies and learn whatever is necessary to achieve them; that the world is vast and presents unlimited opportunities; and that the history of human society is one of unending progress. Industrialisation and consequent urbanisation, in particular, are factors that served as the main impetus for the symbolic marginalisation of what was considered ‘uncivilised’ and therefore natural and savage. This came to be seen as nature on the margins of the civilised world – the ‘Other’.21 This nature has been seen to consist of separate ‘virgin’ territories of often extraordinary natural abundance. It also included those peoples who are seen as more ‘natural’, as workers and later as objects of the colonizing gaze.22

This is the ‘gaze’ which also served as a driving force behind the patronage that Bhengu enjoyed, including commissions that he received from Dr. Kohler, who treated him for tuberculosis in the 1920s.23 This ‘gaze’, which was also apparently fuelled by feelings of nostalgia for the natural, as opposed to the industrialised, also found as its object what was Bhengu’s dominant theme, his ethnic imagery – portraits and landscapes which epitomised unspoilt nature. In the colonial ‘gaze’ these conformed to stereotypical notions of the ‘passive, non-agent and non-subject, the environment or invisible background conditions against which the ‘”foreground” achievements of reason or culture … take place’.24 Since the nineteenth century racially different peoples of Africa and the Americas were the obsessive interest of western travellers, colonists and scientists alike. The racially different was also seen as romantic and exotic, closely linked to the idea of the ‘noble savage’ whose condition was held to represent a lost and admirable ideal.25

It is important to emphasise here that it is not only the colonial ‘gaze’ that can be associated with Bhengu’s art. The Natives Land Act of 1913 had deprived indigenous Africans of meaningful land ownership, reducing them to a state of virtual landlessness.26 All the pre-colonial contentment was, as it were, eroded from African life. Bhengu’s images can therefore be seen to epitomise this ‘lost paradise,’ expressing ideals of rightful ownership and its perpetuation. They also reflect nostalgic ideas of affinity with nature and the rural context of Bhengu’s origin.27

Art education and self-assertiveness: Social and political awareness

Romantic idealism and ethnic imagery are not the only trends that are detectable in the art of KwaZulu-Natal in the mid twentieth century. There also emerged a group of relatively privileged artists who had access to opportunities for art education. In the absence of a state- supported art education system in KwaZulu-Natal (and elsewhere in the country), certain white liberals, such as Jack Grossert, the provincial art education inspector, and Sister Pientia Selhorst of the Congregation of the Precious Blood, as well as other Christian missions, made their contribution towards filling this vacuum.

The Ndaleni Teachers’ Training College was founded in 1952 on premises owned by the Methodist Church. Ndaleni was originally established as a Wesleyan Methodist Mission Station in 1847 by the Rev. James Allison.28 Mariannhill Art School was founded in 1882 and is regarded as one of the most important centres of liturgical art in KwaZulu-Natal. The Evangelical Lutheran Church (ELC) was first opened at Maphumulo in 1962 and later relocated to Rorke’s Drift in 1963, on the site of the Lutherans’ original mission station that had operated there since 1897. The Rorke’s Drift Centre is now well-inscribed into our art history, and has ‘proved to be one of the most interesting and productive art centres in KwaZulu-Natal’.29

While prominent artists of KwaZulu-Natal, such as Selby Mvusi (1929– 1967), Azaria Mbatha (b. 1941), Vuminkosi Zulu (1948–1996), George Msimang (1948–2004) and Paul Sibisi (b. 1948), are known to have benefited from these centres, Mvusi stands out because of his artistic and academic standing, notwithstanding his relatively short life. Able to gain access to guidance from a variety of individuals including Alfred Ewan, Peter Atkins and Harold Strachan, Mvusi also joined informal classes offered by Neil Sacks of the Bantu, Indian and Coloured Arts (BICA) Group in Durban, ‘a community project offering art and music lessons’.30 This was after he had completed a Special Teachers’ Course at Ndaleni in 1953 which he undertook after graduating with a BA degree and a UED from Fort Hare and Rhodes University respectively. He later gained a MA degree in Art Education from Pennsylvania State University and another in Fine Arts from Boston University.31 What distinguishes Mvusi from most of his contemporaries, however, is the fact that in addition to all the opportunities at his disposal, he also received private art training from Julia Norman, David McNab and Nils Solberg, the chairperson of the BICA Group.32

Omar Badsha (b.1946) recalls that the BICA Group, which met in the black YMCA, Durban, was established by white liberals. A group of artists including Mvusi, who attended classes there, worked firmly within the Western artistic tradition. Such an approach to art training for a multi- cultural group was later to be questioned by Mvusi when he left South Africa. The apartheid state’s education policy was characterised by an inherent insensitivity that could only have been interpreted as an outright ploy to ‘wittingly destroy existing cultural norms’.33 The BICA Group was ’very important at the time as it offered training in art to black artists who would not necessarily have been openly accepted as members of white art organisations’.34 The BICA Group lasted from 1950 to 1960, and between the late 1950s and the early 1960s, Ebrahim Badsha, Omar Badsha’s father, also one of the driving forces within the arts fraternity, collaborated closely with Selby Mvusi and Eric Ngcobo. Omar Badsha, who remembers Selby Mvusi as a boy, decided to become actively involved in the revival of trade unions from 1972 onwards.35

The first efforts by blacks to influence different art forms were made in the 1960s. This was done through the South African Student’s Organisation (SASO), and then, in the later 1970s through community- based structures such as the Community Arts Project in Cape Town.36 The formation of Art South Africa and the Institute of Race Relations also played a significant role in bringing cultural advancement to South Africans who had been marginalized. Mvusi’s two works in the Campbell Smith Collection, Young boy (Tallo) (plate 101) and The primitive (1958) (plate 100) show a tendency towards modernist and non-representational styles, in sharp contrast to the work of Bhengu, Mnguni and Butelezi. A move away from realism is also noticeable in the art of Azaria Mbatha, who is a prominent figure associated with Rorke’s Drift. This is evidenced by his etching Crucifixion (1966) (plate 179) and his linocut Jesus after death (plate 178). The former shows two scenes within a single format, while the latter is characterised by a narrative style, showing a series of scenes following the death and resurrection of Christ.

The missionary character of the Rorke’s Drift school is strongly reflected in Vuminkosi Zulu’s works in the Campbell Smith Collection. This is seen in such examples as The last supper (1971) (plate 205), Jesus is feeding 1000s of people (plate 206), Flood disaster (1988) (plate 209) and Emmigration (sic) (1986) (plate 210). The tense situation between Christ and his disciples in The last supper is reinforced by a rhythmic pattern formed by the placing of the disciples against a geometrically-patterned tablecloth. Any departure from the usual approach to this subject is the result of the cultural melting-pot formed by the guidance of Swedish and American teachers, the Christian character of the centre and the cultural orientation of its students. While the linocuts Flood disaster and Emmigration are a commentary on social conditions caused by natural disasters and faction wars respectively,37 the etching Jesus is feeding 1000s of people is notable for Zulu’s visual interpretation of the New Testament narrative, showing Christ as a man who lives in the here and now, with African facial features and contemporary clothing. This is a Christ who is not confined within Scripture’s pages as an historical figure; he identifies himself with human social needs and is here to address them.38

In addition to the centres mentioned above, the establishment in 1985 of the Caversham Press by master printer Malcolm Christian (b.1950) has added an interesting dimension to the whole question of accessibility to training and resources as well as marketing strategies for black artists. The Caversham Press, which now incorporates a recently-introduced component, the Centre for Artists and Writers, was established in the midlands region of KwaZulu-Natal between Howick and Nottingham Road. Christian identified a disused building belonging to the Methodist Church with an old graveyard and gave it new life by turning it into a printmaking studio.39 Joseph Manana (b.1964), Sithembiso Sibisi (b.1976) and Thami Jali (b.1955) were among the first KwaZulu-Natal artists to benefit from this initiative through an artist-in-residence programme.40

George Msimang (1948– 2004), whose work is characterised by humour, distortion and exaggeration, was exposed to the work of Dumile Feni (1939–1991) in the late 1960s. Feni held his second solo show at the Durban Art Gallery in 1966 and also participated in a group exhibition organized by himself and Omar Badsha in 1967. Badsha recalls how George Msimang appreciated Feni’s style and was subsequently influenced by him.41 The similarity, in terms of style, between Msimang and Feni is evidenced in the Campbell Smith Collection by comparing their works to Msimang’s Boozing (plate 173). Msimang also addresses the social phenomenon of witchcraft in The night rider (plate 171). He too is a past student of Rorke’s Drift, although he apparently did not formally complete the course. Paul Sibisi (b.1948), first trained at Ndaleni Teachers’ Training College, and proceeded to Rorke’s Drift where he studied from 1973 to 1974.42 Well-known for his pen and wash technique, Sibisi became politicised by his pupils at Mzuvele High School where he taught languages and gave extra lessons in art to those who were interested. His 1981 show at the African Art Centre, Durban, reflected ‘what was going on in the closed world of the townships’.43 Sibisi’s work, Stop it now!! Now!, (1986) (plate 228), clearly shows his politicisation. The destructive, repressive apartheid system claimed defenseless lives and brought fear to the oppressed masses of South Africa, particularly when the United Democratic Front (UDF) confronted the state in the late 1980s. In Sibisi’s work, the plea of the black community for help and peace is represented by a disembodied hand that appears in the red sky.

The legacy of Trevor Makhoba: Aspects of his influence

The works of artists who emerged after the so-called ‘pioneer’ period in KwaZulu-Natal differs from that of their predecessors in terms of their acceptance of modernist approaches, and the fact that they were not ostensibly catering for a white conservative market. Trevor Makhoba (1956–2003), who like Paul Sibisi was self-taught, was born in Mkhumbane (Cato Manor); he and his family were later forcibly evicted from their home.44 Makhoba’s Removals, Cato Manor (undated) (plate 300) is one of his visual comments on the brutal treatment of the oppressed masses during the apartheid era. His Abelumbi of the millennium (2001) (plate 296) is a visual parallel to white manipulation of black lives and the negative consequences thereof. Makhoba has put a special emphasis on elements of ambiguity associated with the medical profession in this country as well as an historical reference to the term ‘abelumbi’ (meaning ‘cunning magicians’), a term used by King Shaka to refer to white strangers because of their mysterious ways and appearance.45 Although the painting appears to challenge ethical standards within the medical practice, there is also a political undertone; there are negative elements promoting witchcraft rather than formally accepted medicine, and these dominate the whole. The colours of the African National Congress (ANC) – black, gold and green on the tiled floor – seem to represent Makhoba’s challenge to the ruling party’s efficiency in addressing such issues.

Fig.5 Trevor Makhoba
The unforgettable events, 2001
Oil on board, 60 x 50cm

Makhoba also confronts the issue of wholesale exploitation of black workers in this country for the benefit of the white minority. This is seen in his painting entitled The naked truth (plate 297). The work demonstrates how evil economic practices were ‘justified’ by distorted use of the Bible; and how the term ‘peanuts’ as a synonym for ‘pathetic wages’ can be interpreted in literal visual terms. Here Makhoba made use of visual metaphor to reinforce the notion of the very thin line between economic exploitation and slavery. Sibisi compares ‘the hardships experienced by Africans during the suppressive era’ to those suffered by slaves.46
A hard blow in Beijing (1996) (plate 295), The writing is on the wall, (2002) (fig. 5, p. 32), and Dogs on duty (2001) (fig. 4, p. 31) all deal with the artist’s concern with gender power-imbalances and the struggles that emanate from such situations. A hard blow in Beijing ‘places women’s rights in Africa firmly on the table’.47 After the 1995 World Conference for Women in Beijing, China, Makhoba began to question his own convictions, ‘given that women traditionally play a subservient role in African tradition’.48 While these works have a moralising element, Makhoba also alluded to Western influence on gender issues in South Africa, for example, by his inclusion of a white female referee in A hard blow in Beijing.

Works such as ,Don’t fall in love at night, They were deeply in love (plates 304 & 293), and The unforgettable events (fig. 5) all reflect another spiritual side of Makhoba. According to the collector Bruce Campbell Smith, Makhoba straddled two worlds – the physical and the spiritual, and this had a profound effect on his view of the world.49 Campbell Smith came to realise this one afternoon when, as he relates, he telephoned Makhoba who responded in a strange way, as if he was not in his normal state of consciousness. When Campbell Smith later raised the topic, he learned about Makhoba’s childhood experiences of epileptic fits which were perceived by his pious parents as a social stigma which required fervent prayer for healing. Though a special prayer was once offered for Makhoba with positive results, he still experienced bouts of trance-like straying into the spiritual world, and this, suggests Campbell Smith, seems to have enabled Makhoba to see beyond the here and now. His Unforgettable Events articulates ‘a particular premonition he once had, probably through his characteristic contact with the spiritual world’.50

Makhoba’s worlds, which characterise his art and his psyche, also ‘have reference to two co-existing cultures, the traditional and the modern, the rural and the urban’.51 This is a defining point if Makhoba’s art is to be understood within its context because, while it seems consistent with the realism of the ‘pioneer’ artists, it covers a wide range of contemporary issues as well as autobiographical aspects. While the dominant characteristic of black KwaZulu-Natal ‘pioneer’ art is retrospective and almost nostalgic, Makhoba’s art is introspective and has a strong social realist element.

Trevor Makhoba has left a legacy for the younger generation of contemporary artists who are represented in the Campbell Smith Collection. This is evident in the works by artists such as the late Mbongiseni Jerome Mkhize (1968–2001), Ngiyazisa ngomafungwase wakwethu (I am crying for our elder sister) (plate 324), Themba Siwela (b.1975) When Gomondela is on duty, (2001) (fig. 6), Sithembiso Sibisi (b.1976) Sangoma dance 2000 (plate 319) and Sibusiso Robert Duma (b.1978), one of Makhoba’s closest followers, represented by his The ghost, (2002) (plate 323).

The issues tackled by these artists range from the practice of witchcraft and sorcery − including the partial killing of a human victim before her transformation into a zombie (umkhovu) − to urban influences on rural life, and to degrading experiences and practices due to poor economic conditions. Impoverishment, deterioration of cultural standards as a result of urbanisation and the experiences of the spiritual world, are also subjects, particularly in the case of Sibisi and Duma. Themba Siwela, a former high school student of Paul Sibisi’s from 1991 to 1993,52 believes that he captures images that the camera cannot capture, using humour in his concentration on obscure social aspects. Like Makhoba he is a social realist and wishes to make a visual record of how the black community survives the numerous challenges of life. Siwela also successfully portrays, in both a subtle and an overt manner, the everyday consequences of black economic deprivation, reflecting the commonplace aspects of the impact of urbanisation and the erosion of traditional culture.

  • Fig.6 Themba Siwela
    When Gomodela is on duty, 2001
    Oil pastel on paper
    33.3 x 48.6cm

  • Fig.7 Themba Siwela
    Unpaid rent, 2002
    Oil pastel on paper
    35 x 50cm

Siwela’s Ngikhalela izinkomo zami, (I am crying for my Lobola cows) (2000) (plate 311) and Biggest business on the street (2002) (plate 312) are a visual statement about the conflict between tradition and the modern; between rural and urban cultures. Siwela’s style was identified by Paul Sibisi in the early 1990s as being similar to that of Makhoba, especially because of the manner in which both Makhoba and Siwela dealt with these parallel but conflicting worlds. Also raised are questions of cultural norms and how these can be preserved for the benefit of future generations. The fact that Siwela works as a cartoonist on a full- time basis for many publications, including Artworks Communication, Durban, and also as a practising artist during his leisure time, has had a stylistic impact on his human figures, which are caricatures while at the same time representing real human situations. When Siwela finally met Makhoba in 1998, he was so inspired by his work that from then onwards he looked upon him as a role model.53

In a markedly patriarchal society such as the northern Nguni of South Africa, the conflicting cultural values of the rural and traditional versus the urban and modern worlds are an issue for many of its people. This is what is portrayed in Siwela’s two works When Gomondela is on duty, and Unpaid rent (fig. 7). In the former, a rural wife (seen in the middle- distance, holding her hands to her head) pays a visit to her husband who is a migrant worker in the city, only to find him living under the ‘petticoat-government’ of an uncultured and crass urban mistress who lives with him in his shack. In Unpaid rent, a landlady demands her monthly rental from a man who is clearly unable to pay. These works reflect how the traditional roles and the social position of African men are being challenged by social and economic change. Historically, these changes first occurred under segregationist British colonialism; they were then followed by the imposition of a capitalist, profit-driven economic system. Siwela, who lives at KwaMashu and therefore witnesses these social dramas on a daily basis, is also concerned about fundamental morals that are being eroded by migrant labour. He tends to look critically at combining aspects of the rural and the urban because he is able to identify with both. His parents were originally from rural Bergville, in the foothills of the Drakensberg mountains, although he grew up in an impoverished urban environment.54

Fig.8 Joseph Manana
Magogo, 2004
gouache on paper, 44 x 59cm

Joseph Manana’s Magogo (2004) (fig. 8), Lost generation (2004) (plate 309), Privacy (2004) (plate 310) and Hostel dwellers (2004) (plate 308) are characterised by their representational, realist style, and this is to some extent also reminiscent of Makhoba. Paul Sibisi recalls that Manana had a deep admiration for Makhoba as a visual artist and felt honoured to be working with him when they both attended printmaking workshops at the Fine Arts Department of what was then the Technikon Natal (now known as the Durban Institute of Technology). In capturing the dark, ironic and surreal mood underlying his chosen subject-matter Manana is not Makhoba’s equal, although some opinions hold that they share similar thematic tendencies.55 In Privacy, Manana deals with a routine reality that few people ever seem to comment upon, although all men are undoubtedly aware of it at some level. This concerns competitive male sexuality and masculinity in a racially-integrated South African society, and the fact that the now-open public facilities often bring men of various cultural orientations into closer contact with each other. Although society is now officially democratised, the degree to which racial unity has really been achieved is still questionable. Situations like standing at the urinal appear to bring Manana’s figures into a rather uncomfortable physical and psychological proximity to each other.

Although different in his range of subject-matter and stylistic approach from Makhoba or Siwela, Manana also deals with moral aspects in his Magogo and Lost generation. Here he refers to petty childhood misdemeanours in the absence of elders, as well as the dangers of peer pressure, particularly in situations where there is an abuse of alcohol. Hostel dwellers is in some ways an extension of Bhengu’s realist imagery in that it portrays contemporary economic conditions under which employed, non-professional Africans have to survive in the white- dominated economy of post-apartheid South Africa. Its eloquence about the reality of human conditions contrasts sharply with Bhengu’s ‘posed’ ethnic types.

A young artist who has, like Makhoba, included autobiographical elements in addition to themes of anthropological significance, is Sithembiso Sibisi. Sibisi has had a long working relationship with the Caversham Educational Trust, having met Malcolm Christian in the late 1980s when they collaborated on set programmes, especially a national travelling show entitled The Spirit of our Stories, which opened at the Standard Bank National Arts Festival, Grahamstown, in 199556 . His Sangoma dance (plate 319) in the Campbell Smith Collection is a direct reference to his personal experience with initiation into the cult of divinity. He was first called by the ancestral spirits (or shades) of his clan to train as a sangoma in 1999 and had to go through certain healing rituals. However, the method of his calling was different. After he had been involved in as many as three car accidents in 1999, he also got shot while in the company of a Zimbabwean artist at Umlazi, outside Durban. When he consulted a sangoma about these misfortunes he was told that the ancestral spirits were threatening to cause death in his family if he did not take up training as a sangoma.57

  • Fig.9 Sithembiso Sibisi
    The Sangoma’s feast, 2005
    Oil on canvas
    65 x 100cm

  • Fig.10 Sithembiso Sibisi
    The route to divinity, 2005
    Oil on canvas
    50 x 75cm

This version of the sangoma’s calling does not, however, tally with Berglund’s description, which claims that the main symptom is a strange sickness that the prospective novice experiences, such as excessive dreaming and strange body pains.58 Trance-inducing dancing also occurs occasionally in order to facilitate sessions for the novice to make confessions about dreams; a dance session of this kind is called an ingoma yokuvumisa (the confessional dance).59 Since the dance is reputed to restore health and imbue the novice with divinatory ability, the novice (ithwasa) must confess all his dreams to a senior diviner or tutor (isanusi).60 A close associate of Sibisi’s, Maphoyisa Magwaza, has been spiritually connected to Sibisi since his childhood and has acted as his mentor ever since. Magwaza has a deep knowledge of matters connected to divinity (ubungoma) and has been helping Sibisi with part of his initiation process into the cult, trying to help him plead with the shades not to remove him from the world of art since this, too, is a noble calling. Magwaza stays with Sibisi at his home at KwaMashu, outside Durban, in order to keep him away from his quarrelsome family at Umlazi. Since the shades that possess Sibisi have feminine attributes, they apparently cause unwarranted domestic conflict between him, his mother and sister. At times his family, showing little understanding of the artist’s spiritual possession,threaten to call the police in order to calm Sibisi’s aggressive behaviour; this subsides, however, the moment he goes to stay with Magwaza. Sibisi did not complete his initiation course (ukuphothulwa) since he felt that it would be to the detriment of his art career. Magwaza, who is very supportive of Sibisi’s career, is of the view that the best route to take towards healing Sibisi’s spiritual possession is to go through rituals of ‘stopping’ this possession (ukuvala idlozi/ukumisa idlozi), while not completely rejecting the call.61

Other recent paintings by Sibisi in the Campbell Smith Collection include Route to divinity (fig. 10), The Sangoma’s feast (fig. 9) and Ocean baptism (fig. 11). These works are based on a conscious effort by the artist not only to make a visual document of aspects involved in the process of initiation, as well as other spiritual activities. These include the rituals of the Zionist church, and it is intended that these will continue to form part of his future oeuvre. Magwaza explains that Sibisi’s interest in Zionist activities is based on the fact that the Zionists, like the diviners, also depend profoundly on the involvement of spiritual agents, known as the messengers (izithunywa) of God. They, like the ancestral shades, also possess some church members during special services or baptismal sessions, using them as channels to convey messages of spiritual significance. Magwaza reiterates that this often requires the possessed to enter a trance which occurs when there is a dance and the playing of drums. These culturally different modes of spiritual possession serve the same purpose − God’s communication with people on earth.62
Route to divinity and The feast reflect Magwaza’s mentorship of Sibisi in some of the intricate aspects of initiation. A foaming medicine is normally used in the initial cleansing of a candidate to remove all bad omens and prepare him for what is to follow. Feasting is a constant feature of the whole course since animal sacrifices have a great deal to do with appeasing the departed ancestral spirits which are believed to possess some of the living.63


The collective history of the various visual art ‘schools’ of South Africa, and that of KwaZulu-Natal in particular, provides scope for individual and collective tastes, and should include a survey of the impact of cultural, social, political and economic conditions. To merely trace the black visual art tradition of KwaZulu-Natal back as far as the commencement of South Africa’s colonisation is wholly inadequate because this approach would uphold the false impression that there was no creative expression before the provision of formal, Western-type, education of the indigenous black population. The Zulu language testifies to the presence of a pre-colonial visual art tradition in the region, since the words bhala (writing) and dweba (drawing) are indigenous terms and have not been borrowed from any foreign language. This ukudweba survived up to and beyond the late nineteenth century through notable drawings by unknown artists who created incised human and animal figures on gourds and cattle horns.64

Since ‘fine art’ in the Western idiom, rather than ‘traditional’ utilitarian art, has come to be regarded as ‘high art’ in South Africa, individuals like Gerard Bhengu, Simon Mnguni and Arthur Butelezi, have been hailed as the so-called ‘pioneer’ artists of KwaZulu-Natal. This has unfortunately acquired the status of undisputed fact, with earlier highly- talented artists such as Jabulani Ntuli (1898–1988) and Laduma Madela (b.1906) being almost sidelined as a result. This was largely due to the characteristically conservative taste of an early art-buying public which was predominantly of European settler origin. To these factors we can also attribute the glorification of the ‘native’ African ‘genius’; this being congruent with a colonial sense of yearning for what settler Europeans thought had been ‘lost’ to the modernised world, resulting in an idealised notion of that which is ‘natural’ and ‘unspoilt’. The ethnic or tribal images produced by Bhengu and other so-called ‘pioneers’ met this requirement.

Patronage is another determining factor of trends in ‘early’ black art. Black intellectuals also held ambiguous attitudes towards the art produced by artists, such as Bhengu of this era. The fact that it catered almost exclusively for the white market was greeted by different reactions in various circles. The Dhlomo brothers, Herbert and Rolfes, for instance, regarded themselves as Bhengu’s literary counterparts, espousing the idea of a revival of pride in a heroic, pre-colonial past. However, the question of whether it would be proper to emphasize the tribal rather than ‘national’ aspects of black existence, remained a point of debate among individulas such as the Dhlomo brothers, Dr J.L. Dube (1871– 1946) and others.

In this matrix there was also a small and privileged black group which had managed to gain access to art education. The colonial and apartheid regimes had, due to their separatist policies, overlooked and thus by implication even asserted that there was no need for blacks to obtain an art education. Selby Mvusi was the most notable of this group due to his exposure to various influences and his outstanding academic accomplishments in a relatively short life. Mvusi’s involvement with the BICA Group in the second half of the twentieth century occurred at a time when blacks (Africans, Indians and Coloureds) were determined to liberate themselves from colonial impediments that barred them from the benefits of cultural emancipation and advancement. BICA, became, in effect, a KwaZulu-Natal approximation of the Polly Street Art Centre in Johannesburg.

Fig.11 Sithembiso Sibisi
The ocean baptism, 2005
Oil on canvas, 65 x 100cm

This wave of politically-aware and progressive artists was notably the complete opposite of the early so-called ‘pioneer’ artists whose approach sought to approximate the European realist tradition and British academicism. The exposure of these later artists to other modernist schools of more progressive, if not radical European origin, as well as dialogue with white liberals, added an interesting dimension to the art of the province. This was an era, bridging the 1950s and 1960s, when the black intelligentsia was trying to define the place of the African within the socio-political context of the time. The period was characterised by a collective urge among the educated black elite to attain higher levels of civilisation and self-actualisation, these being understood as features of an advancement that would bring them onto a par with their white South African counterparts. Mvusi was the first black KwaZulu-Natal artist to begin a serious consideration of an African aesthetic, trying to lead others away from merely imitating the Western art. He searched for an African ‘personality’ that had been lost through colonial influence and domination.

Raw, natural talent was then perceived as the limit that a typical, curiously-gifted African could ever aspire to in a racially segregated society. The proselytising activities of various Christian missions saw the creation of essential services such as education, health and, finally, the establishment of art schools and centres in selected regions of Natal. These made their contribution towards initiating momentum in cultural life, at Mariannhill, Ndaleni and Rorke’s Drift, nurturing a creative culture which was actively discouraged by the apartheid state. These centres contributed immeasurably towards the dissemination of art education and development of artistic awareness across the country as a whole, producing artists of high standing in KwaZulu-Natal including Azaria Mbatha (now resident in Sweden), Paul Sibisi, Vuminkosi Zulu and George Msimang.

It is Trevor Makhoba who, although a comparatively recent phenomenon, has served as a connecting bridge between these two distinct, parallel worlds, the traditional and the modern. These worlds co- exist concurrently in his socio-realist creations, while at the same time retaining subtle autobiographical elements. This idiom has been carried further through Makhoba’s influence or training, by a younger generation of artists such as Duma, Siwela, Manana and Mkhize. Sithembiso Sibisi is also one of these younger artists, but his work takes on a more distinct and different dimension in terms of its special autobiographical elements. Like Makhoba, Sibisi straddles both the physical and spiritual worlds and this aspect emerges strongly in the work that he has created since 1999, when he became a novice sangoma (ithwasa).

It would perhaps be invalid to aggressively assert that there is a black art ‘tradition’ unique to KwaZulu-Natal, given the variety of factors and the formal diversity of the different ‘schools’ that have emerged in the province over the past century or more. The length of the period under consideration and the diversity of influences tend to render what could be defined as a single, discernible art ‘tradition’ an impossibility. In the end, one can only refer to trends and individual styles and influences that characterise the art of KwaZulu-Natal. Ultimately, as an integral part of South Africa, this province has had its own prominent individual artists and cultural organisations that have made profound contributions towards the elusive ideal of creating a meaningful climate in which all cultural groups are on an equal footing in terms of access to opportunity and resources.

  1. Telephonic conversation with Dr Elza Miles, 30 July 2005. She holds opinions on what may be termed ‘black art’ in KwaZulu-Natal. She finds it problematic that the art history of the province is generally traced only as far back as the Western-type realist era of Gerard Bhengu (1910–1990), Simon Mnguni (1865–1956) and Arthur Butelezi (active mid-1940s). There were earlier anonymous artists such as Jabulani Ntuli (b.1898) whose focus was on drawing and on line incisions on horn.
  2. The word ‘black’ is normally used in a politically-correct manner to include all non-white racial groups of South Africa, i.e. Africans, Coloureds and Asians. This is in compliance with the precepts of Black Consciousness philosophy. This essay focuses particularly on art produced by indigenous African artists who are part of the black multi-cultural population within the province of KwaZulu-Natal.
  3. Skotnes, Miscast, p. 15.
  4. All the artworks in the KwaZulu-Natal component of the Campbell Smith Collection are by male artists, except that by Barbara Tyrrell (b.1912). The pronoun ‘himself’ is, however, not meant as an indicator of gender discrimination in this context.
  5. Leeb-du Toit, ‘Bhengu in context’, p. 33.
  6. Zaverdinos, ‘Gerard Bhengu’, p. 3.
  7. The term ‘tribe’ is a controversial one in academic circles, especially among heritage practitioners and academic historians. What is known today as a ‘Zulu’ tribe comprises a vast number of small, independent enclaves that existed even before the rise of the Zulu Empire under King Shaka kaSenzangakhona. The authenticity of the term ‘Zulu’, when it refers to a myriad of Nguni clans of the northern region, is therefore questionable since it should refer exclusively to a clan historically ruled by a single Royal House of Malandela. This is simply a political label which came to be applied by colonialists for control purposes after the death of Shaka. When the Zulu ruling house assumed its political hegemony in the region, Shaka preserved the identities of various components of the Empire; he reigned supreme over all his new subjects as the king (iSilo samabandla/iNgonyama). What he created was rather like a number of federal states which lacked autonomy and paid absolute allegiance to the Royal House of Zulu. As a measure of further decolonisation, contemporary historians (preferably Zulu historians) should coin a politically-valid term for this national group of indigenous people.
  8. Zaverdinos, ‘Gerard Bhengu’, p. 4.
  9. Ibid., p. 5. Baby with kwashiokor (1928), watercolour on paper, 486 x 388mm is now in the Killie Campbell Collections, Durban [WCP: 2785].

  10. Omer-Cooper, History of Southern Africa, p. 158.
  11. Ibid., p. 193.
  12. Leeb-du Toit, ‘Bhengu in context’, p. 38; Miles, Land and Lives, p. 27.
  13. Leeb-du Toit, ‘Bhengu in context’, p. 38.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Ibid., p. 39.
  16. Couzens, The New African, p. 251. 

  17. Leeb-du Toit, ‘Bhengu in context’, p. 39.

  18. Telephonic conversation with Jill Addleson, 27 July 2005.
  19. Macnaghten and Urry, Contested Natures, p. 7.
  20. Ibid.
  21. Macnaghten and Urry, Contested Natures, p. 13.
  22. Ibid., pp. 14–15.
  23. Miles, ‘Regaining the comfort zone’, p. 29.
  24. Macnaghten and Urry, Contested Natures, p.15.

  25. Leeb-du Toit, ‘Bhengu in context’, p. 37.
  26. Couzens, The New African, p. 56.
  27. Leeb-du Toit, ‘Bhengu in context’, p. 37.
  28. Xakaza, ‘Social and mystical aspects of the art of Vuminkosi Zulu’, pp. 7–8.
  29. Ibid., p. 9.
  30. Miles, ‘Regaining the comfort zone’, p. 131.

  31. Ibid., p. 133.

  32. Ibid., p. 131.
  33. Telephonic conversation with Omar Badsha, 29 July 2005.
  34. Addleson’s research notes (2001, p.1). She mentions that the BICA served ‘as a meeting forum and studio space for artists who, because of race would not have been accepted as members of a contemporary Durban art society like the NSA which was made up of members of the white race only’ (p. 2). It was founded by Mr and Mrs McAdam, both musicians, Mr and Mrs Paul Martens and Miss Sylvia Lawrence, who was the principal of a school on the corner of Albert Street and Commercial Road. The first BICA lessons were offered at the Hindu Tamil Institute on the corner of Cross and Carlisle Streets before they were moved to the Bantu Social Centre in Beatrice Street; this subsequently became the Bantu YMCA.
  35. Telephonic conversation with Omar Badsha, 29 July 2005.

  36. Telephonic conversation with Malcolm Christian, the Chief executive officer of theCaversham Centre for Artists and writers and the Educational Trust, 13 August 2005.
  37. Xakaza, ‘Social and mystical aspects of the art of Vuminkosi Zulu’, pp. 23–24.
  38. Ibid., pp. 49–50. Chapter 5 of the dissertation deals with the question of the literal and socio-political ‘blackness’ of Christ in a broad manner, referring specifically to selected South African, European and USA literature on the emergence of Black Theology and Christ’s liberating role. In addition to the fact that the text inevitably leads to thoughts about the essence of the Black World and a need for spiritual empowerment, it may also encourage one to look at the phenomenon of the emergence of black religion in the USA (within the context of Christianity) and the need for Pan African thought and practice about spiritual well-being.
  39. Miles, ‘Regaining the comfort zone’, p. 6.
  40. Telephonic conversation with Malcolm Christian, 13 August 2005.
  41. Telephonic conversation with Omar Badsha, 29 July 2005.
  42. Telephonic conversation with Paul Sibisi, 27 July 2005; Xakaza, ‘Social and mystical aspects of the art of Vuminkosi Zulu’, p. 8.
  43. Younge, Art of the South African Townships, p. 72.
  44. Sibisi, Uma Ngisaphila (no pagination).
  45. Addleson, Catalogue List, p. 112. Although the year of publication of this exhibition catalogue, Untold tales of Magic: Abelumbi compiled by Jill Addleson of the Durban Art Gallery, is not indicated, the show took place in 2001.
  46. Sibisi, Uma Ngisaphila (no pagination).
  47. Ibid.

  48. Ibid.
  49. Bruce Campbell Smith. 2005. ‘Hamba Kahle Umfowethu (sic) Memories, Insights and Anecdotes: A Tribute to Phila Trevor Makhoba’. Trevor Makhoba Memorial Exhibition Catalogue (ed. Jill Addleson). Durban Art Gallery: Durban. pp. 16–26.
  50. Ibid.
  51. Ibid.
  52. Telephonic conversation with Themba Siwela, 27 July 2005.
  53. Ibid.
  54. Ibid.
  55. Telephonic conversation with Paul Sibisi, 9 August 2005.
  56. Telephonic conversation with Malcolm Christian, 13 August 2005.
  57. Telephonic conversation with Sithembiso Sibisi, 3 August 2005.
  58. Berglund, Zulu Thought Patterns, p. 150.
  59. Ibid., pp. 151–152.
  60. Ibid., p. 153.
  61. Telephonic conversation with Maphoyisa Magwaza, 9 August 2005.
  62. Ibid.
  63. Ibid.
  64. Miles, ‘Regaining the comfort zone’, p. 11.

  1. Addleson, J. 2001. Catalogue List, Untold tales of Magic: Abelumbi, Durban Art Gallery, Durban. Exhibition catalogue.
  2. Berglund, A.I. 1976. Zulu Thought-Patterns and Symbolism, Cape Town: David Philip.
  3. Couzens, T. 1985. The New African, Johannesburg: Ravan Press.
  4. Leeb-du Toit, J. 1995, “Bhengu in context”, in Gerard Bhengu (1910 – 1990): A Retrospective Exhibition, Tatham Art Gallery, Pietermaritzburg. Exhibition catalogue.
  5. Macnaghten, P. and Urry, J. 1998. Contested Natures, London: Sage Publications.
Miles, E. 1997. Land and Lives: A Story of Early Black Artists, Cape Town: Human & Rousseau.
  7. Miles, E. 2000. ‘Regaining the comfort zone’, in BAGGAGE, The Caversham Centre for Artists and Writers, Lidgetton. Exhibition catalogue.
  8. Omer-Cooper, J. D. 1988. History of Southern Africa, Claremont: David Philip.
Sibisi, P. 1996. Uma Ngisaphila (As Long as I Live), no pagination. Exhibition brochure.
  10. Skotnes, P. 1996. Miscast: Negotiating the Presence of the Bushmen, Cape Town: University of Cape Town Press.
  11. Xakaza, M.M. 2001. ‘Social and mystical aspects of the art of Vuminkosi Zulu’, Unpublished MA Dissertation, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Pietermaritzburg.
  12. Younge, G. 1988. Art of the South African Townships, London: Thames and Hudson.
  13. Zaverdinos, A. 1995. ‘Gerard Bhengu: A Biography’ in Gerard Bhengu (1910–1990): A Retrospective Exhibition. Tatham Art Gallery, Pietermaritzburg. Exhibition catalogue.