Arthur Butelezi

It is highly possible that the watercolour portraits painted by Arthur Butelezi were of people that he knew very well. This would distinguish them to some extent from the colonial ‘native studies’ by most white artists at that time which usually lacked a direct relationship with the sitter. Like the great pioneer of western art in West Africa, Aina Onabolu (1882–1963), Butelezi wanted to abolish notions that: ‘… no African – not even a culturally Europeanised one – was endowed with the creative ability to produce art like white people’.1 The sensitivity with which the people are depicted in Butelezi’s works often contrasts with the titles that they have been given by their white owners; titles that seem too non-specific to have any meaningful relationship with the subject. The ‘colonial studies’ produced by most white artists differ from Butelezi’s art; they reveal the way that white artists tended to view black people – as subjects for superficial scrutiny rather than people with deeper identities and personalities.

The portable, framed painting had no earlier history in the Zulu or African tradition, and was thus a colonial import from Europe. This means that Butelezi, like many other aspirant black artists who adopted this form, was also one of the pioneering artists of modern portraiture in Africa. As with the Nigerian artist Onabolu, who painted numerous portraits of the Lagos elite, missionaries and Yoruba Kings, Butelezi’s relationship with the people he painted may have been of greater importance than we realise. He retains the nobility of his subjects in a respectful and sensitive manner, as in Sangoma (plate 33) or he animates the subject’s features to engage the viewer as in Portrait of a smiling young man (plate 34). His Night scene in a Zulu kraal, (1947) (plate 32) is a rare painting which shows Butelezi’s skill in handling chiaroscuro. This work is, at present, Butelezi’s only known oil painting to have survived. It was rediscovered in someone’s garage where it had lain for 35 years. In the press it was reported that Butelezi’s greatest ambition was ‘to paint large pictures like the great masters’.2

Gabi Ngcobo

  1. O. Oloidi. 1995. ‘Art and Nationalism in Colonial Nigeria’, Seven Stories About Art in Africa. Whitechapel: p. 191.
  2. Elza Miles. 1997. Land and Lives. Human and Rousseau: Cape Town & Johannesburg. p. 27.

Active in the 1940s. The dates and places of his birth and death are unknown. Training Date uncertain: Educated at Wesleyan Methodist School, Volksrust. Date uncertain: Kilnerton Teachers Training College, Pretoria. Exhibitions 1948: Exhibition at Natal University College organised by National Union of South African Students. Collections: Killie Campbell Collections, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban.


This monochromatic watercolour is an unusual painting by Butelezi in comparison to the other works in the Campbell Smith Collection. This is because it demonstrates his attempt at a different approach to his usual convention of the frontal head and shoulder portrait (See examples in ReVisions, plates 31, 34–36, pp. 80-83). Here, the subject is seen partly from the back with his head turning left towards the viewer. The difficulty in working with this kind of pose in a portrait cannot be underestimated since, unlike a frontal or more ‘iconic’ pose, there is an implied sense of the ‘momentary’ in both a psychological sense and also in terms of movement, with the head turning while the mouth opens as if to speak.

A pose such as this represents an instant within a series of instances. Butelezi’s handling of this difficult challenge tested his artistic skills to their limit. This watercolour shows a man wearing a head ring, which indicates his married status. With the head ring he also wears a feather and a traditional snuff spoon. He also wears a traditional earplug, but this item has not been articulated in detail by the artist. The tradition of snuff- taking and the wearing of earplugs are highly significant within Zulu culture and form an important link with the ancestors or amadlozi.

Hayden Proud