Ben Arnold

Ben Arnold converted to the Islamic faith in 1981. He grew up among Muslims in Albertville and was drawn to the Islamic faith early in his life. Despite his upbringing in a Protestant home, the ecstatic dancing of dervishes captivated his imagination. His parents were respected members of the Dutch Reformed Church in which his father served as an elder.

This drawing (plate 110), the sole work by Arnold in the Campbell Smith Collection, was formerly entitled Crucifixion. It was purchased from the Grosvenor Gallery, London. The real title is in fact Dervish, according to recent confirmation with the artist himself.1This misnomer apparently derives from a review of Arnold’s first solo exhibition at the Egon Guenther Gallery in Johannesburg in m1964. Cecil Skotnes (qv.) wrote a review of the exhibition and referred to the ‘excellent linear quality in the preliminary sketches for the Crucifix’.2 This misinterpretation can also be ascribed to the involvement of the Polly Street artists with several commissions for the Catholic Church, where every ascetic, attenuated body with outstretched arms fitted into the Christian paradigm. Consequently, the author was also misled in a recent publication on the Polly Street Art Centre.3

Arnold is basically a sculptor and he works predominantly in clay. As a child he collected clay from the spruit that runs through Albertville. Later at the art centres in Polly and Eloff Streets, brick clay suited his needs. Subsequently his first commissions were carried out in terracotta. His drawings, suggestive of sculptures in progress, are autonomous works of art. They were predominantly done in the 1960s and 1970s.

Dervish evokes the different malleable options of clay, despite being a drawing. It is simultaneously tangible form and elusive movement. Across an even background the dancer whirls upwards and stretches sideways freeing himself from all material confines in remembrance of the Creator. The fading away of head, hands and feet sustain the esoteric nature of the drawing and foreshadows the gradual disappearance of figurative imagery from Arnold’s later art.

Elza Miles

  1. Author communication, 4 June 2005.
  2. The Star, 11 June 1964.
  3. Elza Miles. 2004. Polly Street: The Story of an Art Centre. Ampersand Foundation: Johannesburg. pp. 118–120.

Born Albertville, Johannesburg 1942. Training 1957–1958: Polly Street Art Centre under Cecil Skotnes (qv.). 1959–1965: Jubilee Art Centre under Skotnes and Sydney Kumalo (qv.). Selected exhibitions 1960: Exhibition of non-European Paintings and Sculptures, Queens Hall, Johannesburg. 1964: Solo exhibition, Egon Guenther Gallery, Johannesburg. 1975: Solo exhibition, National Museum and Art Gallery, Gabarone, Botswana. 1977: Feastac – 2nd World Black and African Festival, Nigeria. 1981: Black Art Today, Jabulani Bank, Soweto, Johannesburg. 1982: Art Toward Social Development. An exhibition of South African Art, National Museum and Art Gallery, Gaberone. 1985: Tributaries, Africana Museum in Progress, Johannesburg; Germany. 1988–1989: The Neglected Tradition, Johannesburg Art Gallery. 1993: Land and Lives, South African Arts Association, Pretoria. Collections Johannesburg Art Gallery; National Museum and Art Gallery, Gaberone.

Photograph of Ben Arnold. Source: Ricky Burnett (ed.). 1985. Tributaries: A view of Contemporary South African Art. BMW Communication Department, SA. p. 61.