The Polly Street Era

It is evident, through the examples of the art of John Koenakeefe Mohl, Ernest Mancoba and Gerard Sekoto, that the foundations of a fine art by black South Africans had been established by the 1940s. All three of these early figures had produced artworks unprecedented in terms of the history of art by black South Africans. It was an art that was a response to the changing conditions of black experience, with an increase in Christian influence and pressure from a white controlled economy.

It was also formed as a result of the influence of a western approach to art making, and the introduction of materials and techniques associated with the European tradition. These artists had had the opportunity to study both locally and abroad, although the extent of this education varied greatly. Mohl appears to have received a far more rigorous training than that afforded to Sekoto or Mancoba. He first studied at the Windhoek Academy, and then received a scholarship to study in Dusseldorf in Germany for a period of five years. Finally he returned to work and teach in Sophiatown. Sekoto on the other hand paid his own way to Paris but due to financial pressure was unable to study on a fulltime basis, although he did attend some drawing classes there. (He had received some tuition from Judith Gluckman prior to his departure for Paris.) Sekoto has never returned to South Africa although he has continued to exhibit work here. In the case of Mancoba, after producing a number of ecclesiastical sculptures at the Diocesan Training Centre in Pietersburg as well as secular portrayals of black society in fl uenced by traditional African sculpture, he received some financial assistance to enable him to travel to Paris. There he married Sonja Ferloy and they both participated in the activities of the Cobra Group (l) in the late 1940s. Mancoba was interned by the Germans during the war, and then, because of his marriage to a white woman, he was unable to return to South Africa. He lives in Paris to this day.

Of the three only Mohl was able to have any direct influence on art developments in South Africa in the forties. And it is for this reason that he can be considered to be the father of township art. He was certainly the first black artist to work and exhibit as a professional fine artist in Sophiatown and Soweto, and the first artist who offered art classes in the township.

In 1944 John Koenakeefe Mohl's " White Studio" in Sophiatown had a number of students enrolled for art classes. A newspaper report describes some of the students: Instruction is already being given to a number of students, whose ages range from twelve to thirty years, and who come from many walks of life. (2)

Images of the township and township life by Mohl and Sekoto in the 1930s, and an art inspired by the sculptural radiations of Africa, in the work of Mancoba, had been: created by the time Cecil Skotnes was employed as the c ultural Recreation Officer at the Polly Street Art Centre in J ohannesburg in 1952.

The employment of Skotnes in this position was a s ignificant advancement for black artists in the Transvaal. (3) This development needs to be viewed in the c onte x t of alternative educational initiatives that were being u ndertaken by a number of white liberals. Eddie Koch shows hat this kind of activity can be traced back to the 1920s with the proliferation of "a network of liberal institutions", eager to influence the leisure time of black urban dwellers.

It has become a commonplace slogan in Western culture that whoever captures the leisure time of the people gets the people... A people's character is moulded by the kind of investment made in their free time. [E. Koch quoting Ray Phillips of the American Board Mission.](4)

The initiatives in the forties of the Johannesburg Local Committee for Non-European Adult Education, in consultation with the Johannesburg City Council, secured the use of a hall in Polly Street. The Council appointed a Cultural Recreation Officer in 1949, but the facility was not utilised to any great effect until the appointment of Cecil Skotnes in 1952. It was under his guidance that the Polly Street Recreational Centre came to be identified as an Art Centre and became a significant training ground for a whole generation of artists. (5)

Given the extremely limited resources of the centre (a space and a salary for Skotnes was all that was provided at first), it is not surprising that the training provided was undertaken on an ad hoc basis. However what Skotnes managed, over the next ten years, was to gain the confidence and support of black students, some white artists, the Johannesburg City Council, companies which made donations, the churches, and the commercial galleries. Through this network of support, Skotnes was able to launch himself (having only recently graduated from the University of Witwatersrand) and a number of other artists into successful, lifelong art careers. He was able to put the centre and the students in touch with an array of contacts including many foreign visitors and dealers, as well as to acquire commissions from the church and City Council.(6) The accessi b ility of the centre to artists all over the Rand, and the subsequent exhibitions of the students' work at galleries in Johannesburg, enabled black and white artists to meet and work together, sharing technical knowl­edge and aesthetic debate. Hence Kumalo's apprenticeship to Villa and Maqhubela's period spent with Cattaneo and Portway, as well as many other such relationships were made possible, enabling some black artists to overcome in part the shortcomings of limited educational resources and also enabling a few white artists to gain a new insight int o black experience.

It is true that the prevailing art education philosophy of that time was one of extreme caution and a fear of imposing a Eurocentric approach to artmaking. Skotnes recalls his anxiety "that I might be destroying something". (7) Although the organisation of activities at the centre was therefore kept relatively informal, it is evident (judging, from examples of student work as well as the comments by students at Polly Street), that all the standard western art exercises, such as still-life painting, life drawing, landscape studies and abstract design, were taught. (8) In an interview with Durant Sihlali by David Koloane (9) Sihlali recalls doing ' still-life ' projects, using different media such as charcoal, pencil, watercolours or oils. Students were also encouraged to embark on their own projects at home. It is significant that Skotnes thinks of Polly Street as a ' workshop ' rather than as a school. Once artists had established a particular individual style they were encouraged to become self- sufficient professional artists. Indeed they needed to sell in order to survive. While white artists were given 3-4 year training, without the pressures of commercialism and the market place, black artists were compelled to develop a marketable style very early on. (University art depart­ments, technikons and teachers training colleges which offered art training were closed to black students.)(10)

In establishing artists on a viable professional basis it was necessary to find affordable and accessible materials. A large body of work was done using watercolour - an ideal medium, in terms of cost, time and the problem of adequate working space. Watercolours were also more appropriate for short studio classes.

Skotnes recalls the great difficulty in establishing sculpture at the centre, primarily because of the need for materials and processes suited to a working schedule of a single three-hour sitting. Brick clay (terracotta) was the most accessible ' commercial ' medium available. This discovery of an appropriate sculptural medium led to a breakthrough for Kumalo and a whole generation of sculptors. Watercolour and brick clay led to contee, oils and bronze.

The art produced at Polly Street can be broadly divided into two distinct streams: a 'township style' and a 'neo-African style '.

Artists such as Ephraim Ngatane, Durant Sihlali and David Mogano each developed an individual approach to the painting of township scenes using watercolour.These scenes of the township can themselves be divided into two styles; firstly there are accurate recordings of specific places in the township; e.g. Ngatane's painting of the Oppenheimer Tower in Soweto, as well as innumerable paintings by Sihlali depicting particular places which he visited (often he would visit these places with the express purpose of making a painting of them). Sihlali describes his constant desire to capture the changing environment in which he had lived as a temporary sojourner; temporary because of the uncertainty attached to black urban existence. Secondly there are many examples of township scenes of a more generalised nature, leading to repetitious stylisation of picturesque 'shantytowns'. These paintings are derived more from existing paintings than any real place or actual experience. (11)

Sihlali Durant (b.1935)

Pimville ruins

The other stream that has become almost synonymous with the Polly Street Art Centre was the sculpture and graphics inspired by traditional African sculpture. It is important to realise that art made in Africa was not readily available in South Africa. The many art shops and museum collections dedicated to the sale and display of African art that have been established in more recent times were not in existence in the forties and fifties. (Both Skotnes and Larry Scully recall the importance of L 'Afrique, a shop established in the fifties in Johannesburg which displayed sculpture from Africa.)

Ngatane Ephraim Mojalefa (1938 - 1971)

Washerwomen

South African artists had been trained almost exclusively via western canons and many welcomed the discovery of African art. Skotnes himself only 'discovered' African art in 1953 when Egon Guenther (12) introduced him to the work of two German artists, Rudolf Scharpf and Willie Baumeister, who had been strongly influenced by the art of Africa. This caused Skotnes to abandon painting and take up relief carving and print making.

Hence it would appear that all of the students associated with Polly Street started out working from a Eurocentric orientation. They learnt drawing, painting and sculpture from o b servation and worked within mimetic and naturalistic conventions. Skotnes according to Sihlali also encouraged an expressive interpretation of observed objects. Once Skotnes and Kumalo began working from African sources, their success, and it was formidable, had a strong influence on the work of the other students. This synthesis of the western figurative canon with that of African figurative sculpture can be traced most directly in the work of Sydney Kumalo. The early work of Kumalo illustrates a gradual move away from mimetic conventions in the search for an expressive language informed by Africa. Kumalo extracted from African sculpture an understanding of the sculptural proportions manifested in this highly expressive figurative tradition:

Studies have shown quite clearly that the African (traditional) artist in setting out to carve a human figure does not set out to reproduce the human form as it appears in reality. In most cases the artist analyses the figure in terms of its major volumes, head, torso and legs and combines them in a specific manner so that certain parts are emphasised over others, as is evident in the so-called ' African proportions' of most African figure sculpture with the enlargement of the head in relation to the body. (13) * The broad stylistic changes that are manifested in the work of a number of Polly Street artists, sculptors and graphic artists alike, including Leonard Matsoso, Ezrom Legae and Lucas Sithole, all illustrate a synthesis between African and western traditions.

The continued growth of the Polly Street Art Centre was curbed by the policy of separate development. The West Rand Bantu Administration Board, which took over the affairs of black people from the Johannesburg City Council, could see no purpose in providing cultural facilities (or black people in the cities. They had all been 'officially' moved out of the city. The Jubilee Centre, that replaced Polly Street, was also eventually closed down, thus destroying a significant meeting place for artists from all over the Reef. It b ecame policy to provide a few such facilities in the townships (such as the Mofolo Art Centre in Soweto and the Katlehong Art Centre in Katlehong). Although it was un­doubtedly necessary to establish localised facilities in the townships, it is regrettable that this happened at the expense of a centrally located, easily accessible facility. In fact the establishment then of Dorkay House in Johannesburg, as an independent cultural venue, was recognition of the need for such facilities in town. There were simply no buildings in the townships suitable for such activities. The sixties and seventies were extremely difficult years and the movement of black people was severely curtailed. This had a detrimental effect on artists, dramatists and musicians denying them access to venues and imposing strict censorship.

Kumalo Sydney Alex (b.1935)

Seated women

The grip of apartheid laws tightened. Stricter censorship was enforced, and all but a few city venues were barred to black performers and audiences... Black musicians found themselves removed by the government (in connivance with the white musicians' union) from white hotels and nightspots, an important source of their revenue. (14)

This enforced separation compelled artists to find new forms of cultural organisation, through which to develop artistic and political responses to an increasingly polarised society. K. Sole traces the development of the Black Consciousness movement amongst university students, intellectuals and theologians from the late 1960s and the resultant theatrical and literary art forms that evolved and gave another dimension to the "back to Africa" cultural tendency. (15) M. Manaka (l6) argues that this went beyond a search for an African style and involved an increased awareness of the socio-political situation. By the 1970s most of the cultural groupings that arose out of the Black Consciousness movement had been banned.

For a number of aspiring artists the decade leading up to the education crisis of June 1976 was a difficult and frustrating one; artists were detained or imprisoned for political activity, e.g. Lionel Davis was imprisoned and Winston Saoli was detained. Amongst others Dumile Feni, Gavin Jantjes and Louis Maqhubela, left the country.

During the same period a number of enormously talented artists died young and tragic deaths - Cyprian Shilakoe, Julian Motau, Andrew Motjuoadi, Ephraim Ngatane and in the 1980s, Thamsanqwa Mnyele.

The art of the sixties and seventies shows two distinct orientations. One was an attempt to reflect social reality, and the repression of the 1960s. This art was often introspective and 'tortured'; at its best an indictment of the social conditions caused by apartheid, at its worst a 'self-pitying' and sentimental art.

The master of turbulent imagery was undoubtedly Dumile Feni, who was known as the Goya of the townships. His apocalyptic vision talks directly of personal experience, indicating the extent to which the political and the personal had become inextricably intertwined. The violent imagery of Dumile was complemente d in the 1960s and 1970s by a different kind of aesthetic: mart that celebrated the beautiful and the mystical. It was an art inspired by music, literature, poetry, and an affirmative view of the political struggle: as a site of hope rather than despair. Fikile Magadlela, Thamsanqwa Mnyele, Dikobe Martins, Peter Clarke and others reacted against the prevailing township imagery of hopelessness. They were a generation of artists who showed the way out of the aesthetic of distortion, producing images of great beauty and mystery, evolving a symbolism that offered some relief from the degradation and squalor.

Dumile Feni (b.1939)

Fear, 1966

A more complex and subtle response to political repression began to manifest in the work of Ezrom Legae. Working with delicate and tense line, Legae used images of birds and eggs as a metaphor for a new awakening of consciousness. Inspired by the story of Steve Biko, he produced a series of graphics using the chicken and egg imagery. Yet in spite of its explicitly political inspiration, he avoided any directly political reference either in the content or in the title of this series (which was chosen to represent South Africa at Chile's Valparaiso Exhibition of 1979).

Some of the art of this period was inspired by surrealist imagery. In an interview with Fikile he alluded to the surrealist influence as well as his desire to make an art that celebrated beauty.

But there's one thing I believe in; if you draw the black man, he must beautiful, handsome; the woman must be heavenly. Drape them with the most beautiful clothes - to wash away this whole shit of self-pity.(17)

Fikile also alludes to the important political debates that were confronting artists at that time. How to address the role of the artist in terms of his or her social responsibility; questions of accountability; and the constant problem of how to overcome the alienation of the black artist from his or her own community.

Fikile (Fikile Magadledla) (b.1952)

Branch from the tree of life, 1979

For many artists art needed to become like music: instead of reflecting reality, it would try to create a new reality, more illuminating and more sublime than the lived experience under apartheid. Ngatane adopted a kind of painterly cubism, in which space is reduced and the figure becomes a part of the environment. It is a celebration of colour and energy, a visual representation of music and an attempt to get beneath the surface to the "central fiery heart". (18) Maqhubela, having spent a few months abroad, came under the influence of Douglas Portway, and produced a series of lyrical and poetic paintings. This passion for music and poetry shared by many artists, was not only present in the handling of the media, but also conveyed through innumerable representations of musicians, pianists, sax-players, penny-whistlers.

While the new art of the seventies was being forged, and immediately prior to the 1976 student uprisings, the South African Government supported a number of travelling art exhibitions including a tour of 'Zulu Art' to Vienna's Museum of Ethnology and the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren, near Brussels. Sydney Kumalo, Cecil Skotnes, Michael Zondi as well as works from Rorke's Drift, were included. (19) The government which had in fact been responsible for the demise of Polly Street and had implemented an educational policy that denied art education to black students, now proceeded to promote the art that had been made despite official policy.

This marked the beginning of a slow increase in government support for black art education, (although the vast majority of practicing artists, being self-taught, were in no way affected by these developments) and also awakened some artists to the possibility of further state control. This issue became of increasing importance in the 1980s, which will be discussed in a later chapter.

Endnotes

1. The Cobra Group, established in 1948, was an as­sociation of artists from Copenhagen, Brussels and Amster­dam (CoBrA).

2. "Africans taught the art of painting", Bantu Worl d 20 May 1944.

3. Jack Grosser ! Undertook an enormous amount of pioneering work in Natal in the field of black art education from the 1940s onwards. He was, however, working primarily in the field of teacher training.

4. B. Bozzoli (ed.), Town and countryside in th e Transvaal , Johannesburg: Ravan Press, 1983, p. l67.

5. Ebrahim Badsha, interview with Steven Sack, Durban, April 1988. During the 1950s the Bantu, Indian, and Coloured Art Association (BICA) was formed in Durban. Ebrahim Badsha, who participated in the art classes organi­sed by BICA, recalls attending drawing and painting classes conducted by various teachers, such as Nils Solberg. Selby Mvusi, who was a graduate of Ndaleni Teachers College, as well as a student at the University of Fort Hare, was also a member of BICA.

6. D. Koloane, "The Polly Street Art Centre ," in A. Nettleton and D. Hammond-Tooke (eds.), The art of b lack South Africans (proposed title), Johannesburg: Ad. Donker, 1989. (Draft chapter for a book to be published in 1989.)

7. Cecil Skotnes, interview with Steven Sack and Lucy Alexander, Cape Town, April 1988.

8. The Africana Museum in Johannesburg has a port­folio often student artworks produced at Polly Street. Two of these student exercises are dated 1949 and 1950, and there ­ fore predate the arrival of Skotnes.

9. Koloane, "The Polly Street Art Centre".

10. The state of art in South Africa, conference pro­ceedings, University of Cape Town, July 1979, p. 41. Gavin Younge analysed the educational situation for black students as follows: "Turfloop, Ngoya (UZ) and Fort Hare Universities do not have art departments, nor does the University of the Western Cape. Blacks may not be admitted to any of the seven formal art schools falling under the Colleges of Advanced Technical Education. This leaves the ' Indian ' university of Durban-Westville, a number of good but infor­mal art schools, and the teacher-training colleges such as Hewat, M.L. Sultan, and Ndaleni." Since 1979 the University of Fort Hare (in fact this department opened in 1976) and the University of Bophuthatswana have established art education degrees and a number of black teachers training colleges now offer art as a major subject.

11 . The marketability of established visual imagery has always provided an impetus for many an artist to use his entrepreneurial skills to develop lesser artistic talents. Ade­line Pohl, who worked as a gallery manager during the 1960s and 1970s, recalls visiting Ngatane's studio, where he had em­ployed three young ' artists' to mass-produce township scenes .

12. S. Lissoos, Johannesburg art and artists: selections from a century, Johannesburg: Johannesburg Art Gallery, 1986. Guenther, who had a keen interest in African art, im­migrated to South Africa from Germany in 1951. Through his enthusiasm for the art of Africa he was able to inspire many artists. He went on to successfully market his African-based aesthetic through the Amadlozi Group in 1963. This included Giuseppe Cattaneo, Sydney Kumalo, Cecily Sash, Cecil Skotnes and Edoardo Villa.

13. A. Nettleton, The traditional figurat i ve woodcarving of the Shona and Venda, unpublished doctoral thesis, University of the Witwatersrand, 1984, p. 15.

14. D. Brunn and J. Taylor (eds.), From South Africa: new writing, p hotographs and art, Triquarterly Magazine, special issue, Spring/Summer 1987, p. 255.

15. ibid , pp. 254 - 271.

16. M. Manaka, Echoes of African art, Johannesburg: Skotaville Press, 1987, p. 16.

17. "Fikile", Staffrider, vol. 3, no. 2, June 1980, pp. 24 - 25.

18. B. Ainslie, "The living eye: a letter to Ngatane, Motjuoadi, Maqhubela and Sithole", The Classic, vol. 1, no. 4, 1965, pp. 44 - 49.

19. J. Basson, "Zulu culture abroad", Bantu , vol. 23, no. 5, June 1976, p. 4.