South African Expressionist painter
“My work is based on my experience of South Africa as a 'vast and terrifying prison' - an experience which even now, after a decade of democracy, still haunts me."
Albert Adams was born At the Crown Gold Mine near Johannesburg on 23 June 1929. Adams was a child of Indian and Cape Coloured parents. His father had emigrated from India to South Africa in 1911. His mother, Emma Caroline, was a coloured South African who made a living as a domestic worker and gave him pencils and paper and he taught himself to draw. At the age of four, after his parents separated, Adams moved to his grandmother in Cape Town with his mother and sister.
While living in Cape Town, Adams attended Arsenal Road Primary School, and later the Livingstone High School in Claremont. It was here that his teachers noticed his talent for drawing, and where he was encouraged by the head master, Mr. Roberts, to take art as a subject under a Mr. Esterhuysen.
Adams’ time at Livingstone was a defining period in his life, as he came under the influence of some of the teaching staff. These staff members were leading coloured intellectuals at the time, and prominent members of the Non European Unity Movement. Adams excelled at school, edited the school magazine and became Head Boy. At Livingstone, he also befriended fellow student Peter Clarke, who was from a poor working class background and would later become one of the leading artists and poets in the country. Adams and Clarke were to become lifelong friends.
After completing his Matric (Grade 12), the highly political young Adams applied to study at the University of Cape Town’s Michaelis School of Fine Arts, but due to the university’s racial discriminatory policy he was turned down. Instead Adams went to a teacher training college, paying his way by working as a low-rent department store sign-writer. Like many talented non-white artists he tried to make it as a sign writer, painting signs in the department stores of Cape Town in order to continue his studies at the teacher training college. Adams was considered to be too dark to get a job in the larger shops. Instead he found a position with a small trader who couldn’t afford to give him a salary and paid only his train fare. In the late 1940’s, he began attending art classes at St Peters school in District Six, which was founded by David Copeland. Albert invited his friend Peter Clarke to join the classes, and the pair became an integral part of the vibrant political and cultural scene in Cape Town.
Adams then enrolled for a teaching degree at Hewat Teacher Training College where he became head of the National Union of South African Students. Soon, Adams became actively involved in the anti-apartheid movement. After being arrested twice, Adams realised that the South African political situation was rapidly deteriorating, and applied to universities in England. These universities included Durham, Oxford and London. He was accepted to all of these institutions, but was advised by Oxford to attend the Slade School of Art in London.
One of his drawings, a head of Christ, was spotted by a German client, who, with his Jewish partner, was a refugee from Hitler’s Germany. Recognising Adams’ talent, they helped him apply to the Slade School of Fine Art in London. Adams moved to London with the help from his two German friends and supporters, Baron Rudolf von Freiling and Siegfried Eick. He studied in London from 1953 to 1957, when he was awarded a scholarship to the Munich School of Art and then spent some time in the Salzburg studio of expressionist painter Oskar Kokoschka. He remained in Europe for the next two years, first in Munich and then in Salzburg where he studied under expressionist artist Oskar Kokoschka. Adams and Kokoschka became close friends.
Adams returned to Cape Town in the late 1950’s and held his first solo exhibition at the Argus gallery in 1959. One of the most groundbreaking works he produced around this time was the ‘South Africa 1959’ triptych. The work anticipates an apocalypse of apartheid that would traumatise the country for another 35 years (figure one), and is now part of the Johannesburg Art Gallery. When “South Africa 1959” was first shown in Cape Town in the year it was made, a recorded speech sent by Kokoschka was played at the opening. His work “South Africa 1959” was known as the ‘South African Guernica’ and was influenced by Sir Francis Bacon. His oil-on-board triptych bears the same relation to the horrors that occurred in Sharpeville as Pablo Picasso’s masterpiece does to the bombing of the Basque town some 20 years before. “South Africa 1959” is not a literal representation of an event – Picasso never went to Guernica, and Adams painted his picture before infamous shootings in the Transvaal had happened – but it does something that photography cannot do. It makes the horrors of war universal, finds in maimed limbs and howling mouths a history that repeats itself. The job of the artist, Kokoschka said, was to extrapolate from the particular to the universal, ‘to see the misery we make on earth. The task of the artist is to see’.
Apart from his monumental work “South Africa 1959”, which is in Johannesburg Art Gallery, Albert’s work rarely engaged with the issue of apartheid in an obvious, literal way. Instead he often explored human violence and oppression as part of the universal human condition. Prints such as “Cell” and “The Prisoner” may have had a personal resonance for Albert as three of his cousins served long prison sentences for political activities, one of them with Nelson Mandela on Robben Island.
After the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960, Adams and many other South Africans left the country to settle in London. Adams remained adamant that this was not a political act. He lived in Camden Town with his partner, Edward Glennon, from 1967 till the end of his life. In the UK, he taught at a number of high schools, and in 1979 began teaching Art History at City College in London. He held this post for the next 18 years.
Identity and South Africa were always central themes for Adams, who said: ‘My work is based on my experience of South Africa as a vast and terrifying prison—an experience which, even now, after a decade of democracy, still haunts me.’
When liberation movements were unbanned in 1990, Adams made regular trips to South Africa to visit his family, and participated in artists’ workshops. Apart from producing “South Africa 1959”, Adams’ last attempt at living in his own country in the late 1950’s had confirmed that there was no place for black or mixed race artists. Like his hero, Francisco de Goya, he saw the horrors of war and repression as generic rather than specific. Towards the end of his life Adams was particularly drawn to the image of the ape, a subject that recurs again and again in his paintings and also in his works on paper. A group of theses, together with over 70 drawings, prints and canvases covering his entire career, has been recently given by Glennon, through the Art Fund, to the University of Salford. Salford’s College of Arts has a well-known printmaking course and is popular with South African students. The collection includes “Ape Baring Teeth, Man Carrying an ape” and “Ape on a Skeletal figure – Darfur”. According to Art Quarterly, on one level, these works could scarcely be more private, or more autobiographical. When Albert’s mother, Emma Adams, left Johannesburg in 1934, she bought her small son a toy monkey to keep him entertained during the long journey back to Cape Town. In one sense, the ape telling the viewer that Adams outgrew his past; in another, he did not.
But the story of the series is also a wider one, of apartheid South Africa; of the horrors of Darfur and the Holocaust and Guantanamo; of human inhumanity. “Man carrying an Ape” is one of a sequence of etched aquatints in which the monkey (or, perhaps, baboon) grows ever bigger, the man on whose back it sits more and more bowed. The Goya-esque images have the feel of those evolutionary charts in which the apes learn to walk upright and use tools, the nimbly moves from homo erectus to homo sapiens. In Adams’ “Ape series”, though, nothing evolves. Man carries his ape-ness with him, is always and only an animal.
For all the evident horror in the etchings, there is something carnivalesque. “Ape on Skeleton” is instantly followed by “Skeleton on Ape”; which of their two characters is the villain of the piece is a moot point. In one of his other paintings, “Celebration 2004”, now in the collection of the National Gallery in Cape Town, a legless figure in evening dress and a wheelchair sits in front of a red wall. His make-up face shows him to be a reveler in the Kaapse Klopse, still known to English speaking Capetonians as the Coon Carnival.
Towards the end of 2006 he was diagnosed with lung cancer and passed away on 31st December 2006. He donated his works to the Iziko South African National Gallery, and a retrospective of his work was opened at the gallery on 19th July 2008.
• Bruce-Dick, T. (2007). Albert Adams Obituary “Albert Adams: Painter inspired by South Africa”. Available at: theindependent.co.uk [Accessed 25 February 2009]
• Darwent, C. (2012). “From Cape Town to Camden Town”. Winter issue. London: Art Quarterly.
• Martin, M. and Dolby, J. (eds) (2008) Retrospective Catalogue. Albert Adams: Journey on a Tightrope. Published by Iziko South African National Gallery.
• Smetek, N. and Phillips. B. (2012, June 30). Albert Adams (1929-2006) [Press Release]. Available at: www.thesouthafrican.com [Accessed 9 July 2015].
• Kuper, J. (2009). Adams delicate balance [Online]: Available at: mg.co.za [Accessed 9 July 2015]