Bongiwe Dhlomo was born on 25 June 1956 in Vryheid, KwaZulu-Natal, and grew up in nearby Bergville. Dhlomo matriculated in 1974 from St Chad's School in Ladysmith, and continued to study and received her National Secretarial Certificate at Inanda Seminary. She then found employment in the personnel department at the Tongaat Sugar Company, where she stayed for 2 years. From 1978 to 1979, she studied printmaking at the Evangelical Lutheran Church Art and Craft Centre at Rorke’s Drift, and received a Fine Arts Diploma.
Dhlomo then worked at the African Art Centre in Durban from 1980 to 1983. In mid-1983 she moved to the Grassroots Gallery in Westville, Durban, but by the end of that year she relocated to Johannesburg where she curated exhibitions at the FUBA Gallery until mid-1985. She then moved on to the Goodman Gallery in Hyde Park, and was later appointed as coordinator of the Alexandra Art Centre, where she remained from 1986 to 1988.
Dhlomo was also involved in the Thupelo Arts Project from 1988 to 1992 and was the Outreach and Development program coordinator for the African Institute for Contemporary Art, and served as Director from 1996 to 1998. For three years until 1996, she helped organise the first Johannesburg Biennale. In 1998, she founded Zakhe Arts in Alexandra, Johannesburg.
In May 2000 she was appointed as project coordinator of Metro Mall in Johannesburg, and was involved in the Architectural Artworks Program regarding the construction of the new Constitutional Court. She serves as Board Member on several selection committees, including the South African National Art Gallery and the Johannesburg Art Gallery.
As a South African printmaker, art administrator and opponent of apartheid, Dhlomo grounds her art on the socialist-realist and political. Her linocuts and woodcuts explore a wide range of issues ranging from political events such as the 1976 Soweto uprising, to mere portrayals of the daily life of working South African women.
However, Dhlomo does not limit the objectives of her artwork to presenting narrative scenes to the public. Her aim is to give voice to black women's rural and urban histories, as well as to present South African life as seen from their perspective.
Dhlomo had the following to say of the political or ‘protest’ nature of her work, and how it has changed post 1994:
“I told my children that if I had not become an artist I am convinced I would have been a good writer. On second thoughts I feel as a writer I may not have been able to do with books what I am able to do through art. I told them that I want to record our history the same way as a writer. I have seen my art communicating faster than any book could have.
I did not agree when I was labeled a "struggle artist" in the 1980s because I did not hear that term used for writers and musicians. I feel that I am documenting history, and if it is seen by people during the time of struggle it talks to them then, but if the same work is seen by people during the ten years of democracy celebrations, it should be able to communicate something else to them, like, "Never, never, never again.... I always wondered what happens to soldiers at the end of a war. I have read and heard that the soldiers suffer postwar traumas. The vocabulary used by artists during the struggle for liberation does not have to change completely because the situation is not completely changed.
From 1989 - the release of the political leaders from Robben Island and the events that followed--there was euphoria and celebrations and artists naturally joined in. It was the end of the war. I know that we fought and won the war but as an artist I am now faced with the many battles that confront me in South Africa. The role of the artist has not changed: The circumstances have altered. The tools are still the same but the call is to utilize our art as a building block for reconstruction. In wars and battles there are casualties and as such the new vocabulary that the artist is utilizing now may just leave out scores of people. The digital age is leaving out not only communities but even artists themselves. National art institutions are having to reinvent themselves in order to be relevant to the new audiences. They need to undergo training in order to carry their regular audiences into the twenty-first century”
Appreciation for Bongiwe Dhlomo's exhibitions has not been limited to South Africa. Her work was also displayed in West Germany and Sweden, and she is particularly famous for her solo exhibition entitled "Images of South Africa", in Gaborone, Botswana, in 1986 (figures 1 and 2). She was awarded first prize for Graphic Art at the UZ African Arts Festival in 1985 and followed this with another award for Visual Arts from the Woza Afrika Foundation in New York, in the USA. Her most recent exhibition, "No.4: Doors, Grafitti, Walls and All", was inspired by the solitary confinement cells in the former Johannesburg central prison complex.
Dhlomo is married to fellow fine artist Kagiso Mautloa. She works currently as an arts consultant.
• “Art and politics in a changing South Africa: Bongi Dhlomo in conversation with Michael Godby” [online] Available at: thefreelibrary.com [Accessed 24 April 2009]