Michael Nkolo Maapola

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Biographical information

Michael Nkolo Maapola



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Hammanskraal, Pretoria

Michael Nkolo Maapola was born in 1949 in Hammanskraal, a township north of Pretoria, Transvaal (now Gauteng Province). He showed an interest in art as a child, and by the age of 17 he was working as an artist, predominately in watercolour. In 1970, he brought some of his paintings to the South African Association of Arts and attracted the attention of the artist Helge Jensen who invited Maapola to enrol at the Art Design School in Pretoria.

After his showing in 1970 at the New Signatures Exhibition in Pretoria’s Bank Gallery, Maapola held a solo exhibition in 1973. He participated in the Association of Arts’ North Transvaal Region exhibition in 1974, and again showed his work in a 1976 solo show at the Hotel Boulevard. In 1978, he had his third solo exhibition of drawings, held at the Association of the Arts’ Atelier Gallery in Pretoria.

Maapola’s exhibition opportunities were limited in part by his overtly political expressions. Critics described his work as expressionistic, with an emphasis on images of hardship and suffering in the vein of the artist Dumile Feni. A 1978 reviewer wrote that his pieces ‘carry a lot of impact and continue the story of the dejection of his people”¦ These drawings give you a glimpse – a rather candid glimpse of the other side.’ To another critic of this era, Maapola’s drawings ‘are compassionate and guiltless; intuitive reflections of his time and age – an unconscious attribute of a talented artist’.

An Australian diplomat, Diane Johnston, invited Maapola to show some of his pieces at a get-together in her apartment in 1975. Shortly after, Johnston was evicted and her apartment was damaged. For many years, Maapola was harassed by police and others. He was imprisoned many times. In 1989, his Hammanskraal studio was burnt, his years of work in paintings, drawings and sculptures was destroyed. Only Maapola’s apartheid-era pieces that survive today made it through in the collections of foreigners like Johnston who purchased many black artists’ work.

A few years after the end of apartheid, Maapola went to sell some works at the Hatfield post office in Pretoria. The pieces impressed manager Franco Frescura, who commissioned Maaposa to design a Freedom Day stamp for issue in April 1997. In the early 2000s, Diane Johnston and fellow Australian diplomat Bruce Haigh entrusted their collections of dozens of works by Maapola and other artists to the Pretoria Art Museum.

One of Maapola’s famous quotes include: “I was always involved in politics, and as an artist I was making statements through my art. I have lost count of how many times I was picked up and thrown into jail, which happened almost every time I did a painting. But as an artist I just couldn’t stop, because I loved my work so much.” – Michael Maapola, quoted in Monash News, December 2000.

• Bruce, D. (2000) ‘Artworks from the political struggle return to the new South Africa’, Monash News December.
• Duby, G. (1978) ‘Self taught artist has a fine eye’ Pretoria News 4 July.
• Fysh, R. (1978) ‘The art of the pure”¦’ Pretoria News 14 June.
• Ifa Lethu, ‘Michael Maapola’. Available on www.ifalethu.org.za. [Accessed 7 April 2015]
• Nettleton, A. and Hammond-Tooke, D, eds. (1989) African Art in Southern Africa: From Tradition to Township, A.D. Donker, Johannesburg.
• South Africa Association of the Arts (1978) SA Arts Calendar: Monthly Journal of the SA Association of Arts, vol. 3, no. 6, July.
• Wines, M. ‘In South Africa, the Return of the Repressed: Art by Apartheid-Era Black Artists Comes Home’, New York Times 8 May. Available on www.nytimes.com. [Accessed 7 April 2015]

Last updated : 23-Apr-2018

This article was produced for South African History Online on 14-May-2015