Jo Thorpe was born in 1921, in Fishoek in Cape Town. She grew up in Mooi River and completed her high school education at Pietermaritzburg Girls High School. Jo then left home to drive trucks for the South African Army during World War II. After this she worked as a secretary at Michaelhouse School in Balgowan, and in London.
In 1959 she was appointed regional secretary of the South African Institute of Race Relations in Durban. During that year she became involved in a small beadwork project that led to her interest in African art and to her starting what became the African Arts Centre in 1963. Jo remained at the Arts Centre for thirty years, and in 1981 took on the job of full time co-coordinator at the Centre.
In 1984 she turned the Arts Centre into an autonomous, non-profit, development program. Over the decades Jo showed dozens of exhibitions for artists, brokered hundreds of deals with galleries and held workshops and classes aimed at promoting African art and artists. Through the Arts Centre she became an expert in African art and was widely consulted on it. She has been asked to be selector for several exhibitions. In 1983 she was nominated for the Art Critics Award for her contribution to art in Kwa-Zulu Natal.
In 1988 she was nominated for the Star Woman of the Year Award. In 1989, she co-authored Ways of Seeing, Ways of Buying: Images of Tourist Art and Culture Expression in Contemporary Beadwork, a chapter in Anitra Nettleton and David Hammond -Tooke’s book African Art in Southern Africa / From Tradition to Township. She also authored several journal and magazine articles.
When she retired in 1991, Jo remained a consultant to the African Arts Centre and spent the last years of her life based in the Centre for Social and Development Studies at the University of Natal, writing its history.
Jo Thorpe died on the 18 February 1995.