It is appropriate that the final large scale work completed by Sydney Kumalo before his death is a three-metre high bronze figure of a Zulu "imbongi" or praise singer, commissioned for the NAPAC Opera House in Durban, KwaZulu-Natal. Installed in 1987, the sculpture is appropriate because it is a modern rendering in bronze of an important figure in the court of the traditional Zulu kings and chiefs, a contemporary work which incorporates both African and European traditions of sculpture. This praise singer reveals the sculptor's love and respect for his traditional music and apostrophe and noble heritage, but also his urban sensibilities and admiration of contemporary international image-making. That it was commissioned for a large provincial theatre in 1980s South Africa, from a black artist, is a testament to the talent, stature and historical significance of Kumalo.
For all these reasons, the sculpture is a fitting memorial to the life and work of this great South African. His important and enduring influence is that of an artist and cultural hero who provided a powerful, positive black role model for young South Africans when such leadership was sorely needed. The history of South African art will continue to emphasise his significant influence on sculptors and students of his work, because he successfully challenged the stereotypes of the times into which he was born.
Sydney Kumalo was born in Sophiatown, Johannesburg, on 13 April 1935. His was one of the families who had to move out of the "white" city to the South Western Townships, or Soweto. Raised in Diepkloof and educated at Madibane High School, he took with him from old Sophiatown the curious and diverse heritage of its heyday. Art classes in the Catholic school, "Sof' town" blues and jazz, the vibrant street culture and growing defiance of its population of various races who were gradually forced out into separate race-group areas. So it was that these various aspects of his early life created for Kumalo a cultural mix of a Zulu family related to the traditional royal house; city schooling, nascent township music and lingo; growing urbanised political defiance and the deep-rooted Zulu pride and respect for the legends and ancient stories of a tribal people. This mix of old and new cultures was reinforced when he began his studies at the Polly Street Art Centre in 1953.
Kumalo began his career studying under Cecil Skotnes at Polly Street, and later working alongside him as a teacher. His potential and dedication led Skotnes to arrange for him to work with, and learn from, the sculptor Edoardo Villa. He always acknowledged these two as mentors and friends and quickly established his own visual language while learning a Western approach to technical skills from them. His own influence on their students and contemporaries was strengthened when the Polly Street School moved to the Jubilee Centre, where he replaced Skotnes as senior art instructor, a post he held from 1960 to 1964. His contribution to the shaping of a new art in twentieth-century South Africa was founded in this period.
Skotnes, Villa and Kumalo wanted to encourage their students to explore traditional African culture, but were aware that in their urban and township milieu their African heritage was not easily accessible. They equally accepted that Western European approaches to art-making and materials were also valid sources of style and subject, and that they could exclude none of them from the training at Polly Street. Skotnes and Villa had been careful not to prescribe matters of style or subject to Kumalo, a practice he carried over to his own students.
It was in Kumalo's choices of subject, his conscious decision to use universal frames of reference to combine various aspects of his wide range of sources, that he stood out from many of his peers and contemporaries. He learned well from his mentors, but immediately dedicated himself to steering his own individualistic career, and began to exert a powerful influence on his colleagues and students. The young sculptor quickly earned a reputation as a fine artist who could draw effectively on the many and diverse stimuli around him, without succumbing to the temptation of giving in to established ideas of what constituted "acceptable" styles of the times. He was a leader of the generation who managed to leave behind the forms of African curios, reject the European-held paternalism which encouraged notions of "naive" and "tribal" African art, and yet still hold fast to the core of the old legends and spiritual values of his people. He introduced these subjects into his bronze sculptures and pastel drawings, evolving his own expressive, contemporary African "style".
Kumalo held his first one-man exhibitions in South Africa in the early sixties, at the gallery of Egon Guenther, a noted German-born collector of fine traditional carvings, ritual objects and sculpture from many different African cultures. Again, the artist was encouraged to follow exacting engineering skills in modelling his clay on armatures, but exposed to a still wider set of historic African forms and subjects. He began casting the pieces he modelled in clay or plaster into bronze at the Renzo Vignali Artistic Foundry in Pretoria North. He worked throughout his life with its owners, the Gamberini family, and enjoyed learning the technical aspects of the casting process, refining his surfaces according to what he learned would produce the best results in metal.
He and Skotnes completed joint commissions for the architect Jan van Gemert in large Catholic churches at Kroonstad and Orlando during the late 1950s. He also occasionally exhibited his works along with those of the various sometime members of the Amadlozi (Spirit of our Ancestors) Group, a loose association formed during the time they exhibited with Guenther. Other members included Cecil Skotnes, Ezrom Legae, Edoardo Villa, Giuseppe Cattaneo and Cecily Sash. Nonetheless, Kumalo pursued his own goals of an individual, recognisably African modern idiom, and recognition apart from the group.
He had his work exhibited abroad, participating in prestige events such as the Venice and Sao Paulo Biennales, and managed to travel remarkably widely from 1963 onward. He simply did not acknowledge the strictures of apartheid, and actively sought his collaborators and fellow artists among people who refused to allow racial and ethnic divisions to colour their artistic perceptions. He won prizes and travel scholarships which demonstrated recognition of his prowess that was still infrequent for black South Africans. Kumalo came to admire the works of the Cubists, and of British sculptors Henry Moore and Lynn Chad-wick. He became noted for adapting shapes from them into his own figures. The success of his use of the then current monumental simplicity and purely aesthetic abstractions of natural forms has been emulated by many South African sculptors since the 1970s.
Once Kumalo gave up teaching in 1965, he rapidly established a full-time career in fine art, one of the first black artists to achieve this in South Africa. From 1969 onward, he allied himself with Linda Givon, founder of The Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg, where he exhibited regularly until his death in December 1988. Working with Givon also perpetuated his associations with his many friends of strong principles. Skotnes, Villa, Legae and later such peers from the Polly Street era as Leonard Matsoso, Durant Sihlali and David Koloa-ne have all exhibited at The Goodman Gallery, as have a number of Kumalo's former students. Givon strongly promoted the contemporary school of South African art which proclaimed intellectual freedom, ignored ethnicity in favour of internationally varied sources, and stood firmly for cultural resistance during the most repressive days of the country's apartheid past.
Kumalo thrived in this group, and its principles and loyalties are among the most significant qualities he passed on, along with artistic and technical skills, to the legions of admirers he gained among students, future artists, collectors and gallery visitors. His stature and influence were already well established, and continued to grow. His contemporaries spoke highly of him and quoted his ideas about contemporary African sculpture. Numerous essays, reviews, interviews and exhibition catalogues praised his aptitude at portraying Africa's unique spirituality; his understanding of the soul expressed in his work, which achieved great international recognition but never compromised his proud, bold vision of a renewed Africa.
His influence on the next generation of artists was of the utmost importance. Here was a man who had grown up knowing all the frustrations and deprivations of other black South Africans, but who had triumphed with dignity. His fervent belief in his destiny as an artist inspired others to develop their careers, and Kumalo lent credibility to the idea that his pupils and admirers might make a viable place for themselves as artists. He showed that they could contribute to a sense of worth in their communities, and led the way in the struggle to assert a resurgent pride in African culture. Kumalo, Legae, and later Fikile (Mokgadlela) and Dumile (Feni) were among the leading exponents of a new Afrocentric art, which provided a powerful voice for the anger and desperation of many South Africans. Kumalo especially felt the need to return to the spirit legends of ancient cultures to evoke his pride in his own heritage, and married these subjects to the sculptural traditions of the northern hemisphere, with increasing success. Despite his distinguished status in the art world, he was always aware of the tragedies of inequality in South Africa, and his later work reflected a more intense response to the state of the country.
The more Western-inflected "Seated Forms" and "Reclining Figures" increasingly made way for figures of spirited African authority, warrior-like images which used ancient associations to contemporary effect in works like "The Messenger", "Imbongi" and "Monument to Soweto". His ties to The Goodman Gallery facilitated the dissemination of his influence. Linda Givon's leading role in the arts community brought the political conscience and challenging concepts of the new South African artists into the public arena, at home and abroad, and she successfully marketed Kumalo as one of the most collectable leading sculptors of his time. His work can be found today in every major museum and academic collection in South Africa, and thanks to its wide exposure abroad, has been sold to museums and collectors in the United Kingdom, Switzerland, Holland, Israel, the United States of America, Canada, Germany, Colombia, Australia, Italy and Belgium. It is a great tribute to Kumalo that he was so celebrated in his lifetime, and his many bronzes in public collections will continue his influence for many generations.
A Polly Street colleague, later a professor of music, Khabi Mngoma, spoke at Sydney Kumalo's first solo exhibition in 1962. He observed that Kumalo was not a tribal artist, but an urban man; yet most importantly had not forgotten the imaginative and spiritual heritage of his people. He brought his subjects -powerful black matriarchs, defiant dancing joy on township streets, proud warriors, sensuously beautiful bodies, and mystically synthesised animal/human legendary creatures ”” to white urban audiences and rural black scholars alike. Each could find something familiar and something curiously new in his forms, and the demand for his work has not waned. Young contemporary artists such as Vincent Baloyi and Peter Shange count him as their single strongest influence. Percy Konqobe, one of today's leading South African sculptors, credits Kumalo as his inspiration, mentor, teacher, and source of legends which motivate much of his work.
Kumalo maintained his values of artistic integrity, loyal friendship and political principles to the end of his life, as evidenced by the many obituaries which appeared after his death. It is significant that longtime friends and leaders of the arts community were among those who spoke at his funeral, including Cecil Skotnes, Linda Givon, Ezrom Legae and Bill Ainslie of the Johannesburg Art Foundation.
Had Sydney Kumalo not pursued his own goals with such vigour, today's artists and students would lack a vital role model, and the visual arts in South Africa would be so much the poorer. Percy Konqobe believes that Kumalo gave back to his people "the essence of Africa, the beauty of African spiritual power". A great legacy indeed.
Please Note This biography is a modified extract from the following source: Nicol, M. (1999) “Sydney Kumalo” from They Shaped our Century: The Most Influential South Africans of the Twentieth Century. Human and Rousseau .p.451