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A Resilient Visionary: Poetic Expressions of David Koloane

A Resilient Visionary: Poetic Expressions of David Koloane, which opens at Standard Bank Gallery on 4 October 2019, surveys the fantastic legacy of Dr David Nthubu Koloane. The exhibition was originally planned to celebrate his 80th birthday last year, and Creative Feel mourns this gifted, humble and giving artist who passed away in June 2019. 

Standard Bank Gallery Resilient Visionary Poetic Expressions David Nthubu Koloane
David Koloane in 2016 All images courtesy Goodman Gallery

Dr David Nthubu Koloane was not only an important figure in South Africa’s visual arts landscape but also a critical voice that has shaped its contemporary moment. With over five decades working in the visual arts space, Koloane had an illustrious artistic career that cemented him as an influential figure in visual arts but also legendary in the role he played in creating space for black artists. 
     Curated by Thembinkosi Goniwe, A Resilient Visionary: Poetic Expressions of David Koloane consists of a selection of Koloane’s artworks, to appreciate his incredible contribution to the advancement of South African visual arts during and after apartheid. Modelled as a pictorial monograph, it sheds panoramic insight on his creative and intellectual trajectory. Foregrounded is Koloane’s artistic practice, particularly his aesthetic inclinations and visual vocabulary with which he interrogates the socio-political and existential human condition. Thus, the significance of his unrelenting search for a visual language that is expressive, evocative and poetic in articulating his preoccupation with the urban life of Johannesburg, a disparate city constitutive of suburbia and townships. This is a Johannesburg that Achille Mbembe and Sarah Nuttall dub the elusive metropolis, owing to its enduring restlessness, influx, mutation, affluence, indigence, ambivalence and challenges.

Standard Bank Gallery Resilient Visionary Poetic Expressions David Nthubu Koloane
David Koloane, United States of Africa, 2001. Mixed media on canvas.

In prioritising Koloane’s artistic practice, this exhibition investigates his discursive sensibilities characteristic of sociopolitically reflective modernism whose imagery intersects scenes of everyday rituals, distortive figurations and abstractive forms, all of whose renditions give life to novel worlds of artistic representations. Images of cityscapes, townships, street life, jazz musicians, traffic jams, ladies of the night, migration, refugees, dogs and birds populate his representations. Imaginatively treated, through the medium of painting, drawing, assemblage, printmaking and mixed media, they are a blend of exuberant and sombre, discernible and opaque pictorial narratives. Such are the poetic expressions that make him a distinct visionary wrestling with what Nadine Gordimer aptly captures: ‘Koloane’s interpretation of urban life has struggled and triumphed in finding different visions and modes, techniques, materials to express the huge oppressions, upheavals, hard-won freedoms that have been epitomised in our cities’ sprawl. Urban life has been the epicentral evidence of South Africa’s 20th century and contemporary history.’
     Koloane’s silhouette of Joburg is instantly recognisable, showcasing daily life and the vibrancy of the city as he saw it. 

Standard Bank Gallery Resilient Visionary Poetic Expressions David Nthubu Koloane
David Koloane, Night of the Mongrels, 2015. Oil paint on canvas.

Of significance is Koloane’s struggle and triumph, not only in search of a poetic and reflective visual grammar, but also what it means to be modern black subjects under apartheid and democracy. That Koloane has lived through these dispensations tells much about his experience and knowledge regarding the precarious state of being or nonbeing, black and human, dehumanised and rehumanised. These existential factors of being-black-in-the-world, in Chabani Manganyi’s phrase, are the constitutive phenomena of his creative and intellectual work. Thus, his labour of art and ideas are the driving thesis of this exhibition, which meditates on Koloane as a resilient visionary in the sense Ricky Burnett considers him ‘stubborn, resolute, caring, committed – a kind of painter’s conscience.’ There is also Koloane’s ‘quiet dignity’ and ‘sustained integrity’, not to mention his ‘brave refusal to turn away from the everyday and its ordeal.’ To construe Koloane as a resilient visionary is also to recognise and celebrate his pioneering work in writing essays, curating exhibitions, participating in conferences, giving talks, teaching and mentoring young and established artists at a time when such vocations were restricted to white South Africans. 

Standard Bank Gallery Resilient Visionary Poetic Expressions David Nthubu Koloane
David Koloane, Saxophone no.1, 2016. Mixed media on canvas.

Most important to Koloane were his initiatives co-establishing the first Black Art Gallery in 1977, the Thupelo experimental workshop in 1985 and the Bag Factory Artists’ Studios in 1991. Koloane tutored at the Federated Union of Black Artists (FUBA) in 1979 and became the head of the fine art section and gallery from 1985 to 1990. Collaborations with different people across the racial divide and national boundaries are key to Koloane’s accomplishments. Thupelo and Bag Factory are two examples that brought together artists from different geo-cultural backgrounds around the world. Diverse creatives, thinkers and agents gathered, in James Baldwin’s axiom, to break bread through art making, dialogue and friendship. These projects are an exemplary discourse of grey areas, implying the interaction of different races in a context of racial segregation, a discourse that Koloane has advocated since the 1970s, for instance, working with Bill Ainslie at the Johannesburg Art Foundation.
     Comprehending the meaning and substantial impact of these endeavours illuminate the significance of Koloane’s mission and vision, not only locally but internationally too. His art has been featured in international exhibitions and projects such as the Triangle Network, having also completed a Museum Studies Diploma at the University of London in 1986.

Standard Bank Gallery Resilient Visionary Poetic Expressions David Nthubu Koloane
David Koloane, The Journey 15, 1998. Acrylic and oil pastel on paper.

Koloane also served several administrative roles as the director of Bag Factory and was a member of numerous committees and boards, whose varied tasks ranged from jurying art commissions and competitions to advising and deliberating on policies and allocation of funds, resources, etc. All of these endeavours attest to his activism and contribution that are not bound to South Africa. Koloane co-curated the 1982 Culture and Resistance Arts Festival in Botswana, and co-ordinated and co-curated the 1990 Zabalaza Festival in London. In 1995, he curated the South African section of Seven Stories about Modern Art in Africa, in London. He was one of the delegates that extended the Triangle Network workshops to other African countries, by setting up in 1988 the Pachipamwe workshop in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, which in turn gave birth to Thapong Workshop in Botswana in 1989. Such endeavours are also indicative of Koloane’s legacy, one that is rich, profound and expansive. It is a legacy spanning more than five decades of perseverance and sustained creative productivity and intellectual engagement. He carried out these endeavours living and working in Johannesburg whilst partaking in the global arena of culture.

Standard Bank Gallery Resilient Visionary Poetic Expressions David Nthubu Koloane
David Koloane, Doves, 2008. Mixed media on paper.

These endeavours, in effect, bear testament to Koloane as both witness and participant in the ongoing transformative struggle to make the (art) world a more hospitable place for black artists, particularly young black artists whom he mentored throughout his life. Not to mention his particular focus on the national and cultural struggle ‘to bestow on South Africa the greatest possible gift’, which Steve Biko defined as ‘a more human face’. It is this gift that Koloane has shared with the world at large, a gift he continued to espouse until his passing at the age of 81 years. And it is his creative and intellectual gifts in the form of artworks and written excerpts that this exhibition presents.
     A Resilient Visionary: Poetic Expressions of David Koloane is on at the Standard Bank Gallery from 4 October to 6 December 2019. The Standard Bank Gallery – located on the corner of Simmonds and Frederick streets in central Johannesburg – offers free, safe undercover parking on the corner of Harrison and Frederick streets. Gallery hours: Mondays to Fridays from 8:00 to 16:30, and Saturdays from 9:00 to 13:00. Entrance to the exhibition is free.
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