Polly Street III

The undoing of Sidney Kumalo

In this third episode Uhuru looks at the influence, for better or worse of the Western cultured teacher on the artworks of the Native and how such influence was calculated to entice an adoration of foreign aesthetic at the expense of the local

Sidney Kumalo’s work in the early sixties, most done before and subsequent to the Amadlozi group’s first exhibition in 1963, show the Africanness that was encouraged by Guenther and Skotnes. In 1960 Kumalo made three terracotta heads constructed in cubist fashion. Later between 1967 and 1969 he made the Elongated Head which embodied the abstraction of form that is reminiscent of African forms. The elongated nose becomes a rhythmical, vertical accent that is repeated in the cheek-bones. The mouth is a bisected disk, designed to give the face a traditionally sad expression. Eyebrows have spread down the cheeks, encompassing eyes and ending in a triangular incision below the nose so that the effect of a visor is given” (Our Art III: 70). This sad expression translated into the suffering that non-whites in South Africa were being subjected to. Works like High Shoulders of 1966 and Praying woman of 1960 show this abstraction and distortion of form. The Praying woman has long torso and small head with the characteristic terracotta mask features. The short, stout legs are also features of classic African sculpture. Most of his works show the modernist abstraction that he was exposed to in his apprenticeship with Skotnes and encouragement from Guenther. Musician Khabi Mngoma who spoke at the opening of Kumalo’s first solo exhibition, said, “Kumalo, living in an urban milieu, trained by white teachers, was not a ‘tribal artist’, but neither was he an artist who had forgotten or chosen to forget the imaginative and spiritual heritage of his people” (Images of steel: 132). This conjures the manifesto of the Amadlozi Group. This Africanness that was clearly evident in his sculptures was a by-product of the modernism encouraged by Skotnes and Guenther.

One cannot help but point out the similarities between some of Esrom Legae’s sculpture and that of Sidney Kumalo, and ultimately Edoardo Villa. Legae started attending classes regularly at the Polly Street recreation centre later on in 1962. The teachers at that time were both Skotnes and Kumalo. Legae was constantly drawing and he remembers Skotnes commenting that his drawing was that of a sculptor. Skotnes even insisted that Legae starts modeling sculptures. When Kumalo left the centre in 1964, Skotnes felt that Legae would be his new assistant (Images of Steel: 135). Legae met Egon Guenther as he frequented the centre to have informal dictatorial discussions in which he shared his perceptions on art and professionalism with the artists working there (2004: 48). He later joined the Amadlozi briefly. Him too, like Kumalo, had his works cast in bronze for his solo exhibition by Guenther in 1966. Although Legae states that he was not consciously influenced by African sculpture and Guenther states that “he absorbed the spirit of the African pieces without copying them”, one can clearly see the modernist abstraction and influence of African Nok mask in Legae’s sculptures. In his work, Head with vertebrae of 1966, the stylization of facial features recalls that of African carving and sculpture. “The elongation and simplification of Head with Vertebrae is reminiscent of the phallic form of some African carvings of heads in the collection of Egon Guenther and it is significant that Legae had been introduced to him at the time and had seen his collection of central and West African art” (Images of Steel: 136). In works like Head of a wise man of 1965, one can see the direct borrowings from African sculpture. He made a series of these heads and masks in the earl sixties that were reminiscent of the terracotta masks from West Africa. These heads are executed in cubist style and modernist abstraction. The distortion of form and animistic features quote those of classical African sculpture. Whether Legae was influenced by Guenther’s elaborate collection of African artefacts from West Africa remains unknown, but the modernism in their Africanness cannot be denied.

Although it is debatable whether Skotnes actually did encourage his students towards a particular form and style of art, one thing that stands out towards proving this notion is the similarities in training, medium, iconography, and the encouragement from Guenther in forms of solo exhibitions, casting of sculpture in bronze and their involvement in the Amadlozi group. “Only recently have questions been asked by writers like Steven Sack and David Koloane about problems associated with offering a predominantly western form of art making to black artists in the context of Apartheid” (1996: 65). It would seem that in such a context there arises power struggles, preference and exposure. Egon Guenther was dictatorial in his discussion of art and if he did not like your works and they did not meet his international standards for sale purposes, you would not have a solo exhibition in his gallery. If Skotnes did not see the progress that he sought after, that is, art that embodies the essence of Africa, then you would probably not be appointed as his assistant. Legae recalls that Skotnes would never tell students how to do something, but was rather intent on ‘making people think with their eyes’ (1996: 70). I think this idea of a teacher encouraging students to think with their eyes is euphemistic of commanding them to learn from what they see. Being influenced by what you see is partly the premise of art but when this is set against the backdrop of Apartheid, socio-economics and power relations apparent in teacher-student relationship, especially when the teacher is white and the students black, the students cannot help but work towards the direction the teachers are leading them. And when the dealer who shows interest in the artists’ work is dictatorial, then the artist has to deal with his demands and those of the market at large.

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