Polly Street I

Western contact tainted the African artist?!

Uhuru Phalafala plays the Devil’s advocate in a highly contested territory of Western vs Afrikan arts, from both the artist, exhibitor, curator and buyer’s perspective

Sidney Kumalo and Esrom Legae were both products of the Polly Street Recreation Centre’s art workshops run by Cecil Skotnes in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. Kumalo and, briefly, Legae were included in the Amadlozi group put together by Egon Guenther in the 1960’s. This essay strives to show how these two artists’s Africanness was, to a certain extent, a by-product of the modernism encouraged by their teachers and dealers. I will do this by exploring how these artists were influenced by their teacher, Skotnes, to produce art that was considered to ‘embody the spirit of Africa’, and by their dealer, Guenther, to produce art that was ‘authentically African’ for the international Western market. I will start by giving a brief history of Polly Street, Cecil Skotnes and Egon Guenther, then of the two artists, their work and involvement in the Amadlozi group.

Polly Street was a recreational centre in downtown Johannesburg at the bottom of Polly Street. It was established in 1949. It launched its first classes in 1950 and “…neither the students nor the voluntary teachers dreamt that a school with such a modest beginning was destined to play a seminal role in the history of South Africa’s visual arts” (Miles, 2004: 16). It was then named the Polly Street Adult Education Center by the city council and held art classes once a week on Wednesday evening from five till seven. These were times chosen carefully to avoid the curfew that prohibited black people from ‘roaming’ the urban streets after ten o’clock. The first classes were attended by less than fifteen people and the centre had four voluntary instructors. The center did not only provide art but also offered activities like boxing, dancing and singing. Eleanor Lolimer, one of the first four voluntary instructors, told The Star newspaper, after the first class, that there were many critics of the endeavor to teach Africans “to paint in the European style instead of encouraging their own approach to art” (25 July 1949). This idea would live to be the debate central to this notion of African artist having white trainers and dealers. As David Koloane believed:

Black art exists almost exclusively by virtue of white liberals’ benign interest. Teachers are white, art administrators are white, gallery directors are white, and so are the critics and buyers” (Seven Stories).

Using this assertion as a point of departure, I will now look at Sidney Kumalo and Esrom Legae’s works and assess how their training and subsequent works were a by-product of the modernism encouraged by their teachers and dealers.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Dear Commentator

Kasiekulture encourages you to leave a comment and sensitize others about it. However due to spammers filling this box with useless rhetoric that has nothing to do with our posts we have now decided that to comment you have to go to our Facebook Page titled THE Kasiekulture BLOG. We will not authorise any comments. Apologies for the inconvenience.