Onse Artist in District Six

Outlaw artist Sandra McGregor understood the vast vistas of storytelling outside of the then much-hyped oral literature and the glam offered by DRUM magazine and its genius writers such as Can Themba and Blake Modisane. Afrikans have over the years succeeded in having their knowledge transferred from one generation to the next through campfire tales – that was before someone exposed the pen and paper to them. Folk tales have survived various assaults since nobody had the power to burn – literally every Black person with a story embedded in their mind. And when they started using various mediums such as photography (Alf Khumalo), sculpting, painting etc the apartheid wheels came off.

Thus, when Sandra McGregor saw District Six – a mixed residential area that had defied any attempt by the apartheid government to divide by race – and not rule the majority population of South Africa she saw a canvas hungry for her oil and brush. Over many years she recorded life in this ‘controversial’ part of the Cape, including the day the bulldozers came with instructions to bring to an end a social experiment gone gory.

It was 1962 when she settled there as an artist – almost an outsider in a community that was MADE IN PRETORIA. Dolores Fleischer, who authored Onse Artist in District Six made it her mission to trace the route that Sandra took, her muses, her rags to riches story, her inspiration, her uncelebrated talent and the probable reasons she felt at home at District Six.

When I have to review work as disarming as Onse Artist in District Six I am confronted with the reality that the best story of South Afrika’s artistic excellence, including its place in the world has not yet been told. The Van Goghs, Picassos and friends don’t have nothing on our artists. What with the robbery that took place during apartheid years – some through curators who took in their own possession classic works by South Afrikan exiled artists such as Gerald Sekoto and the raping of works by sculptors Noria Mabasa and Jackson Hlungwani to the point where they adorn majestic buildings outside of this country – bought at a pittance.

Paraphrasing what Steve Biko said about a people with two versions of history, Fleischer not only makes this poignant point to stick out throughout her biography of McGregor but she also uses it as a political tool to interrogate the past. “The individual spirit and its artistic expression can never be destroyed”, a blurb on the back cover makes that point very clear.

The destruction of District Six aimed at discouraging, through action human disregarding of the social engineering that was taking place in their mist, mirrors that of Sophiatown. The architects of poverty’s attempt to render history a lie by destroying the inspiration that ended up on McGregor’s canvass is not lost to Fleischer’s narrative which accompanies the paintings and the profile of biography artist.

Like The Artist in the Garden – the Quest for Moses Tladi by Angela Read Lloyd, the sting in the tail of these works is the fact that they are bios written to celebrate triumph of the human spirit – against odds larger than physical and legislative hurdles.

This is a beautiful book that will be useful more the day South Afrika answers back to critics of the modernity (contemporary claim) of its artistic landscape.

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