Major travelling exhibition hits Pietermaritzburg

2008-02-01 00:00

THE main exhibition space at the Tatham Art Gallery is currently home to Cyprian Shilakoe Revisited - a major travelling exhibition, which is just over half way through a two-year tour around South Africa, visiting the country's major art galleries. It started at the Durban Art Gallery last year and has been curated by Jill Addleson, the gallery's former curator.

Addleson never met Shilakoe, who died in a car accident in 1972 at the tragically young age of 26. “From when I first saw his works, they wouldn't leave me alone,” she says. “They never left my mind. I remember standing in front of them as a young curator and it never occurred to me to speak to him and ask about them - of course, now I wish I had.”

She would most likely have seen his work at exhibitions of work from the art school at Rorke's Drift but it was only about five or six years ago that she decided the time had come to do a small exhibition on Shilakoe - printmaker, painter and sculptor.

And then, when MTN, which is the major corporate sponsor of the exhibition, invited Addleson to curate a full-scale exhibition on any artist of her choice, she chose Shilakoe.

Early death

Although he died so young, at the time of his death he had already exhibited in Europe and at the University of California - he was on the verge of becoming internationally known. But, probably because of his early death, as time went on, his name became less well known than the other three major artists - Azaria Mbatha, Dan Rakgoathe and John Muafangejo - who trained at the Art and Craft Centre at Rorke's Drift at roughly the same time.

There was a lack of biographical information on Shilakoe available to Addleson when she started, and she also had to track down as many of his works as she could. She started with galleries and then asked newspapers, particularly in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal, where Shilakoe had exhibited, to run stories asking if anyone who had any of his works or any information would contact her. For a couple of months, she heard nothing and then, out of the blue, she was contacted by Emily Mahlangu who said she was one of Shilakoe's sisters and that she had seen an article in the Daily Sun asking people to contact Addleson.

Addleson was astonished - in all the information she had seen, there had never been a mention of any siblings. From talking to Mahlangu, she began to build up a picture of Shilakoe's early life - he was one of eight children - and in particular his close relationship with his grandmother, something that had been of enormous importance to the artist and that had not been known by anyone who had earlier compiled biographical details about him.

After Addleson and Mahlangu had been in contact for some time, Mahlangu told her that, in the family home in Dennilton in Mpumalanga, there were still two sculptures and a painting her brother had done. This came as a bombshell to Addleson who, along with Philippa Hobbs, the curator of the MTN art collection, immediately set off to meet Mahlangu and see the works.

Exciting find

“It was one of the most exciting finds in 20th-century South African art,” says Addleson. “I've never heard of any other finds like it. Shilakoe is one of the country's great printmakers and, but for that find, we wouldn't have this whole aspect to his work.” They found, in the house that had stood empty for 20 years, two paintings, two clay sculptures and three wooden sculptures. There was also an etching plate, probably by Rakgoathe. It was decided to take the works to Johannesburg for safekeeping and restoration and, with the family's consent, they were later sold to an anonymous collector who immediately loaned them to the Durban Art Gallery - they are all now on the exhibition. With the money raised by the sale, Mahlangu has been able to start her own small business.

Addleson is delighted with the attention the travelling exhibition has drawn to the artist. She has been contacted by students who are keen to study Shilakoe and his work, particularly his extraordinary printmaking skills. “Insufficient attention has been paid to him in the past,” she says. “This had created a lot of interest, in the work and in the man.”

Several of the essays in the catalogue to Cyprian Shilakoe Revisited refer to the artist's premonition of his own death. In 1972, shortly before the car he was driving, with fellow Rorke's Drift artist Dan Rakgoathe as his passenger, left the road in the fatal accident, he went to see Linda Goodman of the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg and said: “I've come to say goodbye. I'm going to die but do not mourn because I will come back.” He also told Otto Lundbohm, his teacher at Rorke's Drift, that he was drawing a tombstone because he was going to die early. And his sister told Addleson that she had dreamt of seeing a glass coffin in the road, shortly before his death. She also said that Shilakoe had a strong belief in life after death.

Cyprian Shilakoe's death robbed South Africa of one of its most innovative and talented artists but now, in the exhibition at the Tatham Art Gallery, Jill Addleson has ensured that his memory and legacy continue.

• Cyprian Shilakoe Revisited runs at the Tatham Art Gallery until August 26. Gallery hours are 10 am to 6 pm, Tuesday to Sunday.

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