Revolution through art

2010-01-30 00:00

AMONG the many works in Durban Art Gallery’s newest exhibition, “Under the Umdoni Tree: The Art of Omar & Ebrahim Badsha ”, are a couple of nude studies. These works are both unique and historically significant because the white model in the drawings was captured on canvas by an Indian artist in 1950s South Africa.

The artist in question was Ebrahim Badsha, one of a barely known group of artists who defied the dictates of the National Party to get together at the YMCA in Beatrice Street, Durban, for art classes established by white liberals in the city and run by the likes of Nils Solberg, the son of a German missionary and a former chairman of the Natal Society of Arts.

The BICA (Bantu, Indian, and Coloured Art Association) group was, Omar Badsha believes, important because it offered arts training to black artists at a time when they would not have been accepted as members of white art organisations.

“They raised their own funds and helped each other buy materials. A large number of people who came through the group were teachers trying to get their degrees in fine art, or people interested in being artists and teachers … and it was mixed,” he added.

“The Nationalists’ idea had been to have Africans in their township, Indians in theirs and Coloureds in theirs, but the students decided that simply wouldn’t work, and decided to meet together. This exhibition is about that space, a ghetto where a new identity was defined by its wri­ters, artists, playwrights, musicians and revolutionary activists.”

Among the artists connected to the BICA group were Selby Mvusi and Eric Ngcobo.

Speaking to me at the Durban Art Gallery earlier this week, Omar, a celebrated artist and photographer and founder of SA History Online, said he hoped that by showing his father’s work, he would be able to encourage other artists from the BICA era to speak about their experiences and have their work catalogued.

He is also hoping that many of the people who were given paintings and drawings by his father will get in touch with him, so that he can make a permanent record of Ebrahim’s work. “My father gave a lot of his work away,” Omar explained. “He did a whole lot of portraits and landscapes that we can’t find … [for example] he was very friendly with Chief [Albert] Luthuli and did a portrait of him in the late ’50s, but we don’t know where it is.”

The title of the exhibition came to Omar in November 2009 when he began thinking about his former home in Douglas Lane, at the heart of Durban’s Warwick Avenue/Grey Street complex.

“At the back of our home was an umdoni tree. It grew from a seed that my grandmother planted in the early 1920s … my father, my aunts, Uncle Moosa, my brothers and sisters, and many of my cousins were born in Douglas Lane, under the shade of the umdoni tree.” Almost all of the work in the show was done on the property.

• “ Under the Umdoni Tree: The Art of Omar & Ebrahim Badsha” can be seen at the Durban Art Gallery until March 21.

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