Shaping SA’s art history

2008-01-31 00:00

OPENING on February 7 at 3.30 pm in the Tatham Art Gallery’s Schreiner Gallery, with a second opening at the same time the following day in the Georgetown Library, is a new exhibition, Edendale Excels.

This is a celebration of four artists from Edendale. The guest speaker at the opening will be Jannie van Heerden, senior subject advisor in visual art at the Department of Education.

This exhibition is a joint initiative by the Greater Edendale Development Initiative (GEDI) and the Tatham. GEDI proposed a programme to honour the role of the Edendale community in South African history and the visual art component is curated by Thulani Makhaye, education officer at the gallery.

The artists featured are Gerard Bhengu, Michael Zondi, Fanozi “Chickenman” Mkhize and Siyabonga Sikosana. They were chosen because of their links with Edendale either as residents, or because they studied or worked in the area. The aim is to show the achievements of the Edendale community in South African history, and the exhibition will also be a supplement for visual arts students in Grade 11 and 12, where Zondi and Bhengu are among the artists featured on the syllabus.

Each of the artists contributed significantly in shaping South African art history. Bhengu and his peers were illustrators of ethnographic publications and also sold their work through the tourist and curio markets.

Through their sales they pioneered an art movement that became known as Township Art, focusing on black socio-political and economical situations as a theme. Killie Campbell was one of Bhengu’s patrons, and he did illustrations for her research.

He studied art formally at the Edendale Technical College, having been refused entry into art classes at the Natal Technical College. Born in 1910 at Centecow, Bhengu died in 1990.

Zondi, who was born in 1926 in Keate’s Drift, became only the second black artist to have a solo exhibition at the Durban Art Gallery, following Eric Ngcobo. This was in 1965, and was followed by his participation in the Venice Biennale. He worked as grounds manager at the Swedish Mission Hospital in Appelsbosch, where he also made wooden sculptures, becoming a full-time sculptor in 1972.

A strong bond developed between him and the medical superintendent, Dr Wolfgang Bodenstein, who helped him to market his work. In 1992, a stroke meant that he could no longer work, but in 2004, he had his third solo exhibition, curated by Kirsten Nieser at the Tatham, and last year the Bodenstein collection of his work was donated to the gallery.

A familiar sight at the Tatham for many years, “Chickenman” Mkhize forced debates on the role of his art — was it high art, craft or something in between?

He lived in Willowfountain and the chickens he kept in his backyard earned him his nickname. Medically boarded from Clover Dairies in the late eighties, he started working on the lawns outside the gallery, entertaining his audience with his eccentric artwork and puppets made from materials he found.

Many of his works were based on road signs, and asked by Tatham deputy director Bryony Clark about the meaning of one of them, he replied that he was interested in the arrangement of letters rather than in meaning. But many of the signs offered comment on issues current at the time. He died in 1995.

Another artist with strong links to the gallery is Siyabonga Sikosana, who was born in 1978, also in Willowfountain. A contemporary artist who has represented South Africa in various international and local exhibitions, he trained as a textile designer, but makes his living as an artificial rock artist, creating “rocks” for landscape features.

His early artistic training came from classes given at the Tatham by the then education officer, Mduduzi Xakaza. In 2004 he held his first solo exhibtition in the gallery, showing scenes of the community in which he lives, and last year he was chosen to represent South Africa at New Zealand’s Art in the Park.

The exhibition will be held in the Tatham Art Gallery and the Georgetown Library simultaneously, with supporting documents for both venues.

Gallery hours at the Tatham are 10 am to 6 pm, Tuesday to Sunday, and for more information, phone 033 392 2801. Hours at the Georgetown Library are 8.30 am to 5 pm, and 9 am to 1 pm on Saturdays. Inquiries: 033 399 3641.

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