David Koloane

Street Level

Gallery South is honoured to continue celebrating the life and legacy of South African art doyen David Koloane, who passed away earlier this year, by extending this exhibition of fifty-six works on paper.

Including pieces from series and moments in Koloane’s life familiar from the recent retrospective of David’s work in the South African National Gallery in Cape Town and the Standard Bank Gallery in Johannesburg, these works bring viewers into the familiar world.

With a few deft and energetic lines, Koloane evokes the frenetic movement and bustle of an average day in the life of Johannesburg residents. Commuters moving between city and township. Taxi drivers travelling between rural land urban areas. Pedestrians navigating distances between home and public street. Prostitutes making up faces on pavements. These are characters and scenes out of South African Poet Laureate Mongane Wally Serote’s ground-breaking 1985 novel To Every Birth Its Blood set in Alexandra Township. Koloane’s representation of an animal carcass lying on the side of the road evokes the quality of lived experience walking on a street utterly neglected by the apartheid town planners of his day. If the carcass stands in for the abject smell accompanying flesh left to rot on the pavement, the darkness of a nocturnal urban landscape stands in for the political abuse and accompanying violence of a system that allows people to live without electricity.

Seemingly unconcerned with traditional forms or subjects of representation, and avoiding social-realist, figurative apartheid struggle imagery, Koloane evokes scenes and emotions more familiar from Kirchner and Chaim Soutine; and his urban African characters propel him beyond the constraints of reception in the land of his birth into a universal and deeply humanist arena. This is the psychologically free, transcendent realm promoted by his teacher and friend Bill Ainslie [dates], with whom he studied at the Johannesburg Art Foundation after the departure to London of another important influence in his life, Louis Maqhubela [dates].

Ainslie’s turn to abstract expressionism gave Koloane the tools and confidence to turn emphatically away from stereotypic and formulaic representations of black South African experience. His fascination with the movement and motion of his people through their lives avoids the pitfalls of ‘township art’, laying groundwork for a new generation of South African artists, freed from many of the material and psychological limitations that shaped the lives of Koloane and his peers.

Each piece in Street Level is intimate and accessible, controlled and contained. Here, Koloane’s visual vocabulary is condensed, work to be lived with and enjoyed at home, not requiring a double volume wall or a storage facility.

Visiting Gallery South in the last few months of his life, Koloane was happy to see the works of his students and mentees exhibited in dialogue with his own.