[1] Linda Givon, who founded the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg in 1968, was known to include the works of black artists in her gallery programme, although this was done clandestinely.  The Reservation of Separate Amenities act of 1953 enforced that people of different races were prohibited to use, work in, or participate in shared activities in any space, public or private. The law was repealed in 1990 (An archived Associated Press article from the LA Times provides a helpful overview of the Separate Amenities Act: Last accessed 21 July 2018) [2] These events were recounted by Koloane in an interview with the author on 15 May 2018. [3] Dolby, Joe. ”Dumile Feni”, in Hayden Proud (ed), Revisions: Expanding the narrative of South African art. Unisa Press: 2006. P 174. [4]Capitalizations author’s own. Attwood, M. ”David Koloane”,  The Artists’ Press  (website)., last accessed 18 July 2018.

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Sunset in the city of Johannesburg is a blade falling on a chopping board, a whip and a thunk that allows two severed halves of life finally to fall away from each other and wobble on their rinds.  White people go from car to house and lock their doors, make wood fires and secret themselves from the creeping dark, and black people walk on the streets, from their jobs in the suburbs and the shopping centres, to stand in queues to board taxis (whites call them “death traps”; we need our own cars), which will spit them out on an arterial road, from which they will walk, now in the swollen night, to their homes. This is today.

During the apartheid years, the journey was much longer, or much shorter. The law shut people of colour out of the cities and suburbs after dark, and a daily commute of four hours each way was not uncommon. Busses were crowded by 3am, half the night’s sleep dragging bodies over bad roads on hard seats. We see these bodies, folded, heads thrown back, mouths open, in David Goldblatt’s images from “The Transported of Kwandebele” series from 1989. Those who commuted in this way were for the most part miners, construction workers, hard laborers, cleaners in banks and municipal buildings  -   people who had no business remaining in the white world once their labour had been extracted for the day. Black domestic servants suffered the opposite curse. They were typically given quarters on their white employers’ properties, so that they were available for an early start on the dishes and on call all night. Their barracks were cold cells separate from the house, with an outside toilet with no seat, a view of the washing line. Beds propped up on bricks next to broken mirrors discarded from the main house. Their children were far away, in rural places the apartheid government called “the homelands”.

During these years David Koloane began to do something impossible: create opportunities for black artists in South Africa to exist in an art scene. This was a radical undertaking, given that culture was seen as the preserve of whites, and the few artsits of colour who were acknowledged were so on the basis of their enjoyment by the white market.

Koloane had educated himself as an artist in the early 1970s through apprenticeships to Louis Maqhubela and later to Bill Ainslie. Concurrently he worked as a school teacher, driven by a desire to smuggle art into the educational experience of the black youth he taught. The apartheid education system made no such provisions for black learners, who were instead subjected to a curriculum that prepared them for careers of servitude.

In 1977 he co-founded the Federated Union of Black Artists (FUBA), a collective that established the first gallery in South Africa where black artists could legally show their work.[1] He went on to help establish the Thupelo Workshop, a professional residency-oriented network affiliated to the Triangle International Artists Workshops, first in South Africa and then in Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Namibia.  Later, in 1985, he completed a diploma in Museum Studies at the University of London, before returning to South Africa to continue teaching, writing and practicing as an artist. However, perhaps his best-known infrastructural contribution to the art field in Southern Africa was the establishment of the Bag Factory Artists Studios. In 1991, together with Robert Loder and Ricky Burnett, Koloane started the Fordsburg Artists Studios, as it was then called, in a predominantly muslim residential area on the western edge of Johannesburg city.[2]The prupose of the organisation was to provide black artists with work spaces amongst their peers, an opportunity that was absent prior to their initiative. Koloane still spends each day in a small studio at the Bag Factory, working alongside seasoned and young artists alike.  

Koloane was born in 1938 in Alexandra township, a sprawling peri-urban area reserved for black wokers serving Johannesburg. There were many such places surrounding the cities, reserved for different racial groups, and the level of neglect applied to them usually correlated to the skin tone of their inhabitants. Apartheid was rolled out on the basis of a bizarre ranking system in which, for example, Indian South Africans fared better than ‘coloured’ or black South Africans. The townships consisted - and many still do – of sections of small houses surrounded by thousands of shacks, informal constructions made from scraps of wood and metal. The townships were seldom serviced with water or sanitation,  and certainly under apartheid were equipped with electricity  where police surveillance necessitated street lights. Many of these conditions prevail in these areas today.

The history of the artistic depiction of black life in apartheid South Africa is shaped by the biases of its white authors, and so it is difficult to know if painted township scenes became as popular as they did because of the selective visibility of work by black artists or because of these artists’ organic influence. Though he predates the proliferation of townships, Gerard Sekoto painted the places in which he lived and circulated – first Sophiatown, a racially mixed enclave west of Johanneseburg – and later informal settlements that might easily have been part of a township (an example is Street Scene, 1941-42). Two decades after Sekoto, Ephraim Ngatane rose to some prominence as a painter of township scenes, and his protégé, Dumile Feni, was reputed to have been called “Goya of the townships”.[3]This was despite the minimal occurrence of township scenes in Feni’s work. Just as “jazz” had become a catch-all category for music by black composers in the United States, “township art” in South African parlance was work made by black artists, even if it had little to do with actual townships.

It is this tradition that contextualises the township environments that appear in many of Koloane’s paintings and drawings, particularly in his night scenes from the 1990s and early 2000s. Koloane’s township is characterised by obscurity, by its refusal to offer the viewer a glimpse into a place and an atmosphere that earlier artists had treated as an aesthetic motif. His work merley suggests built structures, rather than plotting them out perspectivally. His buildings are stacked vertically, as if the depth dimension of the scenes he paints is tilted at a steep incline (particularly in his cityscapes produced in recent years, for example the 2016 painting Mongrel in the City).  At the same time, he often buries structures under layers of lines scratched over each other to create an impenatrable, opaque surface, like a thick smog or the absolute darkness of a moonless township night. In the Mgodoyi series (approx. 1993-4) the township vanishes into the thick, unlit night, while packs of stray dogs have the run of the streets. They fight and play,  and search for food scraps, guarding a territory that they occupy illegitimately. They are forgotten, left to fend for and govern themselves, and their survival is directionless.

Mark Atwood, the master printmaker who produced the Mgodoyi series with Koloane at The Artists’ Press, explains, paraphrasing Koloane, that the dogs in these works could be read metaphorically, as an insight into the ongoing inequality that maps race onto geography. Attwood writes, “Wild mangy dogs scavenge on the streets of the Black townships whilst overweight pampered dogs bark and threaten one from behind fences in White suburbia”.[4] In other words, the “dogness” experienced by these different categories of dog reflects the distribution of privilege according to race and, by extension, location.

The tendency in both critical and commercial circles has been to read Koloane’s work through the lenses of metaphor – according to which the work is pedagogical – and historical (Western) expressionism. The latter is the linchpin offered to contextualise Koloane’s characteristic rough, scribble-like line, as if gestural rendering were always the physical outworking of an inner state. Koloane is, after all this time, a pedagogue, but it sells him short to suggest that he is either a moralist or a sincere expressionist. On the one hand the dogs, when read metaphorically, elicit our pity, but on the other they are wiley, self-organising and ungovernable. They represent only so much common ground, with us and with each other, and we would be remiss to think we understand their motives, emotional lives or intelligences.

To be clear, Koloane is not suggesting that the dogs are metaphors for black people, and nor am I. The dogs are there precisely to warn us of the pitfalls of applying knowledge across situations that might not be comparable. In this respect, looking into the thicket of black lines of the Mgodoyi works and seeing angst and frustration with the legacy of apartheid is a kind of category error. It takes the narrative of German expressionism and stuffs it into a social, stylistic, intellectual, and ethical crucible where it is not only a clumsy fit, but also an uninteresting one.

This is perhaps the most important contribution Koloane makes to art in Southern Africa, even though it is largely invisible. He insists (but subtly) on the specificity and untranslatability of aesthetic productions, a position that is hostile to a tradition of interpretation built around the polarities of representation and expression. This is perhaps put most succinctly through a final metaphor, one that took half a century to find its traction in the art of South Africa: Koloane’s township is not a place that can be surveyed, or learnt about by white culture consumers, or mined for atmosphere or visual intrigue. It is somewhere from which the outsider is regarded, and the outsider is clearly you, the viewer.  

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