Artist of the changing city: Jozi's been Dr David Koloane's muse for decades

At 80 years young, acclaimed artist Dr David Koloane has known, and shown, Johannesburg through its many incarnations, writes Tseliso Monaheng

02 September 2018 - 00:00 By Tseliso Monaheng

The Bag Factory at 2 Mahlathini Street lies in a quiet section of Fordsburg in Jozi, a few steps away from one of the Oriental Plaza's multiple entrances. I am met by Linda upon entry; he has co-ordinated an interview with Dr David Koloane (referred to as the master, the elder, ntate-moholo in this article), acclaimed visual artist, writer, and co-founder of this organised chaos that has weathered the tides for almost 30 years.
Koloane, a one-time head of the Fuba Academy, has had his work shown in galleries and art museums across the world. He has been involved in many policy-making bodies across different facets of governance and, as founder of the ongoing Thupelo Workshops, has realised a vision for a space where artists can come and create free of inhibition for two weeks.
He was also instrumental in the building of Freedom Park in Pretoria. "I've never seen such [a] level of consultation," he'll say during our discussion about public art and the ensuing consultative process, and add "that is one project I'm definitely not ashamed to be associated with... what is there will be there for as long as time allows."
However, it's as communal art practitioner and mentor to younger artists that he prefers to view himself. "We used to have centres in the townships where we taught, and then we had to abandon because of lack of funding."
Inside the Bag Factory, I'm led down a corridor decorated by a wealth of found objects and discarded art materials - brushes, dried paints and so forth. I follow suit as my guide navigates past rows of closed doors, each room partitioned using masonite boards painted white. Muted conversations between two artists emanate from one enclosure, making it a potential site for work-in-progress eavesdropping.
Linda opens the door to Koloane's quarters.
At 80 years young, it's the master's opinion that lifetimes lie ahead of him. He ventured into animation as a medium two years ago, in a video installation now housed in a French museum. This delayed entry is on-brand, a perfect fit for an elder who began his art practice "when I was supposed to be retiring", he jokes.
He's currently doing preparatory work for a Thembinkosi Goniwe-curated retrospective in 2019, a task he would have carried out at Parktown where he currently lives with his partner, a nursing sister.
But there's this, our meeting, to attend to, hence his presence at the studio space.
The master's been around the city for most of his life. He was born in Alex, moved to Soweto, and has endured the changing faces of Oom Johannes's Burg. In his lifetime, streets have been named and renamed, famed music spots and infamous drinking holes have come and gone, and fashion trends have been discarded and recycled.
A recurring thought throughout the time we spend together is how much black artists - despite how long they've been at it, and how great their art is - remain subject to a gaze not of their own making; a gaze that disempowers them, inserts false narratives into their life histories, wrestles the public's perception of their art-making and shoves it into a corner, and how there, in a lonely, secluded, cold environ, the art can only be viewed as an entity separate from the layered experiences that inform the artist, way before the artwork - the product forging this uncomfortable relation whose borders remain rigid, negotiable in one direction and not the other - can be produced.
"We don't have any publications that we as black artists have written from our own personal experience, and not through the experience of white academics. But now it seems they feel they have the right to write anything about us, without even consulting us," he laments.
It's necessary to let ntate-moholo Koloane spit his piece with minimal interjection and commentary. It's also revolutionary, because a man whose existence is hyphenated by a pre- and post- (he was born in 1938, before the Staatskoerant legislated the various acts to enforce apartheid, continued his practice post-'94, and has lived long enough to see the flowers of the Rainbow Nation wither away) has a lot of stuff on his chest to offload.
Jozi informs the elder's work. Vignettes of the city and its people are dotted across his expansive work. He lives, has lived, amid the poisonous fumes, the sonorous sounds, the frantic momentum of feet stomping atop a city that might sink and swallow us all at any moment. Recognisable monuments - the Hillbrow tower and Ponte (both sans the telecoms branding) - are recurring motifs in his art pieces, as are the dogs that roamed Alexandra's streets when he was a child.
"I used to live in the inner city myself, Fattis Mansions, corner Jeppe [now Rahima Moosa] and Harrison streets. That was real city life, the thick of it. So I work, not from what I read, but what I've experienced - how it is that people get duped; how people take over buildings overnight. It's an amazing life that a lot of people don't know and understand. So they think living in the city is much better. It can be hell," he says.
Yet some of his best work about the city is filled with colour, in effect abstracting the horror of these innumerable experiences and untenable existences in favour of a life less miserable, one supposes.
"The sense of colour is to make the lives visible, so that people can [see] what is happening. It mustn't just be a stagnant, colourless lifestyle. This is something I experience, it's in my veins, it's something that is there, that I can't fake or shrug off. So when I start something, it comes easily."
"When you look at the work done by black artists in the '60s and early '70s, they are small scale, almost A4-sized. And there are few that are large. The largest work that I've seen done by a black artist was work done by Dumile [Feni]," emerges the response.
The question? Land, the issue he's wrestled extensively with in his writing (he's also a published writer). The issue Mzansi continues to wrestle with.
"There was no space, and you couldn't go and put a paper on the wall [of property that wasn't yours]. The scale has improved now because we started the studio culture in SA by having this place here. And now there are studios all over the city. Even with music, you have to have rehearsal space, and not make noise for the neighbours.
"Talking about those old bands, these guys used to buy instruments out of their own pocket. There were no sponsors, so they had to lay-buy, or buy second-hand. Now, the lack of infrastructure has exacerbated the issue of visual arts. You go to any township, there's hardly a gallery with two paintings."
Koloane's father was a tailor who had a shop on 8th Avenue in Orange Grove - "I'm yet to research how that happened," he says of this apartheid-era oddity - while his mother took care of children at a crèche.
The elder trained full-time under Bill Ainslie, following his decision to quit his day job due to the company moving further out of town. It was his friend Louis Maqhubela who'd provided the initial guidance. The similarity in their artistic approach is glaring.
The elder never attended Polly Street Art Centre, despite numerous matter-of-factly-reported pieces floating around, but his friend Louis did. He met Bill through Louis, following the latter's departure to England.
Another student of Ainslie's conspired with the master's teacher to organise a Nedbank-funded exhibition of his work.
"I sold almost all the work. At that time, it was difficult for an artist to receive reviews from white papers like the Rand Daily Mail and The Star, but I got reviews in both papers. That made me more confident that, you know, this is where I belong."
We've been engaged in chatter, letting time pass us by. We've spoken about the archive ("it's a very important thing"), about mentoring young artists ("I don't do it in a formal manner; it's something that comes spontaneously"), and about his routine - he lives opposite a park, where his yoga practice sessions are soundtracked by birds chirping.
To cap the afternoon, I ask the master to elaborate on the upcoming retrospective.
"I [call it] a creative biography of my work as an artist - the different periods in my work up to the present; where I started, what influenced me, what is influencing me now, and where I'm headed to."

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