These days one has to be a pretty determined art supporter to fight ones way through the afternoon peak hour traffic to attend an exhibition opening in the Johannesburg city centre. But it was heartening to see a how many people thought that Ephraim’s Ngatane’s work would be worth the effort.
In his short life Ngatane made a marked impression on the art of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s capturing the essence of life in the township. He studied under Cecil Skotnes at the renowned Polly Street Art Centre from 1952 to 1954 and it was there that he began to develop his own style of self expression experimenting with different media such as gouache, watercolour and oil paint. Unlike many of his peers, he used abstract and geometric shapes and a wide spectrum of colour to create emotive renditions of the realities of township life.
The paintings and water colours on show at Ephraim Ngatane: Symphony of Soweto at the Standard Bank Gallery, Johannesburg, have been sourced almost entirely from art collector Greg Blank, much of the work inherited from his father. Most of the works on view were painted in 1968/9. At the exhibition opening Blank told how he first came into contact with Ngatane’s work at the age of eight. The artist would arrive at this parent’s home with a canvas rolled up in old newspaper and his father would hand over fifty or a hundred rands in exchange for a painting. Blank does not recall his father paying too much attention to what was on the canvas but interestingly, particularly at a time when the work of black artists rarely featured in white suburbia, the works were duly framed to decorate the Blank family home.
Blank, once a prominent stock broker who fell foul of the law in the early nineties culminating in an eight year prison sentence (of which he served less than two), explains that it was only after his release from prison that he began to understand the meaning of Ngatane’s work. In the almost two years he spent in Krugersdorp prison he came to the realisation that ‘we as whites think that blacks understand what we are telling them and that blacks think that whites understand what they are telling us’ but that there is a great divide based on our vastly different backgrounds and lives lived far apart in what was then (and to a large extent still is) a racially segregated city.
It was through Ngatane’s work that Blank gained some insight into and empathy for the gritty realities of the black township experience, more specifically life in Soweto during the apartheid years, he said. For Blank Ngatane’s work provides a historical frame of reference for those living in the sprawling township on the perimeter of Johannesburg.
And as an investment tip never goes amiss, the intrepid art collector should probably heed the advice of Blank. His private collection boasts artists such as Marc Chagall, Joan Miro and Henry Moore but, as he contends, the best return on investment today will be realised by investing in black artists such as Ngatane. According to Blank, an avid collector and art dealer, emerging black artists are another good ‘stock’ pick for art buyers.
It is fortuitous that the Blank family preserved such a large number of Ngatane’s work and that the Standard Bank Gallery has made these accessible to the broader public. A drawback is that the bulk of the exhibition showcases works painted predominantly over a short period in the late 1960s so it does not provide an entirely comprehensive overview of the artist’s work – and this is compounded by the artist’s very short life that has deprived us from evaluating how his work may have evolved over a lifetime.
It is also problematic that an artist of Ngatane’s standing is still relegated to the category of black artist by the collector. The artist may well have given expression to the life around him and his personal experiences may well have informed much of his work. But he should not be judged purely as a black artist, particularly in view of his contribution to South African art history and the fact that he sought to capture township living without pandering to the preconceived notions of what was at the time expected of so-called ‘township artists’.
Ngatane’s work is vibrant and he gives colour to the moods and emotions of Soweto, its beggars (see image) and bicycles, its hardships and hopes, the wind, the sun and the snow. He composed pictures giving a visual interpretation of the music and the social life of the township. Having been an accomplished penny whistler and saxophonist, music is a recurring theme in Ngatane’s work. His images range from documentary realism to abstract painting and he brings to his audience an important record of life in the township at a particular time in our history. At times he also experimented with materials such as plaster of Paris or sand and oil paint to create richly textured surfaces.
Ngatane produced some 300 works during his short life of almost 33 years. Sadly he died of tuberculosis in 1971.
The exhibition was curated by Natalie Knight. A hardcover book on Ngatane, entitled A Setting Apart, edited by Rory Bester, was published to coincide with the exhibiton.