A Vigil of Departure

A Vigil of Departure
By Caroline Kaminju | AfricanColours.com

Black artists living in the apartheid era in South Africa faced many obstacles. Apart from having limited venues to display their work, which made their art accessible to a select group of people, they were restricted to one subject – ‘Township Art’.

Little back boy lost in white wood | Photo: Caroline Kaminju

“Township art’ is described as ‘depictions of everyday scenes, living conditions, and ways of life in South Africa’s black urban areas’. Although this genre of art with time became clichéd and stereotypic, there was a huge demand for it and most artists did not feel compelled to explore other genres of art since they wanted to make ends meet. It is no wonder then that some of the artists that practiced in the height of apartheid (1976 – 1994) are unknown.

However, artists such as Louis Maqhubela, Durant Sihlali, Dumile Feni, Gerard Sekoto and Ephraim Ngatane with time broke away from this clichéd form of art to explore other media. These artists were associated with the Polly Street Art Centre under artists Cecil Skotnes and Sydney Kumalo. It was the first large-scale urban art centre in South Africa where ‘black artists could learn their craft, participate in practical and theoretical discussions and read art books and magazines. It also gave them the forum to exhibit their work and interact with white artists who volunteered their skills as teachers.’

“Polly Street became our magical password, our ID, to break into the exclusive echelons of the Johannesburg art scene”, says the soft spoken Maqhubela.

The Standard Bank Gallery in Johannesburg recently held a retrospective exhibition (1960 – 2010) titled ‘A Vigil of Departure’ that featured works by Louis Maqhubela. Its main purpose was to “assess Maqhubela’s place in and contribution to the history of South African art”. Many South Africans have never heard about him and it is hoped that the exhibition will serve “to remind the public of what a great artist Maqhubela is and re-inscribe him into the history of South African art”.

| Photo: Caroline Kaminju
Artist Louis Maqhubela


His work was displayed in chronological order to give the viewer an idea of how his work transformed over the years. Township Scene(1961) oil on board painting shows a typical figurative expression of life in the township with women carrying children on their backs seeming like they are going to or coming from the market while men engage in some form of hard labor and domestic animals feature in the scene. His use of bold colors in the painting gives it a sense of warmth. “If one painted happy township scenes they would sell like hot cakes but if you show things that criticize the life in the township, then your work will not sell”.

In 1964, he decided to interpret things through abstraction. “I was rebelling against the notion that blacks cannot think out of the box and cannot experiment with other mediums”. Maqhubela explains.“I was kind of confused by the fact that when I read about the history of art, especially African art, their main form of expression was abstract. They interpreted nature and this gave them the freedom to distort what they saw in order to tell a story while the Europeans expressed the exact things their eyes were seeing”.

 | Photo: Caroline Kaminju
A township scene, 1968

A township scene, 1968

In 1967, he travelled to Europe for the first time where he was exposed to European art and artists such as Pablo Picasso, Paul Klee, and Joan Miro among others. He also met a Johannesburg artist Douglas Portway; famous for his Zen-inspired abstract language and spent a lot of time discussing art and techniques.

This influence inspired him to break away from the stereotypical “Township art’ genre. This meant that his work became “less about recording views of his environment, or observed reality and more about using line, form, shape and color as expressive means in and of themselves.”


The Township Scene (1968) compared to what he had done six years ago was partially abstract and characterized by fuzzy lines, muted colors and shapes and the pictorial elements were barely visible.

Maqhubela prospered as an artist in the 70’s in the height of apartheid despite having limited opportunities. It might have seemed ironical but he explains that most of their (blacks) work was exhibited in galleries such as the Adler Fielding Gallery and the Henri Lidchi Gallery owned by Jews who had fled the Nazi regime in Germany. Being victims of prejudice themselves these Jews offered the artists space in their galleries to exhibit side by side with their white counterparts.

| Photo: Caroline Kaminju
Ndebele gate, 2010

As the political pressure mounted in South Africa, Maqhubela and his family moved to Spain in 1973 and later to London where he is currently based. As a result, interest in Maqhubela’s work waned due to his long absence out of the country. However, after South Africa had its first democratic elections in 1994, Maqhubela frequently visited and the whole euphoria of freedom gave his work renewed impetus  For instance, Ndebele gate (2010) and Shield (2010) are bold in color with more lines and forms and distinctly African.

 | Photo: Caroline Kaminju
Shield, 2010

The seventy-one year old artist attended Goldsmith College (1984 -85) and Slade School of Art (1985-88) in London. During those years, Maqhubela’s artistic output decreased and it was only in March 1990 that he had a solo exhibition at the Everard Read Gallery in  Johannesburg after thirteen years.

Curator of the exhibition, Marilyn Martin describes Maqhubela’s art as having “a profound humanism, inner joy and affirmation of life that transcends technique and analysis since it springs from a deep spiritual and metaphysical well”. He is a member of the Rosae Crucis order and uses metaphysics, mysticism and sciences in his artwork making his style one of a kind.


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