The South African art community was dealt a terrible blow last week, when the artist David Koloane passed away. He was 81 so it wasn’t exactly premature, however, it was impossible to think of the Joburg art scene continuing without him. He was a very active member of the art community, not only in terms of his continued presence and participation in art events but the steering role he played in the Bag Factory, an artist-run studio, exhibition space in Fordsburg, which he co-founded and worked out of himself. Recognising that first and foremost artists needed proper working spaces where they could collectively toil, share skills and support each other, he had a habit of setting up such establishments – The Gallery, Fuba and the Thupelo Workshop. As such his contribution towards assisting many thousands of artists who came, and will come, after him, and his contribution as a curator and writer will solidify him as a key figure in the development of the visual arts in South Africa.
The survey exhibition of his work, A Resilient Visionary, curated by Thembinkosi Goniwe, which is currently showing at the Iziko South African National Gallery, timeously gives us the opportunity to ponder his visual legacy. In the context of this exhibition, which feels like a slightly incomplete retrospective, his interest in and treatment of the surface of his artworks emerges as a striking feature. His art is textural, his obsessive lines, buckling the paper or lending it a pleasing, shimmering patina.
There is little delicacy in his mark-making; his lines appear more like scratches, densely layered, hinting at the layers of time, repetitive journeys and the complexity of urbanity. This creates the illusion he was less preoccupied with creating a surface and rather more interested in trying to discover what lay beneath it. As if clawing beyond the facades of the city, his dominant subject matter.
This is what makes his art so intriguing; it hovers on the edge of abstraction. Smoky City, (Braziers), 1999/2000, a mixed media work is an ideal example of this. It takes some time standing in front of the artwork, from afar and then close up to make out the cityscape buried beneath in the textured surface. Bright lights shine out from windows and dark silhouetted shapes suggest tall buildings. This treatment recurs in varying degrees in most of the works presenting urban settings. In Taxi to Town 1, 2015, you can just make out the titular taxis and cars moving along a highway and the cityscape beyond. There are no details, no visual clarity as such.
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